Are you curious about what sustainability means to a Pacific Islander? Small Islands are at the frontlines of the climate change crisis, but often their say on climate policy is silenced by larger developed nations. We welcome guest author Krista Aoki, to share her views on why holistic sustainability is important, how being from the American Pacific has shaped her narrative and some actionable steps for us all to consider.

Rethinking Sustainability

There is something about stepping off a plane and entering an open-air airport in Hawai’i. That moment you step off the plane and feel the warm tropical air, you’re greeted with aloha.

Somewhere along the way, you’ll probably hear Hawaiian Pidgin English, a creole language created when immigrants and Hawaiians needed to communicate with each other. You might hear the strumming of a ukulele, a popular instrument introduced to Hawai’i by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira. The signs and street names in Olelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language) are also hard to miss. 

You’ll be amongst a multicultural community.

But how does that perspective shift as someone from the American Pacific?

When you live on an American island in the Pacific, you probably notice first-hand how rising sea levels, due to global warming, directly impact coastal roads and buildings.

You might see how indigenous culture comes secondary to colonial and empirical culture. Native languages and history are taught, but most classes are taught in English and follow a Western (American or European) curriculum. 

You learn about the specific struggles of indigenous culture integrating with colonial culture.

Life in the Pacific is unique. It’s special because you see firsthand the ocean-centered yet trade-dependent culture. You see how the ecosystems, and thus the economy, are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Source: Fletcher 2013). 

You experience how culture is inherently local, whereas the sustainability of your community is global.

What do you think about when you hear the word “sustainability”? 

We often associate sustainability with environmental solutions, like going green or making eco-friendly choices to combat climate change. There is a more holistic approach to sustainability, which considers a three-pronged approach:

  • Social and cultural equity
  • Economic growth
  • Environmental protection 

venn diagram showing tenets of sustainability

By taking this more holistic approach, you consider the environment – yes. But, you also take into consideration how to make sustainable choices for local economies, cultures, and social livelihood. These tenets of sustainability are also referred to as people, profit, planet.

In this article, we’ll look at sustainability from the cultural lens of an American Pacific Islander. We will:

  • Explore the individual tenets of sustainability (people, profit, planet) from an American Pacific lens
  • Address unique challenges island communities face in regards to sustainability
  • Answer – what can we do about it, whether from our local community, or whilst we travel

First – Meet Krista, the Author

Whilst normally an author bio comes at the end, for this article, it’s important you understand who I am and how my background shapes my perspective.

I am a US citizen, born and raised on the island of Guam. I come from a multicultural background myself. Although I am a proud Guamanian, my family immigrated to the island. I do not have Indigenous Chamorro heritage.

Eventually, my family moved to the USA (or “the States” as we refer to them in Guam). In my teens, I did not stay in one place for more than 2 years. My parents were searching for the perfect place to pursue the American dream, so we moved often.

I also grew up visiting the Big Island of Hawai’i. My childhood memories include driving along the Hawaiian coastline to pick up malasadas – donuts brought by Portuguese farm laborers which is nowadays a staple in Hawai’i.

I ended up attending university on the Big Island of Hawai’i, where I lived for five years before living life as a “modern-day nomad.” I haven’t had a permanent home for five years now!

As a descendant of immigrants with an American passport, a now-international traveler, and someone who hasn’t been rooted for the past 17 years, I understand globalism will never cease to exist. We are all travellers, and descendants of travellers, in our own way.

But with this, we all have a responsibility. Applying sustainability from a holistic lens prevents cultural white-washing, and gives communities autonomy on how to thrive. I believe we can all come together to create thriving communities.

In this article, I will provide my perspective on sustainability as an American Pacific Islander.

People: Social + Cultural Equity

When we think of islands, we think of white sandy beaches, palm trees, and drinking from coconuts. 

It might then surprise you to learn the hidden cost of tourism in paradise, like vacation rentals inflating the cost of single-family homes, low wages compared to a high cost of living, and island gentrification forcing local families out of their home islands.

Problems like this are why we need social sustainability. Social sustainability empowers current and future generations to live in and design their own healthy, livable communities. Social sustainability takes problems like the high cost of living and empowers communities to find sustainable, Earth-friendly solutions to those problems.

Social sustainability gives island communities more autonomy over their future.

According to the World Bank, there are three main pillars of social sustainability:

  1. Inclusion – Create opportunities where all citizens have a voice and governments respond
  2. Empowerment – Communities, and people are architects of their own growth and poverty reduction
  3. Resilience – Strengthen resilience by working in the most fragile and difficult environments

Pacific islands are great places to look at social sustainability because they are smaller, multicultural places that operate in a global economy. Some Pacific cultures, like Māori culture, are inherently built on respect for the environment.

Uniquely, perpetuating indigenous culture also makes these island destinations stand out as holiday hotspots. This gives local communities economic incentives to tell their culture’s stories.

Travel with a critical eye, asking questions like:

  • How do things like Airbnb affect the cost of local single-family housing?
  • What are the working conditions for people in the communities I visit? Are workers paid living wages with healthy working conditions?
  • Am I supporting a program that preserves heritage, perpetuates culture, and gives back to the community?

What You Can Do

  • Vote with your dollar. Do the things you buy support living wages or healthy living conditions?
  • Travel to places like UNESCO World Heritage sites.
  • Support programs that perpetuate culture and give back to the community.
  • Support communities that demand more autonomy.
  • Learn about organizations in your community (and others!) that work in the most fragile and difficult environments.

Photo by Philip Davis on Unsplash

Profit: Economic Growth

Sustainable, economic growth is a way to grow an economy with social equity and environmental protection in mind.

The reality is, climate change impacts economically as well as physically. Coral reefs in Hawaii generate about $800 million in gross revenue every year. As sea levels rise, island infrastructure like buildings or roads become at risk for damage.

Because we can access it at no cost, we have a tendency to see nature as free. But, we need to quantify ecosystems so as to look the way our natural environments contribute to the economy.

Beautiful island environments also bring in tourism, and thus money. Tourism accounts for 21% of Hawaii’s economy. In Guam, tourism is viewed as a way to reduce the island’s dependence on federal subsidies from the US.

But how can communities turn a profit with a thriving economy and environment in mind?

What You Can Do

  • Shop with the circular economy in mind. When you travel, shop from second-hand stores, buy reusables, or purchase artisan, plant-based products!
  • Support sustainable organizations, cultural initiatives, and local tours that perpetuate culture and give back to their community (like Māori Tourism and the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii)
  • Support local agriculture and food systems! When you buy seasonal, locally produced food, you support a community’s ability to feed themselves for generations.

Planet: Environmental Protection

For island communities, the impact of climate change is already at their front doors. Rising sea levels affect coastal roads and infrastructure.

Warmer water means stronger storms that hit these already fragile communities.

Any government initiatives to reduce global carbon emissions and slow down climate change helps small island communities with their own initiatives. Events like the Trump administration pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement sends a message that concerns from islanders – even those who are born American – were at the bottom of the priority list.

Islanders in the American Pacific grow up seeing their coral reefs and forests coming secondary to the military. 

The question is – what can we do about it? 

What You Can Do

  • Eliminate your plastic waste so you can save sea turtles, rivers, and marine habitats
  • Think about the way the products you consumed are shipped – if you’re visiting an island, how do you think the product in your hands got to where you are?
  • Vote with your dollar, your voice, and your ballot! Let it be known through your purchases, your voice, and your voting choices that you support the effort being made to slow down and combat climate change. 

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, sustainability is about taking action to create better futures for communities worldwide. It’s taking on our individual kuleana (responsibility) to be stewards of the Earth and of cultural practices.

Sustainability is about acknowledging the past and the present whilst figuring out the best way to move forward as a community. 

    • Vote with your dollar, your voice, and your ballot! Let it be known through your purchases, your voice, and your voting choices that you support the effort being made to slow down and combat climate change. 
    • Buy from programs and businesses that perpetuate culture, give back to the community, and take care of our planet.
    • Support the circular economy! Reduce your waste overall, reuse as much as possible, and buy second-hand when you can.


Now it’s your turn! What are your thoughts on sustainability? What unique ways does your community practice the tenets of sustainability? Let me know in the comments so we can all learn how different cultures approach sustainability. 

We work hard to pay our writers, but if you enjoyed this post, we encourage you to let Krista know by buying her a coffee with a note about something you learned. Thanks for supporting the work of environmental communicators.

Pacific Islanders View of Sustainability