Letter from the Managing Editor’s Desk: The Cost of Inaction

Hawaii’s youth offer ideas for a better future

January, 2016

“Every time my ‘disposable’ pen runs out of ink I am struck with guilt at the thought of throwing the entire thing away…The sound of the pen hitting the bottom of the trash can always sets off a nagging voice in my head that says something could have been changed to avoid this waste.”

The concerned citizen who wrote these words is not an environmentalist, engineer or politician; it is a local twelfth grader – a forward-thinking teen who makes the compelling case for protecting our environment through smarter product and packaging design.

It was from one of 33 papers that I judged for the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation’s essay contest, open to 6th to 12th graders. Participants were challenged to identify a problem, articulate what would happen in 50 years if nothing is done to address it, and propose creative solutions.

As I read these essays, it became apparent the complex questions that daunt adults also weigh on the minds of our youth: How much more will homelessness grow? How will climate change alter our lives? What can be done to end childhood hunger? Also striking was the level of thinking and innovation these young people harnessed to craft potential solutions.

One student who is concerned about the impact of climate change contends the government can foster planet-friendly habits through operant conditioning – molding behavior by using positive or negative reinforcements. To incentivize recycling, for instance, the government can increase the number of recycling pickup days and reduce the number of trash pickup days.

Another student, who worries about childhood hunger, proposes that restaurants donate leftover food. This seventh grader also calls for community potlucks in which families bring meals to sites where the hungry can collect the food.

Regardless of your thoughts on the proposed solutions, we can all agree on the importance of young minds thinking creatively about how to overcome our defining problems. The stakes could not be higher. “In 50 years, the homelessness rate will increase approximately 20 times (which is about 146,000) if nothing is done,” one student warns. That projection may not be far-fetched. The sad truth is that homelessness rates in Hawaii have risen, even while the national average has dropped since 2010.

Beside the human toll, letting these problems go unchecked will inevitably pummel our wallets as well.  A 10th grader warns that if our coral reefs are wiped out, we would lose “almost a million dollars a day from our economy.” That figure is likely rooted in a widely quoted study by Dutch economists Herman Cesar and Pieter van Beukering, which estimates Hawaii’s reefs generate $364 million in tourist and recreational activities each year.

To say there are no easy solutions to these problems is an understatement, but one thing is certain: Turning this vessel will require all hands on deck. This inter-generational steering feat will be anchored in policy decisions we make today and in the innovations that conscientious youth contribute tomorrow.  I hope that in 2066, when my daughter, Luciana, is 53, historians can look back at 2016 as the year we took decisive action to forge a brighter future.

Related Stories

On Newsstands Now
HB July 2017


Gina Gelber