In Hawaiʻi, the concept of rights is more accurately understood to mean responsibilities.
Highly advanced societies have existed at various points throughout antiquity, before the modern era of globalization. Some have been classified as “civilizations,” and they have been taken as models for how we humans should live on this planet. The elite human societies that have been elevated to the status of “civilization” are those that meet certain requirements — such as possessing a form of writing and having developed cities. Such criteria, however, have been viewed through a narrow old-world lens. In reality, where has that perspective on civilization gotten us? It has put us on a path along which a large portion of humanity is blindly destroying the very foundation that supports life on earth as we know it: ecosystems and biodiversity. As knowledge and acceptance grow of the reality of the crises we face — namely climate change and the sixth mass extinction — we must rapidly evolve our behavior to sustain our planet. We cannot, however, do this without a star to navigate by. We need to embrace a tangible vision of what life could look like on a planet that allows us to thrive into the twenty-second century.
A lot of visioning for a sustainable future focuses on hyper-dense megacities. Because of the unsustainable nature of cities, from a functional perspective, perhaps this isn’t the right direction that humanity should be heading in. Nonetheless, the conventional definition of civilization presents cities as an ultimate culmination of humanity’s trajectory, and this view constrains our imaginations. We need a compelling alternative vision. The good news is that we have one. To understand this alternative, however, we must start with a different understanding of “civilization.” Doing so puts us back on course to develop a highly advanced society that can thrive on a thriving planet.
Eco-civilizations have much to teach humanity.
The defining characteristics of civilization have long been debated in academia. In general, civilizations are thought of as socially stratified nation-states able to maintain a large human population through technological advances, all facilitated through higher education based on a form of literacy and supported by a market economy. The way the latter three components — technological advances to support population growth, literacy, and economy — have been interpreted has skewed toward old-world colonial understandings that separate humans from the natural world. This has led scholars to overlook other highly advanced societies. Many of these other societies were in the New World and Oceania. In this half of the planet, other forms of civilization existed, which I (and others) call eco-civilizations. Eco-civilizations have much to teach humanity. While colonization all but destroyed the societal structures that held them together, the descendants of those who built these eco-civilizations are the keepers of the ancient wisdom that built them in the first place.
So, what is the difference between an eco-civilization and a civilization as conventionally described? Eco-civilizations check all the same boxes but in different ways. Highly stratified society, check. Formation of a nation-state, check. But this is where things begin to diverge. Technological advances that allow population growth are usually thought of in the form of agriculture. In eco-civilizations, however, technological advances can be thought of as advances in agroecology and aquaculture (more on that in a bit).
What about the standard requisite of the development of cities to house this large human population? That too has been skewed by old-world bias. There are actually two ways to maintain large human populations: (1) a centralized approach through the development of cities, or (2) a decentralized approach through even distribution across the landscape. This is where economics comes into play (another one of those boxes to check) — the market economy.
The market economies developed in the Old World tended to be highly extractive ones that later evolved in the industrial age based on linear models of perpetual growth. The issue with perpetual linear growth models is that they are now widely understood as fundamentally unsustainable because they inevitably lead to collapse. The secret sauce ingredient that catalyzes linear market economies is the “economy of scale.” Agriculture, cities, and market economies marry up in a centralized approach to manage population growth in a way that takes advantage of the economy of scale. In this approach, large human populations rely on the goods and services provisioned by the infrastructure of cities. Cities are supported by massive amounts of monotypic agriculture developed at the expense of critical habitats like forests and wetlands, which have a crucial role in regulating the ecosystems that sustain human existence. How were these massive agriculture systems in turn supported? To be frank, quite often that started with slavery; but, regardless, the key has been the economy of scale. More humans mean more monotypic agriculture over more land. In turn, that means fewer and fewer forests and wetlands and less and less biodiversity, even though we need all that too for our survival — for basic human well-being, if not for fundamental ecosystem function. This form of market economy consolidates wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. And so, here we are today, still operating according to that same old-world model, but at a scale that is no longer sustainable for our planet.
Regardless, academia’s infatuation with this old-world approach to developing and maintaining civilizations has become so inextricably entwined in the conventional human psyche that the only future many can imagine is the inevitable development of megacities to support the planet’s eight billion people in the twenty-first century. But the good news is, there is another way to think about this.
Environmental literacy allowed highly advanced Indigenous societies to use ecomimicry to develop systems that conserved or enhanced essential habitats in the process of food production.
More attention needs to be paid to that other approach to maintaining a large human population: the decentralized approach. To set the scene for that conversation, however, we need to think critically about our definition of literacy. Scholars now recognize multiple forms of literacy. One of my favorites happens to be “environmental literacy.” Environmental literacy allowed highly advanced Indigenous societies to use ecomimicry to develop systems — agroecology and aquaculture — that conserved or enhanced essential habitats in the process of food production rather than destroy them as agriculture does. Environmental literacy also informed the development of regenerative circular economies that we refer to as “ancestral circular economies,” like those that mimicked the water cycle.
What does an actual eco-civilization look like? Are there any tangible examples out there? There are several, particularly in the New World and in Oceania, but I can share a story about one in particular: Hawaiʻi. Hawaiʻi is an island system that is the most remote landmass on the face of the planet, and researchers have long viewed it as a model system. Under Indigenous stewardship and governance, Hawaiʻi developed into an eco-civilization. Its integrated agroecosystems and aquaculture systems once sustained a population of more than a million people, which is about the size of its population today. There are many parallels between isolated islands and isolated planets. It’s a matter of scale. As the inhabitants of a remote habitable planet in our galaxy search for a way to sustain their current population of eight billion people, looking to how the human population of that planet’s most remote islands (Hawaiʻi) sustained themselves is a good place to find scalable answers.
Some context for the Hawaiian eco-civilization: In the late eighteenth century, just as Kamehameha I began his quest to consolidate multiple independent kingdoms into what eventually became the unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, European contact brought rapid changes. Introduced diseases killed nine out of ten of the Indigenous population within the first century of contact. Simultaneously, these foreign influences leveraged religious, economic, and political tools of colonization toward gaining influence over a strategic location as they clamored for power in the midst of a coalescing global economy. While the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi evolved and adapted throughout this period, by the end of the nineteenth century it was illegally overthrown with the help of the U.S. military in its campaign to affirm its “manifest destiny.” Eventually, Hawaiʻi became America’s fiftieth state.
Under Indigenous stewardship and governance, Hawaiʻi developed into an eco-civilization.
Understanding what Hawaiʻi looked like when it sustained a population of a million people 250 years ago, without the transpacific shipments that bring in ninety percent of the food consumed in Hawaiʻi today, can be revelatory. There weren’t cities or population centers. Island systems can’t support cities without massive amounts of external imports, and that wasn’t an option prior to the industrial era. It was Indigenous environmental literacy that developed a decentralized approach to resource management, the foundation of the Hawaiian eco-civilization. In this system, the high islands of Hawaiʻi were broken up into named and bounded social-ecological regions (moku), each of which was further broken up into named and bounded social-ecological communities (ahupuaʻa) that typically extended from the mountains to the sea. On the older, more eroded islands, these tended to align with watershed boundaries, although that wasn’t as much the case on the younger islands. Importantly, each community produced its own food, and thus the entire population lived within the constraints of island systems of limited resources. In spite of limited resources, Hawaiians thrived through the development of an abundance mindset known as ʻāina momona (literally, plump land).
That this abundance mindset arose within a system of such limited resources might seem perplexing, but it came about through significant advances in agroecology and aquaculture. These technological advances facilitated a sustainable superabundance of food by harnessing ecosystem function to increase nature’s productivity. While scientists are still unlocking how these systems actually worked on a large scale in Hawaiʻi, what is clear is that the majority of these ahupuaʻa in regions outside of today’s population centers sustained a much larger human population than live in them today. The islands were once divided up into nearly two thousand ahupuaʻa, each having a sizable population, with the largest of these sustainably supporting several thousand people. This approach to civil engineering allowed the Hawaiian eco-civilization to sustain a large human population that was dispersed throughout the landscape, rather than concentrated in major population centers.
Two centuries after Euro-American colonization initiated the collapse of the Hawaiian eco-civilization, elements of it are being revived through the modern Hawaiian Renaissance, which began in the 1970s. Much of this is happening through a process known as biocultural restoration. Driven by environmental literacy that the people of the land never lost, this process aims to reconnect People and Place to biodiversity — the founding elements of our ancestral culture and language in Hawaiʻi. The aim of these efforts has been to protect essential habitats and restore the ancestral agroecology and aquaculture systems within them. These efforts have empowered communities around Hawaiʻi to be more self-sustaining, and they have inspired people around the world.
There is one more thing that the Hawaiian eco-civilization can teach us — and this is perhaps the most important lesson. It is encapsulated in a single word, kuleana. Kuleana is a Hawaiian word that, through the colonizing American lens, is often translated as “rights.” In the Hawaiian language, however, the concept of rights as viewed in American culture doesn’t exist. Kuleana is more accurately understood to mean “responsibilities.” There is a broad-based movement among Hawaiian scholars and community leaders to reclaim this ancestral conceptualization of the word.
In the Hawaiian language, the concept of rights as viewed in American culture doesn’t exist.
One example of this effort is the lawaiʻa pono (literally, fishing in balance) movement, which supports a return to community-based fishery management in Hawaiʻi. It shifts the default notion of fishing from the extractive form of “take” that dominates today, to an approach that focuses on “taking care.” In this Indigenous approach, the first action isn’t extractive; rather, it is a regenerative action that honors the relationship between people and the ocean. This give-before-take approach — founded in the spirit of aloha — focuses on the responsibility to care for all relationships to the benefit of the collective, rather than on an individual’s rights to take at the expense of the collective. This notion permeated ancient Hawaiian society and was at the very foundation of the Hawaiian eco-civilization.
We must re-evaluate our plans for how we are going to live on our planet. What if we elevated environmental literacy, decentralized population growth, and circularized our economies such that they are regenerative? We could imagine a future in which humanity continues to thrive on this planet, instead of driving blindly toward a dystopian future. Prioritizing responsibilities over rights is a good place to make a major course correction. By learning from places like Hawaiʻi — where Indigenous People and Local Communities are reclaiming their responsibilities in the process of reviving ancestral systems of agroecology and aquaculture — we can have hope for the future of our planet.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the memory of the late Dr. Eleanor Sterling, a champion of biocultural restoration who, throughout her career, empowered Indigenous scholars in Oceania and around the world. She passed away, untimely, in February 2023.
Kawika Winter, PhD, is a biocultural ecologist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa who focuses his efforts on issues relating to conservation, sustainability, and Indigenous rights. He is also active outside of academia, particularly in the spheres of land stewardship, community advocacy, and policy.