As I See It: Time to think outside the historic box

We can learn a lot from the pandemic shutdown. Mostly what to not do. A one industry economy is unreliable, especially one as fickle as tourism. Cruise ships are going to be empty floating ghettos for a long time. Hotels will at least attract business travelers. Local business can support good restaurants. We need some other sustainable independent wealth generators.

Hawaii’s economy was not always based on tourists. For a thousand years or so it was independent and self-sustaining. Of course, the majority worked hard and had little while a minority lived well on the efforts of the many. That is the way of monarchy, don’t kid yourself. Things changed with the arrival of international commerce. Probably the first might even be compared to the oldest profession, sailors had needs and Hawaii had women. That brought the first epidemic.


Ships needed to resupply. Capt. James Cook first arrived during Makahiki and left well-stocked. Hawaiian entrepreneurs did well supplying ships with meat, tallow, charcoal, rope and other supplies for many years. Beef became a major business in Hawaii and California. In the 19th century cattle were slaughtered for the hide and tallow with the much of the meat wasted. This might explain the past proliferation of the (Alala Hawaiian crow), a carrion eater. Today, Hawaiian grass-fed beef earns a premium, but has to be shipped on the hoof. Where is the abattoir?

The Hawaiian aristocracy developed a taste for manufactured goods and began to trade things that were prized elsewhere. Sandalwood was a high value export that almost wrecked the native economy by diverting labor from farming. Food production is a narrow margin business. Labor and capital are easily diverted elsewhere.

Pineapple, coconuts and sugar were luxury crops with more profit potential than kalo (taro), but our plantations did not modernize like elsewhere. Brazil replaced machetes with combines years ago. Sugar is still grown on the mainland. Resorts looked like a more profitable use of land. Souvenirs were once a source of profit for local artisans, but they could be made elsewhere cheaper, rebranded Hawaii. There is a certain cache to Made-in-Hawaii by Hawaiians that might support a small industry beyond tourists. Fish from our clear ocean water are worth a premium if well managed.

One thing that hurts our economy is a gaming prohibition that profits Las Vegas: the ninth island. There is no reason to send those millions away. Native American casinos have proven themselves good citizens. Viejas tribe in San Diego went from the largest recipient of welfare to the largest contributor in just three years.

Another thing that comes to mind is science. Hawaii Island is the best place in the world for some research. Maunakea is the best astronomy site on the planet. The telescope committee needs to make peace with the objectors. Their silence is appalling. There is a cultural connection with studying the stars. Have the kia’i ever been invited to see the stars the way astronomers do? Hawaii Island is a great place to study climate. Where else can you have so much variety in such short distances: we can have all four seasons at the same time. Where there is science to study there is opportunity for scientific education. Students might prefer Kona to Cambridge.

Hawaii Island has a vast range of settings to enable almost every natural background, within a few hours drive. A sound stage would make movie production here easier. The structure could also serve as a recording studio, an indoor shooting range, or rock concert site. Certain sports might be broadcast.

The world’s financial centers are spaced a few time zones apart with a big gap between San Francisco and Tokyo, Hawaii could fill that with a self-cooled server farm high on our mountains that could provide a repository for all the world’s knowledge, safe from almost any worldwide calamity.


A proper automobile dismantling business would make a lot more sense that our informal roadside AV dismantling that costs the county $600 to dispose of each carcass. It’s time to think outside the historic box.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to