(Released on 08/26/07)
A recent poll taken in conjunction with the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Task Force underscored the fact that fantasy and reality are at two opposite ends of the spectrum.
The initial story reporting on the poll indicated that respondents were willing to pay any price to protect the environment, restrict further development of housing on agricultural lands and pay tolls and higher gas prices to solve traffic problems. The lead person conducting the poll expressed surprise that the results of the statewide opinion poll matched what community members had been telling Task Force members. On the contrary, he thought that those community members who had attended the Task Force meetings were the people with very strong opinions and that a general survey of the public would provide results that did not reflect the community members’ opinions.
So it seemed that perhaps people were willing to pay more to protect the environment and stop the development of more housing inventory if it meant encroaching on agricultural and conservation lands, but what was interesting is that when it came to the question of whether or not people would be willing to move out of state to protect the environment, few of the respondents said that they would move. But a substantial majority supported mandatory recycling, improvements to public education, access to universal health care, energy independence even it means paying more for alternative sources of energy, and faster growth for the agricultural industry than the rest of the economy.
What really pushed the button was that people who responded to the survey agreed that they would be willing to pay more to achieve all of these sustainable outcomes. Well, at least that was what the first article seemed to convey. But subsequent coverage told another story. The telling response in the first story was that while the respondents were willing to restrict development of more housing none was willing to give up their house and move to the mainland. In the subsequent article, it was reported that of the 2,000 people who were polled, 71 percent were homeowners compared to the 26 percent who rent.
That statistic is telling in that if the respondent was a homeowner, he or she already has a roof over their heads, so why should they care whether or not more housing is being built or whether it is affordable, they got theirs! Similarly, why should homeowners be sensitive to the cost of living in Hawaii because they already have their shelter and don’t have to worry about rising rental costs as one more item that devours their pay check?
And that is the problem with a survey like this and “visionaries” who populated these task forces – there is a huge gap between what we would like to have and being able to attain it. A similar experiment was conducted nearly 15 years ago when a group of young people was asked what they would like Hawaii to look like in 25 or 50 years. Dreams of safe communities and full employment and a house for every family were many of the lofty goals. The effort was hailed and touted as the dreams of the next generation. The problem with that effort, like the current one, is that there is no dose of reality, that in order to achieve those dreams the community has to have capacity, that is the ability to achieve those goals.
When the respondents answered the survey with a willingness to pay for these lofty goals, did they, in fact, consider that these moneys would come out of their personal pocketbooks or was the dream that “someone else” was going to pick up the tab? For example, a news reporter ends his or her story about some new building or road with the bolstering statement that it didn’t cost “us” anything because it was paid with federal funds. It is as if those federal funds were some sort of free money that fell into our laps. Just where does that reporter think the federal government got those dollars?
And as the “man on the street” observed in the subsequent article, surviving in Hawaii has taken its toll on all families with not only a heavy burden of taxes, but an extremely high cost of living. Instead of just solving the problem with more money it is about time our community leaders and public policymakers come up with creative ways to achieve those goals. An excellent juxtaposition is the support for mandatory recycling and watching someone toss one of the HI-5 containers in the garbage.