Historical Material Succession

This part of the project seeks to understand how human-nature interactions changed in Hilo and Kailua-Kona as Hawai‘i Island has transitioned from resource independence in the 18th century to near-total dependence today. Our researchers collected and analyzed data on Hawaii’s material flows since European contact as a basis for understanding how industrial ecology can be used to deepen an understanding of human-nature interactions in Hawaiian history.

While any attempt to distill close to 200 years of history will be forced to generalize and overlook important developments, the material story of the Hawaiian Islands from the point of European contact to statehood raises many issues surrounding the cycling of materials. Since 1778, specific products have dominated Hawaiian trade for distinct periods of time. Following transition periods, another material would assume predominance.  The cycle of resource exploitation and depletion post-contact began with sandalwood, a tree that was abundant in Hawaii and very desirable for export to China, becoming the Hawaiian Kingdom’s first mercantile commodity. The whaling era continued the trend by establishing Hawaii as the principal re-provisioning site for the Pacific whaling trade including the early development of financial and trading institutions from which a small number of foreigners could dictate much of the economic path of the islands. Prolonged exposure to and interactions with these capitalist enterprises, in conjunction with a fear of military colonization, convinced the native government to encourage greater investments, which led to property rights reform, which spawned the plantation economy. Through a series of political events and market readjustments, sugar came to dominate every aspect of island society by the 1880s.

When viewed in concert with the political and demographic trends of the period, the material trends help to illustrate the process by which agricultural interests amassed enough power in the islands to overthrow the native government. Furthermore, they illustrate the transition from non-intensive agriculture to industrial agriculture, which, though seen across industries, is perhaps best exemplified by pineapple. Where at its inception the plantation economy involved growing and selling plants, by the 1930s massive factories had been developed to mill, refine, slice, can, tan, roast, or shuck the items that the various plantations of the Hawaiian islands grew. For about 40 years between annexation and World War II, industrialized agriculture defined Hawaii’s economy.

Interestingly, the financial entities that had stewarded that economy since the days of the whale ships foresaw the eventual shift from agriculture and industrial agriculture to services, and in particular tourism in the 1920s and they invested accordingly. The material composition of the economy had changed dramatically as illustrated, in part, by trends in exports.  Our export database reveals an economy ever more dependent on outside goods being brought into Hawaii especially in the present day.  This study has sought to catalogue the events with the most significance for imports, exports and general material production and to analyze what the effects of these trends have been.

This project is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.