Nature’s Say: How Voices from Hawai’i Are Reframing the Climate Conversation 

A virile alternative to doomerism is emerging from the Pacific Islands

Kevin Chang on the left) and other delegates from Hawai'i working on Motion 048, at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille. Credit: Audrey Gray

Kevin Chang on the left) and other delegates from Hawai'i working on Motion 048, at the World Conservation Congress in Marseille. Credit: Audrey Gray

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The Parc Chanot exhibition space in Marseille, France, early last September was a sea of slim-tailored suits tapered tight at the ankles. Diplomats and agents consulaires floated through pavilions, vibing protocol. After a one-year Covid delay, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which gathers members from more than 160 nations every four years for an olympics of environmental policy called the World Conservation Congress, was convening again at last, and 137 motions were up for vote by the end of the week. One of the hottest was Motion 003, Establishing a Climate Change Commission. The original draft had read “Climate Crisis Commission,” but that was deemed by some a touch incendiary. So revisions were underway, debated in Zoom sessions called “contact groups.” Delegates would stop strolling booths periodically to grab any seat, open laptops, insert earbuds and participate virtually in the word wrangling. It was all very conventional.

Except in Exhibition Hall 3, where about two thirds of the way back, the Oceania-Hawai’i Pavilion pulsed with an all-age crowd, music and laughter, like an archipelago of ease. Business attire there meant visible knees and sun-kissed shoulders, and shoes seemed to slip off sometime before lunch. The diverse group of delegates from the Pacific Islands were as busy as everyone else on their laptops and phones, but they worked circled up in groups, muting their devices frequently so they could lean in close to strategize off-camera. Paper cups of French cookies were passed around, and after 5 p.m., bottles of local brew. The 50-person strong delegation from Hawai’i had raised funds, vaxxed up and endured Covid swabbing at every port to make it to the congress in person. They were deeply motivated and on mission, but as for methods? All their own, authentic to the place they’d traveled 7,000 miles to represent. 

Kevin Chang, a lawyer by training (and singer-songwriter by nature) who directs the environmental justice nonprofit Kua’Āina Ulu ‘Auamo, sat on a squat stool between two circles of delegates, his phone in one hand and a pen in the other. Not quite 50 with a younger face and eyes that seemed to listen, Chang was a go-to resource in the pavilion, juggling questions about two motions at once. Contact groups for Motion 048, a powerfully worded renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery—the legal justification for colonialism—and Motion 003 creating the climate commission were conferring at the same time, and Chang’s organization had sponsored both measures.

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Some of the questions he was fielding came from me, sitting on a stool next to him trying to get my head around the magnitude of what was happening that morning. On our left, Hawai’i delegates were asking the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to admit that colonialism had led to profound cultural and environmental devastation around the world. On our right, other delegates were asking this weighty international body to take much stronger action now to fix the whole mess. The motions had taken years to compose and amend, but here in the final stages, the language was in danger of getting macerated.  The Hawai’i delegation was determined to make sure it didn’t become pablum. 

I couldn’t figure out why either motion would be debated so vehemently, considering this was a World Conservation Congress. Wouldn’t this United Nations-styled body be the first to condemn centuries of land theft, environmental racism, and now, inaction on curbing carbon emissions? This was the choir, right? Green people. 

“I wonder if all the division and beefing is just about the pace of change,” Chang mused to me. “Some real things are happening now, but it’s a slow turn, huh?”  

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with US actor Harrison Ford  during the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Sept. 3, 2021, in Marseille, France. Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with US actor Harrison Ford during the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Sept. 3, 2021, in Marseille, France. Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Considering the Doctrine of Discovery had its origins in the 1400s and climate alarms had been wailing for decades, slow indeed. We wouldn’t know until the end of the week if it was a turn at all. 

A Startling Intensity

I went to Hawai’i more than a year ago intending to report on tropical rainforest restoration along the slopes of Haleakalā, a volcanic mountain that makes up 75 percent of Maui. Ecologists there were committed to reforesting land decimated over the last two centuries by the sandalwood trade, pineapple and sugar plantations, cattle ranching and over-development, including for tourism. I felt there was a good story to be written about efforts to regenerate Maui’s forests, which have a critically important role in fast-warming island ecosystems: they catch fresh water. 

But I was distracted in my research, interrupted constantly by something I’d describe as a giant holler of everything living, like nature itself was thrumming louder in Maui than anywhere I’d been before. I felt it on drives, on walks, in windward morning rains…a startling intensity. Brace-yourself wind blasts whipped up unexpectedly, followed by a whisper-scent of plumeria. Loud and proud orange roosters occupied the Walgreens parking lot, and once, when I was returning from errands, I counted seven different rainbows. Even taking out the trash could be upstaged by falling avocados or a moon so bright I wondered if it was safe to stare directly. It didn’t help that the cottage where I was staying was near one of the biggest wave breaks on the planet, nicknamed “Jaws” for 50-foot swells that roll in five to eight days a year. They came in my first week, a holy display that left me thrilled to exist and nauseous. I was like one of those suspension bridges resonating so much with natural forces that the road starts to buckle. 

I didn’t think I could accurately portray Hawai’i without describing this prolific, stunning, sometimes scary vitality, if I can call it that. Nature’s say. Had I left it out of my climate reporting before? And how to remedy that without sounding high? It felt important to try, especially at this moment in human history when “unprecedented” (the most used word of the 2020s thus far) climate changes are in our face and yet somehow not motivating a collective shun of the  fuel that causes them. Why weren’t we acting? Would we carry on numb like this, facing mass death events speechless and impotent?  What if the bright slap “Life, though!” voice of the islands could compel us to reply in kind? This was more a gut sense than anything I could explain yet to an editor, but it was strong. I dropped my original reporting plan. 

It took very little searching to find teachers and scientists in Hawai’i who were way ahead of me on the topic of instinctual response to nature, and how it can shake a person into motion. It was driving academic papers, environmental law programs, local and state-wide survival plans and fierce advocacy on the world stage, where leaders from Hawai’i were bypassing the U.S. Government and going straight to international bodies that would listen. Sam ‘Ohu Gon, a longtime biologist and cultural advisor at The Nature Conservancy in Hawai’i, was one of the voices out front. 

“This is a movement of a different kind of motivation,” he explained to me, first by phone. 

In June of 2019, not quite halcyon days but still pre-pandemic, Gon co-wrote a story for general audiences titled  A Hawaiian Renaissance That Could Save the World.  The piece was a paean to Indigenous perspective, urging readers to consider that “we have more control over our destiny than the common dystopian narrative of climate change suggests.” If we’d consider a way of relating to the living world that Native Hawaiians practiced for centuries, Gon and his co-author wrote, we’d have a better sense of how to navigate our fast-warming, storming, burning and flooding planet. They described a call-and-response relationship that prioritizes the needs of the non-human as well as the human, and a careful nurturing of both. “This Hawaiian model merits emulation around the world,” they wrote. 

Two Paths at Once: the Crossover in Disciplines 

Gon was born and raised on the most populous Hawaiian island, O’ahu, where the demographics are predominantly Caucasian, Japanese, Filipino and Native Hawaiian. Like many island kids, Gon’s ancestry was mixed. Half Japanese, he grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s with little knowledge of Hawaiian language, culture or its intimacy with the elements. This wasn’t unusual at the time—after illegally overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, white Americans had outlawed the teaching of native language in schools, a prohibition that held for nearly a century.

“My grandmother could speak Hawaiian, but I grew up in the ‘English, dammit!’ phase,” Gon told me. 

"This is a movement of a different kind of motivation." Sam 'Ohu Gon in Paris, September, 2021. Credit: Audrey Gray
“This is a movement of a different kind of motivation.” Sam ‘Ohu Gon in Paris, September, 2021. Credit: Audrey Gray

It wasn’t until Gon hit high school that he experienced the uncastrated power of Hawaiian ritual. His drama teacher was friends with Aunty Edith Kanaka’ole, a woman from the Hāmākua Coast on the island of Hawai’i whose family had guarded and passed down oli (chant), mele (song, poetry) and hula (ritual dance). Kanaka’ole wrote, choreographed, and taught her own chants, continuing the evolution, and recorded musical albums like Hi‘ipoe I Ka ‘Āina Aloha (Cherish the Beloved Land). Gon’s drama teacher invited Kanak’ole and her hālau (school) to perform an hour-long assembly, offering high school students a glimpse of the real stuff. Gon was one of the kids in that audience. 

“I was just floored. It was the first time I saw hula being done without music, only voice and percussion and men dancing,” he said. “Before that it was just coconut bras and cellophane skirts in Waikiki.”

Gon never shook that first encounter. Though he’d decided to study zoology at the University of Hawai’i, he asked his advisor if he could fulfill his two-year language requirement with Hawaiian. It was a battle involving numerous departments before he got a yes. Gon also started hanging out with other students learning traditional hula. When they asked him to help source some plants used in ritual, he took them out on hikes, sharing his own fast-growing knowledge of island ecology. Over time, his friends brought him along to an oli class, and Gon was so drawn to the rapid-fire, powerful chanting he heard there, he ended up spending a decade under the tutelage of a Kumu (master teacher), John Keolamaka’āinana Lake.

Gon was taking two paths at once. On his science track, he earned a Ph. D.; on his oli journey, he advanced all the way to a ‘ūniki hu’elepo (rite of passage) with Kumu Lake. More than bilingual, Gon felt integrated, amazed by the crossover in disciplines. The Hawaiian chants he’d learned held thousands of specific references to plants, animals, rocks and weather patterns, along with instructions on how to live in balance with it all. There were more than 400 ultra-descriptive words for “rain” alone, which was often used as a metaphor for love.

“It could be a light and drizzly rain with sunlight and rainbows, or it could be a drenching downpour that floods you and takes you away,” he said. “But so is love, right?” 

Gon’s personal coming-of-age was mirroring a larger movement throughout Hawai’i to amplify native culture after two centuries of assault and near silencing. There were giant outdoor music festivals, new university departments and the galvanizing 2,500-mile journey of Hōkūle’a, a double-hulled canoe sailed from O’ahu to Tahiti relying solely on Polynesian navigation techniques. New articles, books and documentaries told the non-sanitized-for-tourists truth about genocide and ecocide in Hawai’i after Europeans dropped anchor, and more islanders began protesting the ways the U.S. military was sacrificing landscapes to develop weaponry. The movement was more than a flashback to “ancient ways,” or fresh resistance to atrocities. It was also about restoring a connection with nature in contemporary life.

“Hawaiian society has valued intimate attention to what’s around you,” Gon said. “Attention may be the difference between life and death. That’s what Hawai’i has to share with the world.” 

Two tourists died while I was in Maui—kids in their 20s swept out to sea by flash floods as they hiked and swam along the Hana coastline. They’d chosen Instagram hot-spots, Waioka Pond (the Venus Pool) and Waikamoi Trail, places locals knew to avoid after heavy rains. Kīlauea, a very much alive volcano on the Big Island, erupted again too, sending “vog,” a hazy volcanic-smog, across the island chain. I realized that the climate-intensified “natural disasters” unnerving so much of the world—floods, storms, drought, fire—had long been part of life for Hawaiians. They’d been raised to watch, respect and live with danger, to surf it. These skills are not taught in much of the indoor-oriented world today. Considering how fast our new classes of tornadoes, heat domes and firestorms now take out neighborhoods, I saw how “relationship with nature” could be tactical, not just a beauty bath. It’s not too early in the climate conversation for us to be gauging survival wherever we live, and the Hawaiian worldview offered a method. I needed to learn it myself. 

At one of Maui’s many used bookstores, I found Ka Honua Ola (The Living Earth), a treatise on “the embodied experiences that define the culture of Hawai’i” by Aunty Edith Kanak’ole’s Ph.D. daughter, Pualani. She wrote about Pele, the spirit of volcanoes, and how to respond when Pele reappears above ground. This sentence floored me: 

It is an honor, a godly privilege, to discern

the regenerative forces within the chaos of an eruption. 

Imagine facing our worst climate impacts with that mindset…feeling honored to live during unsettling times, watching for nature’s propensity to restore life and somehow participating in that process. It felt astoundingly mature to me. So different from doomscrolling. 

I also heard that Aunty Edith’s granddaughter, Kekuhi (I was now encountering a third generation of this matriarchy), had recently taken the unusual step of opening her “Hawaiian lifeways” school, Hālau ‘Ōhi’a , to international audiences via Zoom. “We look to create foundational understandings that will help our learners to adapt their own practices to be in strong relationship with their environment and community,” read the sign-up page. I enrolled, curious to see if a “strong relationship” was even possible for me once home in New York City. 

Right before I left Maui, I drove to Makawao, an old mountainside cowboy town, to spend a morning with restoration ecologist Art Medeiros, who was famous in the conservation world for bringing back plots of native forest at a cattle ranch on the leeward side of Haleakalā. Paul Simon had played a benefit concert for the project in 2019. This native tree revival was a near miracle in a place that’s been called “the capital of extinction,” and Medeiros could have talked about plants and process, but he wanted to talk about people instead. He told me that when he took volunteers out to work on those forest revival plots, he was touched by how moved they were after only a few hours of exposure. 

“It’s a natural love affair, like the ultimate singles bar,” Medeiros said, and he wondered how much destruction on our planet had resulted from our simple lack of exposure to that turn-on. “How can you love something you don’t know?”

Dripping water in East Maui. Credit: Audrey Gray
Dripping water in East Maui. Credit: Audrey Gray

A Personal Response to Beloved and Known Places

April 2021 in New York was a stunner, not like the monsoon dreariness of previous springs, but it was still pretty locked-down. Most adults were only half-vaxxed, and eating inside a restaurant still felt sketchy. I was living too much of my life on Zoom—Zoom jazz “events,” Zoom French classes, Zoom reporting—but Kekuhi Keali’ikanakaole got me outside. Her Hālau ‘Ōhi’a lessons had homework—a hands-on orientation to your own neighborhood. Each Zoom class began with students from around the world showing off a local plant or object that meant something to them, some kind of history or family association. 

And so it was that I snuck out at 11 p.m. one night in a black trench coat with floral shears deep in my pocket, aiming to clip a sprig of honeysuckle from a neighbor’s overabundant vine that had spilled onto the public sidewalk, which I hoped meant fair game. Everything smelled good outside that night, but the honeysuckle was the most evocative for me. It was a sense memory from childhood, the day my mom picked a trumpet-shaped blossom and taught me how to gently dislodge the stamen at the base and pull it down through the flower, delivering one fat drop of nectar.

“Get ready, hold out your tongue.” 

That drop landing, sweet in a different way than fruit. I remember my kid incredulity that I could now source an unlimited supply of legitimate, non-poisonous goddess food. 

I clipped a lower, foot-long stretch of the vine and hustled back to my block. The next morning, my entire bedroom smelled like a fresh day, with plans about to go out the window. 

This wasn’t the hit of big-wave energy I’d experienced on Maui, but it was mine, my home-nature. And I was responding to it. 

Kekuhi’s classes were structured around disciplines she’s learned from her grandmother and mother: studying Hawaiian words with their multiple meanings, learning breathwork and vocal exercises for chanting and practicing rituals to prepare a space for a hula class. It’s not that she expected non-Hawaiians to grasp all of it, but she was offering the things that had helped her cultivate a reciprocal relationship to the natural world. 

“When we greet an element outwardly, we recognize it in our own spirit,” Kekuhi said over Zoom. “This isn’t a daisies-in-the-butterfly park image…it’s a realization that I’m part of a larger pulse, so being a part means that I can act and counteract in multiple ways.” 

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She was training us how to focus on what’s surrounding and sustaining you, notice the way we respond to it, and then, allow that response to motivate our actions. “You don’t even have to be good at it, just speak nicely to that mean auntie in your head that says, ‘Who told you you could do that?’” she said. One of her most used words was potentialities. She believed humans could protect and assist the natural world, but she said efforts would be most beneficial if they stemmed from a personal response to beloved and known places. The work was to stay connected, whatever ceremony or cultural practice kept you there. 

“Do the ritual, sign the petitions, get to the testimony, take the sign, stand by the road, block the bulldozers and still do the ceremony,” she said. “If we rage, we get nuts. That’s unnecessary.” 

Kekuhi offered permission to include a few lines of a mele (chant) in this story, a kind of fill-in-the-blank genealogical chart that includes more-than-human ancestry. 

“It comes down to this, these few lines,” she said. “They are the new poetic story of my relationship to my parents, myself, my water and my place. You may think, ‘I can be related to a mountain? This is ridiculous.’ But one of these days, you’re going to remember and realize, ‘Oh, I need that.’” 

Mele Mo’okū’auhau

‘O  (your parent’s name) of (place)

Noho iā With (other parent’s name) of (place)

Hānau ‘o That gave birth to (your name)

‘O (your home land)

‘O (land that feeds you now) 

‘O (hill or mountain closest to you)

‘O (your fresh water or ocean source)

OLA LOA!  LONG LIFE, completely cured or recovered

A Sustained and Spirited Fight

Sam ‘Ohu Gon opened the Oceania-Hawai’i Pavilion at the World Conservation Congress on Sept. 4, a Saturday, with a chant greeting the city of Marseille and its sparkling sea. He sang prayers for the week, loud and deep, in full form as both biologist and kahuna (priest). Following the ritual, the delegates from Hawai’i got to work steering their motions through a geopolitical obstacle course. 

Among them were high-level legal navigators, including Hawai’i Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson, who was camped out with students from the University of Hawai’i Richardson School of Law in an abandoned United States pavilion just across the exhibition hall. (Federal workers were restricted from traveling overseas during the pandemic, so the delegates jokingly dubbed their found space “the Hawai’i annexation of the State Department.”) Justice Wilson had been a part of the IUCN for many years, even serving on a task force to assess climate impacts, but he was fed up with assessment.

“The task force is an inadequate bandaid exercise in superficial analysis and conversation,” he told me. “We have to have a value system that honors the Earth, which Indigenous people carry, and have to have a system that honors survival. We could have future generations going right over a cliff!” 

“When we greet an element outwardly, we recognize it in our own spirit,” Kekuhi said. Credit: Audrey Gray
“When we greet an element outwardly, we recognize it in our own spirit,” Kekuhi said. Credit: Audrey Gray

Hence, Motion 03 to establish a Climate Change Commission, drafted and sponsored largely by the Hawaiian team. “Our house is burning,” read the motion’s explanatory memo. “We must not mow the lawn as it burns.”

I followed the Hawai’i delegates as they gave presentations, moderated panels, redrafted motions and busted out ukuleles when protocol got frustrating, often checking up on each other’s morale. They had a way of pacing themselves which I found fascinating, and they maintained a faith that they were in the right place at the right time. I, meanwhile, wondered about the sway of the IUCN as an international body—it was known for its influential Red List of the world’s endangered species, but could it lean on the United Nations to temper the use of fossil fuels? Did any international body have the teeth to hold countries to their emissions promises, or would a lack of enforcement policies allow fossil fuel companies to barrel onward, burning through oil,gas and coal stores until all of us became endangered species? 

I posed these concerns to Noelani Lee, a Princeton-educated delegate who’s worked on the island of Molokai. I’d been watching her lead sessions on Indigenous knowledge, notable for the way she’d encourage audiences to take slow, deep breaths as she invited Native people to take their time speaking, unrushed. 

“We’ve just been panicking a very long time,” she said. “We’re fighting for survival as Hawaiians, and we’ve been fighting. The calm comes from knowing that the final destination is aloha, it’s care for the Earth. We just have to take the next step.” 

Far from an easy greeting or a flat synonym for “love,” the literal translation of aloha is closer to exchanging the breath of life—it speaks of profound, reciprocal intimacy. Aloha ‘āina is a deep, protective relationship with the land, with Earth itself. The delegates returned to the concept constantly and worked it into the final title of Motion 048: Renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery to Rediscover Care for Mother Earth.

 The vote on 048 came first. Kevin Chang, who’d sponsored and shepherded the document, attended the WCC Members’ Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 8, and caught video of the hall as the results were announced: a YES, passed by an overwhelming majority. “It’s significant that the world’s largest conservation organization acknowledged and renounced the doctrine with a call for reconciliation,” read part of his Instagram caption that day.

He told me he saw the work as “a practice in governance, helping our folks feel they have some control over their destiny. We are building an ability to be advocates, learning how to make the fight.” 

Motion 003 would pass too, during the WCC’s very last session, another emboldening victory for the Hawai’i delegates…but Sam Gon and I didn’t know that yet when we finally sat down early Saturday morning, Sept. 11, for a long talk, our first in person. We were in a small courtyard at his temporary apartment in Paris, where Gon had been invited to speak about conservation and the Hawaiian worldview at a three-day Festival des Arts d’Hawai’i. I’d attended one of his talks the night before, amazed at the 45 minutes of questions Europeans had for him. How, one older woman asked, could they foster an Indigenous closeness to nature when culture and rituals there felt lost to history? 

“Even if the old relationship is gone, new ones can be forged,” Gon had answered. “We have many models to choose from in the world…and we are still living things surrounded by living things.” 

Gon and I were surrounded that morning by a flurry of small birds buzzing the vine-topped courtyard wall. Back and forth they torpedoed, coordinated and vocal. “We have these same sparrows in Hawaii,” Gon said. “They’re a pan-global bird, good at what they do.” Which looked to me like enjoying the hell out of the morning dew. 

We ate some September French figs and began to parse the week, making our way to the big climate questions of species survival in high waters, brutal temperatures and busted food supply chains. Hawai’i is so very exposed to every climate threat. For all his positivity, Gon was pragmatic about what was ahead, even if humans managed to slow global warming down a bit.

“We are in a world in which the consequences of our actions are leading to the loss of beloved things,” he said. “Get used to it, gang, that’s one of the lessons. That’s what you need to respond to and form your relationship with if you’re going to stay in a place.” 

Gon said that when he takes people on hikes in Hawai’i today, he doesn’t focus on what’s dying. He shows them marvels of a living world. That’s what triggers a genuine love response, he said, and the love instinct is far stronger a motivation than grief or shame or nihilism—it leads to more action. I’d observed that too, how many people in Hawai’i have loved a place and a culture enough to attempt the most complicated climate policies, challenge colonial systems and prepare now for more danger. They are modeling a sustained and spirited fight to a dispirited world. Gon spoke of the ballast he’s found in the centuries-old chants he’s been studying all his adult life.

“There’s one that’s really good for climate change. One of the first lines is, ‘Above, the sky is in turmoil…”

Ho‘oka‘aka‘a lani loli ka honua The heavens roll about, the land changes 

Kau mai ka ‘ahu‘ula The chiefly feather cape is donned 

“It’s telling you that a change is needed, and you have the authority to do so.” 

I luna, halulu ka lani Above the heavens rumble/tremble

  i ka hale mahina poepoe in the house of the full moon

  i ka puka haiki pilikia at the tight, difficult entrance

Puka kīkēkē a ka akua The doorway tapped at by the god

“It’s a dangerous, difficult path. But!” he said, and a sudden, breakthrough smile expanded his face by at least half. “It’s the path where the gods are knocking.” 

Audrey Gray is a New York-based freelance journalist focused on climate shifts, environmental restoration and equitable design.