I was on vacation last week in Hawaii – on the Big Island
, one of the least touristed and most volcanically active islands in the chain – and I’ll be telling some big fish stories from my trip in coming posts (in particular how abysmal transport planning has robbed lovely old Hilo’s downtown of its enormous potential as an urban destination and how diving with manta rays, in addition to being one of the flat-out most exhilirating things you can do in the water, hints at the full value of the world’s coral reefs).
First, though, I’d like to say a word about the extraordinary force of inertia built into our current socioeconomic system. I’d like to tell you something about bananas in paradise.
So here’s the scene: I’m in a rental car, driving from Hilo on the east side of the Big Island over to Kailua on the west coast. The main route, Highway 19, passes up and over a 2,500-foot mountain pass between two stunning volcanic peaks – Mauna Kea
and Kohala – bisecting the vast Parker Ranch along the way. At the summit of the pass is the small, prosperous town of Waimea.
I pull into a strip mall to grab a cup of coffee. It’s Sunday and much is closed, so there’ll be no transcendent cup of Kona
for me; Starbucks it is. I step up to the till and order my frappuccino. While I’m waiting to pay, I notice that there’s a tray of bananas at the register. The flawless yellow skin and perfect parenthesis shape catch my eye. I’ve been gorging myself on local produce all week – you can get so many papayas and lilokoi (aka passion fruit) for a buck at the Hilo Farmers’ Market
it feels almost like stealing – and the mix has included a good many Big Island bananas. They come in several varieties and sizes, most squatter and less curvaceous than the standard supermarket model. Also vastly superior in taste and texture.
This is what catches my eye: these are the first supermarket-model bananas I’ve seen in a week’s feasting. I take a closer look. Every one of them has a smart little Dole sticker on it, and beneath every Dole logo, an unexpected word attesting to its origin: Ecuador.
At a coffee shop in a remote town at the crest of a pass between two volcanic peaks, on an island whose soil is so awesomely fertile it’s inspired a local adage that says you could stick a broomstick in the dirt and it’d soon bloom, at the far end of a lush island chain that produces 15,000 tons of bananas every year,
there is a tray of Ecuadoran bananas for sale. Shipped from several thousand miles south by container ship, unloaded first at Honolulu for transfer to a barge and then tugged to the port of Hilo and then trucked past fields filled with papaya and pineapple and lilokoi and oranges and delectable little bananas to a Starbucks in the shadow of Mauna Kea. Ecuadoran bananas for sale on Hawaii’s roof for a dollar each. Not an outrageous price, but it doesn’t begin to account for the skewed math that makes it economically “rational.”
The process of change can sometimes seem simple, obvious, inevitable. If something doesn’t work and something else does, stop doing the thing that doesn’t work and do the one that does. If it makes no kind of sense to tether ourselves inextricably to supply chains that span continents, why not simply cut those binding ropes?
You could walk from the Waimea Starbucks to a farm that could supply the place with a tray of much tastier bananas for less than a buck apiece. You could put a bigger sign on the tray – FRESH LOCAL BANANAS!!! – and make them seem not like an afterthought but a treat. You could pair one with a cup of top-notch Kona, call it the Big Island Special. Charge me a buck extra, and I’d probably still buy that over the Pike Place blend and whatever indifferent pastry is on offer.
This is, of course, what a great many little cafes and coffee shops
across the Big Island do. But the inertial force embedded in the global-chain logic of a brand like Starbucks can’t untether itself so easily. The place was built on ubiquity, uniformity, long supply chains fed by clockwork producers. In very real terms, it exists on a different continent from small local producers and the idiosyncracies of remote volcanic islands. Starbucks in Waimea is Starbucks in Seattle is Starbucks in Calgary. The internal logic of the corporation is stronger than the headslappingly obvious logic of fertile soil and local production.
It does all this, to be clear, because we ask it to. Even on an island blanketed with world-class coffee plantations, we modern consumers ask for conformity, reliability, uniformity, a place that happens to be open late in the afternoon on a Sunday as we zoom through, a place with a familiar logo that tells us that our five-minute stop will provision us with precisely what we’ve come to expect. It’s not them – not just them – it’s us. And so we need to work on our translation skills. We have to figure out a way to explain local bananas (and local coffee) to Starbucks.
I sometimes think this is the crux of the sustainability equation: How to translate the logic of sustainable production and consumption to the global consumer system, to the world's seven billion strong inextricably wedded to it. It’s not enough simply to wish there were no Ecuadoran bananas – no Starbuckses – in paradise. There are, and more of us buy our coffee there every day than stop in at my wife’s cousin’s fantastic little farmer-run shop in downtown Hilo.
Maybe that’s how we’ll know the fulcrum’s tipping to the sustainable side of the scale – when they’ve got local bananas next to the till at the Waimea Starbucks. And the finest local produce next to the till at your local Starbucks as well.
To talk about local fruit and global economics 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.