Coffman sees no ‘big fix’

By Erenia Michell

Filmmaker and historian Tom Coffman told community leaders that history shows no big fix for for Hawaii’s economy but to take care of its resources.

“There’s no big fix,” Coffman told community leaders during the ThinkTech conference at the Honolulu Plaza Club, on Aug 25.

In Coffman’s five-minute presentation during the second panel of the conference, which dealt with building the best practices for Hawaii, Coffman spoke of Hawaii’s economic history- the cultivation of taro Lo’i, sugar plantations, and the rise of tourism. “From history, I have only one point to make, which is that the economy of Hawaii largely has been shaped by consensus-building around certain products and then enhanced and managed by central authority,” said Coffman.

Coffman went on to add that the original template was the massive devotion of land and water to taro cultivation. “This command system of land and water usage occurred in valley after valley, around which a thriving population organized their lives, supervised by interrelated chiefs whose genealogies intertwined to form moku, or districts, and then the island kingdoms of Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Hawaii,” said Coffman.

Coffman’s presentation goes on to tell a good, but brief outline of how taro cultivation made way for sugar, and how that then resulted in Hawaii’s next big market- resorts. “Think of the Hawaii that at statehood had a total tourism flow of 170,000 people, 1/30th of today’s visitor market. You will quickly compute for yourselves the extent to which mass tourism was perceived of as workable, and became a government project,” said Coffman.

At the end of Coffman’s presentation he suggests no solution in the mist of historical knowledge, but he does conclude by saying, “Comparable to the past, there is no big fix. Our one viable option is to tighten our belts, take care of our resources, exercise ingenuity, celebrate diversity, and do a lot of small things well.”

Coffman, who started off as a political reporter in 1965 at 22, published his most noted work, “Catch A Wave,” which dealt with statehood politics. But much of his knowledge in Hawaiian history can be seen through his films, including “O Hawaii, From Settlement to Kingdom,” and much more.

“My political awakening was during the civil rights movement; I was young, very young, and I was deeply moved by what was going on in the civil rights movement,” said Coffman. “And it was a turning point in my life and the civil rights movement, the themes, strongly were non-violence- change in non-violence, but detrimentally seeking cultural change,” commented Coffman.