A social scientist vacations in Lana’i

I recently came back from spending a week on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i (my 2nd visit to the island). It is as beautiful and remote as all of the tourist PR claims – the snorkeling is excellent, the local village is friendly and laid back, and the landscape is breathtaking. Oh, and there is a feral cat sanctuary with 400 residents. That is, 399 residents – don’t ever visit a cat sanctuary with two middle school girls and expect to go home empty handed.

What really piques my interest, though, are the unique circumstances the islanders find themselves in, how they got there, and (in particular, as a social scientist) the limits of the islanders’ ability to consent to how they’re being experimented on. You see, Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle) owns 98% of the island, and as the last lines of the Lanai Wikipedia page describe, Ellison owns 98% of Lanai.[18] Ellison has stated that he wants to make Lanai into “the first economically viable, 100 percent green community” That little footnote [18] points to a NYTimes magazine article that is well worth the read if you’re intrigued by what I write here.

A brief (recent) history of the island: It was owned by the Dole fruit company and served as a pineapple plantation, supplying virtually all of the world’s pineapples for a while. Workers lived in a company town on the island. By and by the owners of the island changed hands, the pineapple industry went away, and Larry Ellison bought all of the company land just a few years ago.

Now, the island has a population of about 3,000 regular residents, about a quarter of whom work in a business that directly depends on tourism (running the Four Seasons resorts) and maybe another quarter working for Ellison’s construction and development company on a variety of building projects. But virtually all of them depend on tourism for an injection of money to the economy. All food and supplies need to be brought in from nearby Maui (a freight barge runs back and forth a couple of times a week), and the island produces virtually nothing for export (well, except feral cats, but those are given away).

So far so good. When Ellison bought up the island he did some basic needs analysis and ended up building a sports center for local youth (there was nowhere for the local school to have a home basketball game) and engaging in other community-minded projects. He also bought the Four Seasons hotels (with both a beach side and up-island location) and went to work renovating those buildings. Unemployment on the island has virtually disappeared since Ellison arrived. That’s the good news.

Here is where the story gets interesting, and more nuanced than one might expect. This is not (simply) the tale of an overlord riding roughshod over a local government, although some would tell it that way. Nor are we witnessing the Great White Savior flying in to civilize the poor natives and uplift them from their misery (again, some might allude to that narrative, too). I can’t claim to tell “the truth” in this blog, either – I haven’t spent enough time getting to know the locals and really investigating the history and circumstances. Again, I strongly recommend reading the above linked NYTimes article for both background and more in-depth reporting.

What I do want to focus on – the perspective I bring to the table – is the idea of social research and informed consent. You see, under a network of regulations and customs in the U.S., if you want to run a social experiment involving people, you have to obtain informed consent – the people you’re studying have to affirmatively agree to participate in your research after having been informed of the potential benefits and risks. Clearly, for some sorts of light-touch, observational research informed consent isn’t necessary – one can hang out in a public park and take notes all day long without ever obtaining consent, as people are just going about their daily lives. But once you start changing people’s circumstances, whether in a laboratory or in the real world, the ethical issue of consent arises.

But wait, one might think, corporations and governments change things all the time! Neighborhoods are transformed by new development, school systems are reorganized (sometimes at the whim of distant politicians)… where is the “consent” in that? And the short answer is:  for the most part, we consent through our elected representatives, who in theory exercise some control over private developers, school administrators, and the like. Clearly, in some communities the government is weak – oil refineries continue to be built in low-income communities of color, for example.

In Lana’i, the local government has (as far as I can tell) extremely limited power relative to Ellison. Consider this: Ellison not only controls all of the tourist beds at the Four Seasons, but he recently bought the only competition (a small in with maybe a dozen rooms). He controls all of the overnight tourism. Just last year, he completely closed one hotel, ostensibly to house workers who are performing construction on the other hotel (which is also now half closed). Perhaps coincidentally, this also demonstrated to the island what happens when your tourism is cut by 50% or more at the same time Ellison was negotiating for the rights to build a desalination plant – the one project the local government has some legal authority to regulate.

Hmm… okay, this sounds like industry-community hardball, no different than any corporation coming to a depressed town in the US and offering to supply jobs and a tax base in exchange for some favorable regulatory relief. It’s an offer the local populace cannot often refuse.

But Lana’i is different, and I’m struggle to convey exactly why. I think it’s the totality of the control Ellison exerts on the economy. If there is no tourism or construction there is no income – period. The people living there know that their livelihood depends on one person (his delegates, actually) keeping the taps open on the money pipeline. They live on an island – there is only one small airport and a barge and ferry to Maui. There is almost literally no escape. Furthermore, there is no economic competition to Ellison. It is literally impossible for another tourist company – or any major employer – to set up shop in Lana’i without renting Ellison owned property.

Now add to that Ellison’s vision for transforming the economy of the island – here is where the Great White Savior meets Communist planned economy. One example is his investment in the local wood shop – he’s paid to send furniture makers to Berkeley to learn the latest in green construction techniques and advanced manufacturing, so that the Lanai shop will be able to build furniture for a network of hotels Ellison operates. That is, Ellison is the sole customer for an industry he’s funding on this island. Ideally the shop will become self-sustaining should their reputation for quality green furniture become widely known.

Now, multiply that example by a dozen. I recall hearing about agricultural experiments and plans, but can’t remember the details. The hotels are being re-made to suit Ellison’s taste in accommodations. There were plans to build a larger runway at the local airport to accommodate bigger planes (passenger and cargo)… you get the idea.

The problem I have with this is that – as far as I can tell – the locals have had very little say in the direction this development is taking. Plans call for doubling the island’s population over the next decade or so. That’s a huge shock to the culture of the community (that doubling is coming from immigration, of course).  News reports (again, see the NYTimes article) tell stories of major political schisms on the island that were previously unknown, as the islanders tended to practice “aloha” (think communally-oriented sharing and support) to get buy in chronically dire economic circumstances.  Great white savior types point out that the islanders don’t have the perspective or capacity to even know what they would need to bootstrap the economy – sometimes you have to bring in outsiders with a “vision.” But then, it’s not clear to me that there was a “problem” to solve in the first place.

Fine – bring on the vision. But let the locals have final the final decision authority.  This doesn’t have to be a black-and-white, either-or scenario: it’s not a choice between reversion to economic hardship and high unemployment on the one hand, or serfdom under a benevolent overlord on the other. I can also imagine, though, how frustrating it might be for a benefactor to come into this situation, knowing they can help in all sorts of ways, and having locals say “whoa there!” So tempting to brand them as “backwards” or “ignorant” or to treat them as errant children. But then, that’s the history of colonialism throughout the world.

It’s one thing to read about colonial adventures in textbooks, it’s another to see it playing out in real time in front of one’s eyes with an English-speaking American population.

So go to Lana’i. The hotels are crazy expensive, but the climate is gentle enough to permit camping year round (overnight camping is limited, but available). If you’re staying in nearby Maui you can take a day trip on a ferry – just make sure you get up to Lanai City (the central village) to chat with some locals.

And think about what you would do differently if you owned 98% of the land and all of the hotels on the island.


2 thoughts on “A social scientist vacations in Lana’i

  1. Sounds like Larry Ellison is the Sultan of Lana’i! Here in Oman, there are similar issues at hand — one person rules the whole country (though this is a long-established government, not the result of someone buying out an island), and the modernization of this nation is only 40 years old. As a result, most of the management and skilled labor are provided by expats (most of those from India). There are talks and plans to educate Omanis so that they can be in leadership positions, but the going is slow so far in that realm. Did you hear of any deliberate declarations to offer those native to the island to develop the skills necessary to do the jobs being created via this new vision of the island?


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