Economic geographer Mark Kimura: The impact of the June 27 lava flow: complexity, holism, education and compassion

The economic impact is just a small part of the big picture. There are also cultural, political, psychological and environmental impacts. There might also be things we can’t even imagine today.


By Mark Kimura

Mark Kimura
Mark Kimura

During the past two weeks, I’ve been interviewed by four news media about my infographics on the impacts of the lava flow in lower Puna on Hawai‘i Island. The first two requests were from TV news stations on O‘ahu; their interviews were so fast that I can’t even remember most of the things I said. The other two were journalists from more traditional media — they were both very professional and polite, and gave me plenty of time to think.

But there was one thing in all the interviews that made me feel unsettled — it wasn’t the interviewers, they were all nice and I have no complaint about them. It was this question they all asked: “What is the economic impact of the lava flow?”

They never forced me to answer that question, but I felt obligated to answer it “properly” since, after all, I’m a Ph.D. in Regional Science (Economic Geography) and I’m supposed to be an expert. I tried my best, but I still didn’t feel right for some reason, which I couldn’t nail at that time. After thinking about it for a while, I think I finally know what it is. That’s what I want to share here.

Yes, the field of research I chose to declare is Economic Geography. But my research topic and academic passion has always been Complexity Science. That’s what my dissertation was about. For my first and last jobs before coming back to academia I was to study the applications of Complexity Science in social sciences and business. I think like a Complexity Scientist. I consider myself a “systems thinker.”

Let me explain.

The “economic” impact is just a small part of the big picture. There are also cultural, political, psychological and environmental impacts. There might also be things we can’t even imagine today. The island of Hawai‘i is not solely defined through “economic impact.” It’s a system. There is a physical system, there is a natural system, and there is a human system. And some people might add another system related to their spirituality (my stance toward spirituality is that whatever cannot be disproved, I don’t dismiss it; dismissing without actually examining is never the right attitude for a scientist).

All of these components of Hawai‘i Island are interrelated with each other. One is not always the cause of another. There are sometimes causes and sometimes effects. In reality, the line between causes and effects are often ambiguous, and sometimes it’s almost perfectly clear.

In addition to that level of complexity, there are also interactions between individuals and the whole. Again, one level is not always the cause of the other. What happens to the whole unquestionably affects each individual to various degrees. In turn, individuals as a collective could influence and even change the course of the action taken by the whole.

For example, the lava flow is an expression of the physical whole – the massive energy was stored and grew under the volcano for years; some may say even that is only a small aspect of Pele. It is in fact affecting a lot of people (individuals) in lower Puna and other areas. What individuals do as a collective will change the landscape of Hawai‘i’s “human system.” It will also influence what the local government decides or does not decide to do, which will further affect individuals in the system.

You see? There are “feedback loops” in the system called “Hawai‘i,” or any other place. It’s a well-known fact in Complexity Science (and also in mathematical ecology, control engineering, chaos theory, nonlinear dynamics, etc.) that when there are feedback loops with delays in decision making, material flows and information flows, the outcome is extremely unpredictable. A small difference in the beginning of an event could make a huge difference later (you might be familiar with the concept “butterfly effect”).

Coming back to my views on economic impact — when I’m asked what the economic impact of the lava flow would be on Hawai‘i (state or county), my textbook answer, my best educated guess to that specific question, would be “minimal” or “almost invisible.” There are a few useful methods, in regional economics, to estimate the effect of a change in a sector (or more) in an economy and effects on other connected regions. I can give you a list of methods I learned at Cornell and what local governments are using. But as a human being, I don’t really care about economic impact. Hawai‘i is not economic impact. As a researcher, I do care about the long-term sustainability of the island of Hawai‘i and mankind, as well as animals and plants. But I’m not into prices, productivity, utility maximization, and economic growth. I might still use those concepts in my thinking processes because they are actually useful, but these are not goals — they are tools.

So, why are some people so obsessed with this “economic” thing? And why do people automatically think of it as something independent and separate from other aspects in the world? They may actually not think that way in their heads, but how come that’s the primary approach when they communicate with each other? I’ve been thinking about it for years and I have my tentative answer now. It may have something to do with education in Western civilization. Don’t get me wrong; those “analytical” approaches have tremendous benefits. That’s how science works. That’s why engineers can build reliable cars and bridges. That’s why pharmaceutical companies can come up with miraculous ways to cure diseases. It’s wonderful that schools teach kids how to think analytically. That’s ingenuity of Homo sapiens.

But what we are missing is opportunities to learn how to “reconstruct the whole.” Most of us don’t learn how to do it. Some people may grow up in a culture where the whole is an integral part of their lives and might develop the habit to always think about the whole — not just the group they belong to, but also a larger whole. Pack animals learn it by instinct. The instinct part of us still has it, but the intellectual part doesn’t.

When you have the habit to think about the whole and the systems around you, you have no other choice but to be compassionate because there’s no one cause or one bad guy who’s causing your pains or injustice in our society. You don’t think about removing the cause of the problem; you think about the relationships among people or groups, and you want to heal them. Without cultivating a civilization where individual humans see the holism in our society, humanity will keep misunderstanding, blaming and killing each other.

So, is that how I think about the world and how I actually live? No. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s easy to get it intellectually, but not emotionally. When there’s a clueless and/or dangerous driver, I quietly curse without moving my lips (after making sure that the driver can’t see me) and get mad. It may take a minute or two to calm down. It’s not easy to internalize the idea and actually live it. I feel pains in my personal life and I feel angry toward injustice. I’m not happy with some of the comments I’ve seen on my Facebook page about the lava flow and I get hurt. I’m fighting against my ego and I admit that I sometimes question my motivation. I’m also scared.

All I’m saying is — we are not an economic impact. We are more than that.

Mark Kimura is a researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who specializes in economic geography. He is an affiliate faculty member of the geography and environmental sciences department. As the crisis of the lava flow in Puna unfolds, he is generating  a series of infographics showing the possible effects if or when the current lava flow in lower Puna cuts off the highway and then reaches the shore — see “Impacts of the Puna Lava Flow in Graphics & Maps.”

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