The full, never before published interview with Kanu Hawaii co-founder and organizer James Koshiba, where we discussed local economies, physics, and the importance of hope.

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What I’m Reading | James Koshiba
Co-Founder and Organizer of

Q&A with Christine Thomas
Short version published in the Honolulu Advertiser October 2008

Q. What are you reading?

A. I am reading three things and I’m almost always reading two or three books in various stages of completion. The first of three books on my table now is, “Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.” The essential message of the book is returning to economies that are more local in scope and are reflections of local cultures. It actually produces communities that are better off and happier than the global, single-minded economy that we’ve been pursuing.

The second book is called “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.. I’m not a terribly religious person, but that’s a piece of writing I go back to on a regular basis. It’s interesting because he was writing at a really tumultuous time in American history, but when you open it up a lot is directly applicable today, especially on the subjects of war, the environment, and human rights—it’s just as relevant today as it was then.

The third is a biography of Einstein called “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. That’s just because I like biographies and reading about people that are way more brilliant than I could ever hope to be.

Q. How did you discover them?

A. They’ve all been referred to me by friends, so “Deep Economy” came from the woman who is the head of SMS research. “A Testament of Hope” I’ve had for a long time but I discovered it while sitting in my friends’ apartment, and then “Einstein” was from a friend of mine who is a physics major. I’ve never taken a physics class in my life and wish that I had. It’s an easy introduction to physics to read up on his life.

Q. What did you take from “Deep Economy”?

A. One interesting factoid I took away from the book is there are multiple studies of levels of happiness in different nations and states around the world. Some of these indices do a very good job of documenting levels of happiness through individual surveys over time. What they found is, that up to certain point, material wealth increases happiness—certainly the person who can eat three meals a day, etc. is happier than the person who has no food or home etc—but after a certain point of wealth, I think it’s 20K per capita, when a nation or people exceed that level of wealth, happiness goes down.

The argument the book makes for it is that at that point you substitute material goods and wants for things you actually need for happiness like relationships, or time, or communing with nature. You sacrifice those things for material gain. At that point more money makes you less happy. So if the ultimate goal is happiness and not just a numeric measure of material wealth, you’d be better off with economies that are more local, slightly more restrained, and that draw boundaries on themselves that are consistent with local values and cultures.

The kind of economy that may be a little less convenient, a little less cheap, and a little less efficient can make us happier. And that might mean growing more of our own things, paying more for good that are locally produced, and having businesses around us that are more interesting but different from the large scale companies we see—but that economy might result in a better quality of life for us than the economy we’re building. It can be harder work and requires more of our time and more thought from us, but we’ll be happier in the long term.

Q. Did McKibben’s book give you any tools to work with as Kanu inspires a new vision of local activism in Hawai`i?

A. Part of the reason I like the book is it affirms the work we are trying to do, and reading about the book’s examples of communities that are trying to do this really made me feel like Hawai`i is advantaged in some ways. We know these things intuitively. We know how risky it is to be dependent on cheap imports. We love having distinctively local companies. And if you look back at every community plan written in the last 30 years, it talks about an economy that supports our local culture rather than clashes with it.

I found it really encouraging because I feel like we’re finally at a point in Hawaii’s history and in global history that we can start making this happen. Hawai’i is not a leader by any means in that effort, but it’s been consistent in calling for that kind of development. And that’s what Kanu does—Kanu is really about empowering people to live that way and be a part of building that kind of economy and society through their personal actions.