Roots and reverence: 3 Hawaiian teenagers share hopes for a sustainable future

Kathryn Cooper/GreenBiz
From left to right: Annika Berezney, Hina Chow, Jenna Takata and Luis Salaveria.

Warning: You are being closely watched by the next generation, one that cares deeply about the future of this planet. Do your actions when it comes to acting sustainably — personally and professionally — live up to the ideas and strategies you’re preaching?

That thought flashed through my head Thursday as VERGE Hawaii drew to a close, during the setup for an unprecedented session starring not another group of experienced policy experts or business practioners or technologists but rather three high-school students who (unbeknownst to many conference attendees) were part of the audience for the three-day event in Honolulu.

Their mission: Open their minds to the clean energy pathways, infrastructure resilience strategies, transportation alternatives and other low-carbon solutions proposed and debated on stage and behind closed doors.

The gut-level impression offered by the trio of girls: Humans of all ages need to be doing more, faster, to change their consumption habits. Full stop.

"There is no doubt that we are running out of resources," said Jenna Takata, a junior at Kauai High School, who is already involved in algal biofuels research. "There’s no doubt that we’re going to run out of coal. That’s not a disputed fact. So, we need to start moving toward a sustainable lifestyle if we’re just going to perpetuate everything that we live for. And we’re not talking in hundreds of thousands of years, we’re talking in about in the next 50 to 100 years, we could be suffering from not making this change to sustainability. And that’s why we stress together the need for urgency, that it needs to happen now."

A sense of respect

While consulting students isn’t necessarily the first priority of corporate or civic decision makers, maybe the time is right to consider a change — given the more active role teenagers are assuming in advocating for social change.

"This experience has been nothing short of life-changing for me. To be exposed to these things is so important… Get people involved. When you have that support, things happen," Takata said, reflecting on her time at VERGE Hawaii.

"I know that it’s new for us to be here and speaking to you all," said Selena "Hina" Chow, who attends the Kamehameha Schools in Maui, and who already has attended two local energy summits organized by Blue Planet Foundation. "For the decision makers and anyone out there, I think it’s important that we include students as well as the rest of the community who may not have their opinions represented here or in the decision-making process. We need to have good opinions, what might be considered bad opinions, so that we may come together to a decision as a community." 

For Hawaiian youth, sustainability is part of the culture and now it’s time to show them how to cultivate that potential, said Annika Berezney, a junior at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea, Hawaii.

"I think what we can bring to the table is an uncompromised mindset, because what we have done so far is not enough," she said. “We have inherited a dying planet, and it’s time to act now. Sustainability needs to be, and must be, implemented in every decision we make moving forward. It’s not a choice not to think about it anymore."

I had the unexpected pleasure of chatting briefly with Berezney, as we both traveled to the Big Island, where the Kilauea volcano’s ongoing wrath and worries over how the vog is affecting air quality and local tourism are pervasive. Her poise and insights suggest a maturity far beyond her years. Sustainability was part of the Hawaiian culture before the word was invented, and she’d like to see residents celebrate that uniqueness more vocally than they do now. Right now, she’s contemplating a career in sustainable agriculture. 

"If I can give any advice, it’s to take a good big deep breath, get some oxygen to your brain and start making decisions now, please," Berezney said. "Decisions with a mindset of a sense of place."