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You can leave it all behind / And sail to Lahaina

When I first listened to "The Last Resort " by the Eagles, nearly five decades ago, I had never heard of Lahaina. Because there was no Google, an atlas sufficed, and I learned that Lahaina was in Hawai'i on the island of Maui. From the lyrics, I learned the rest—that in America's unwavering ability to destroy the beauty of its own continent, it was branching out to perhaps one day destroy the beauty of other paradises also. (Some of my long-ago poetry students may remember my risking a good "LP" on a school "record player" and handing out pre-Xerox mimeographed lyric sheets. Everything has changed except the message.)

Those who have seen Honolulu, either in person or in photos, know that it is no longer some tropical paradise but a huge metropolis that differs little from its mainland counterparts. Even so, for many of us, our psyches have never fully released the image of Hawai'i as a Pacific Eden. Now, however, we may have to.

The fiery destruction of the historic and beautiful Lahaina, the city from the song, came with such suddenness and ferocity that it will be impossible in the near term for us to think of it as anything other than a moonscape of burned-out buildings, ash-strewn grounds, and the final resting place for so far uncounted innocent victims.

With last week's fires, Lahaina has become another paradise lost; and though it would be an oversimplification to attribute this fire to climate change alone, we can't keep enduring "the unprecedented" disasters of recent years without finally admitting it's our fault. Over the past decade, we have become better at accepting responsibility, but not at changing our behavior.

We may love the beauty of Yellowstone and Acadia, of the Rockies and the Cascades, of the Great Plains and the Gulf, and we may continue to romanticize Hawai'i, but our behavior shows that we love our cars more. We cherish our mobility, our air-conditioned buildings, and our vacations at Disney. And even those of us who are willing to endure the expense of the conversion to renewable energy are now balking at the construction of wind towers and solar farms. We are entering a new phase of NIMBY-ism.

I am sensitive to the concerns of homeowners who don't want a wind turbine whooshing over their garage, but in a country with as much open space as ours, such conflicts are unnecessary. There is room for everyone and everything, but it may require sacrifices we have so far been unwilling to make. I am no better; perhaps you agree with me but share in the same weakness as we complain about gas prices, fill our tanks nonetheless, and drive as we have always done.

We have witnessed Canada, the American West, Australia, Greece, and now Hawai'i scorched and ruined by flames. We are rerunning out of tipping points, but until we have a government managed by leaders who can see beyond their own noses and who have some concerns for generations who will have stewardship of the planet in the years to come, the fires of Lahaina will be more prologue than tipping point. And that, as always, is on us.

The next elections will have much to do with the future of our country and our environment. We know the disdain that the MAGA Republicans have for the planet they rent, and we cannot afford to turn its future over to them again. These days we are all in a frenzy as more and more charges are levied against the former president, and yes, this is a battle for the future of our democracy. But let the courts handle it. We have no role. Instead, it is our job to vote and elect leaders who give a damn about the earth and our place on it. Otherwise, we are merely sending thoughts and prayers, then waiting for the next disaster. The tragedy of Lahaina should be more than a lesson, but it should be no less than that.


I urge you to support the Lahaina recovery effort:

There are many legitimate charities at work. Use Charity Navigator or GuideStar to find reputable ones.

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