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Navigating culture and climate change

Nainoa Thompson

Polynesian Voyaging Society
Mar 11, 2019


In 1990, the Polynesian Voyaging Society planned to build a Hawaiian voyaging canoe made with traditional materials such as koa wood. But instead of finding the lush koa forests that their ancestors once sustained, society members found a sparse collection of unhealthy trees. For Nainoa Thompson, the society’s current president, the lesson was clear: recovering traditional culture and the health of the environment are two parts of the same journey.

Thompson brought that message to Stanford recently when he delivered the sevent annual Stephen H. Schneider Memorial Lecture, named for the late Stanford climate scientist and Woods senior fellow.

“If humanity has to be well, then the Earth has to be well. If the Earth has to be well, that means the ocean has to be well,” Thompson said. “What do you think controls climate?”

Thompson explained that traditional Polynesian culture can be key for solving climate change-related challenges. “You want to solve energy? … Food sovereignty? Hawai’i has already done that.” Before colonization, Hawaiian culture sustained hundreds of thousands of people using only the surrounding environment.

The first inhabitants of Pacific Islands were truly sustainable in their lifestyle –both in their “kinship with nature” and the passing down of knowledge through oral traditions, Thompson explained. Voyaging, in particular, is an important component of traditional knowledge and integral to the Polynesian identity. Using the stars and the ocean resources around them, the first peoples were able to navigate across seas and amassed knowledge of the natural world that encompassed 15 time zones.

However, once Western colonization came to the Pacific, native languages were banned, navigation stopped, and a rich nautical knowledge began to disappear. This rift in cultural memory makes it difficult for Polynesia to connect to and protect the oceans in the ways their ancestors were able to do before, Thompson said.

“The black road of extinction is getting paved, and you can’t treat these diseases without your language and identity.”

It took a few great teachers or kūpuna to change the tide, Thompson said. One master navigator–a man from Micronesia named Mau Piailug–“smelled extinction,” and so shared his sacred knowledge with Thompson and led a voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976 –the first traditional voyage in hundreds of years. Thousands of Tahitians greeted Mau and the crew in Hōkūleʻa, a reconstruction of a traditional Hawaiian canoe –spreading cultural revitalization and inspiration throughout the Polynesian seas.

In 2017, Thompson embarked on a worldwide voyage of Mālama Honua, Hawaiian for “to care for our Earth.” The 40,000 nautical mile trip was the first traditional round the world voyage in over 600 years. Navigating with both traditional knowledge and modern instruments, the crew aimed to bridge the past and present, while building global relationships to protect the environment. One relationship was with former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, who signed an agreement with the crew to continue his efforts fighting climate change.  Another was meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. At each of the voyage’s 150 ports, hundreds of formal and informal educators engaged and shared sustainable practices with the local communities.

While Thompson and his crew encountered many languages in the 18 countries they traveled through, one demanded attention. “We must pay attention to the language that is going to grow over time: climate change,” Thompson said.

Thompson implored the Stanford audience to be “warriors” in the fight to protect the Earth, citing Schneider as an example.

“Navigate by your values, your beliefs, and what you stand for…navigate for good. We need you. You are the crew.”


The 7th Annual Stephen H. Schneider Memorial Lecture was cosponsored by the Stanford Woods Institute, the Haas Center for Public Service, Students for a Sustainable Stanford, and Hui o Nā Moku.


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