The future is behind us: traditional ecological knowledge and resilience over time on Hawai‘i Island


Local and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) systems are thought to be particularly valuable for fostering adaptation and resilience to environmental and climate change. This paper investigates the role of TEK in adaptation to social–ecological change at the community level. It is unique because it takes a longitudinal perspective and draws on historical and contemporary data. We focus on a case study from Hawai‘i where TEK, cultural identity, and their relationships to environmental stewardship are locally seen as the basis for social resilience. We describe how coping strategies and indicators of social resilience have changed over time; the role of TEK in resilience; and the implications for climate change adaptation. Our results show the relative contributions of some strategies to cope with social–ecological change have decreased (e.g., forecasting, storage, and mobility), while others have maintained but adapted (e.g., livelihood diversification, knowledge transmission and storage, communal pooling, and cultural identity), underscoring the importance of considering multiple strategies together to promote community resilience. The article argues that understanding how people responded in the past can suggest relevant and culturally appropriate ways—through specific language, values, reference points, and indicators expressed in narratives, proverbs, and songs—of situating climate change and framing adaptation planning. This research also shows that TEK is vital for adaptation to environmental change broadly and climate change in particular, for subsistence-based, indigenous, rural communities, as well as place-based communities living in mixed economies. Thus, it is relevant for the larger Pacific Islands region and other areas that represent a continuum from rural-to-urban and traditional-to-global economies and lifeways.

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    Ka‘ūpūlehu is owned by Kamehameha Schools (KS), the largest private landowner in Hawai‘i, and the largest charitable trust in the USA (King and Roth 2006). KS was established in 1887, following the death of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last surviving heir of Kamehameha I. All her lands were deeded to a trust that became KS.


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Thank you first to the Ka‘ūpūlehu community who generously shared insights, knowledge, and experiences that are the foundation of this work; to the ‘āina that provided profound inspiration; to Lisa X. Gollin, Alvin Keali‘i Chock, Christopher Reyer, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments; and to research assistants Natalie Kurashima and La‘akea Bertelmann. This project was funded by a grant from the Pacific Island Climate Change Cooperative.

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Correspondence to Heather McMillen.

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Editor: Christopher Reyer.

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McMillen, H., Ticktin, T. & Springer, H.K. The future is behind us: traditional ecological knowledge and resilience over time on Hawai‘i Island. Reg Environ Change 17, 579–592 (2017).

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  • Social resilience
  • Adaptation
  • Pacific Islands
  • Traditional ecological knowledge
  • Climate change