Sustainable Development Oddball

Mark Peterson and Greta Pratt for The New York Times. The Tamatea Nui Lana’i Polynesian dance group. All of Lanai’s owners have sought, in one way or another, to refashion the island into a paradise on earth. Larry Ellison hopes to transform it into the “first economically viable, 100 percent green community.”

Mark Peterson and Greta Pratt for The New York Times. The Tamatea Nui Lana’i Polynesian dance group. All of Lanai’s owners have sought, in one way or another, to refashion the island into a paradise on earth. Larry Ellison hopes to transform it into the “first economically viable, 100 percent green community.”

This Times Sunday Magazine article attempts to help us understand the challenges inherent in one of the more unusual sustainable development stories we have heard of in recent years:

Henry Jolicoeur is a retired French Canadian hypnotherapist and a glass-products importer who enjoys making very low-budget documentary films. In the summer of 2012, Jolicoeur read that Larry Ellison, a founder of the Silicon Valley giant Oracle and the fifth-richest man in the world, had bought 97 percent of the Hawaiian island of Lanai — not a 97 percent stake in some kind of company, but 97 percent of the physical place. Jolicoeur was curious, so he booked a flight and packed his camera.

Jolicoeur knew a little about Lanai, having lived in Hawaii in the ’90s. It is among the smallest and least trafficked of Hawaiian islands — a quiet, spectacular place where Cook Island pine trees vault up everywhere, like spires or giant peacock feathers — and can feel like a charming wormhole to an earlier era. There is only one town, Lanai City, where virtually all of the island’s 3,200 residents live. Ellison now owned a third of all their houses and apartments; the island’s two Four Seasons-run hotels; the central commons at the heart of Lanai City, called Dole Park, and all the buildings around it; the town swimming pool; the community center; the theater; a grocery store; two golf courses; a wastewater treatment plant; the water company; and a cemetery. In a single sweeping real estate deal, reported to cost $300 million, he had acquired 87,000 of the island’s 90,000 acres. And he would subsequently buy an airline that connects Lanai to Honolulu as well. On all of Lanai, I heard of only a handful of businesses — the gas station, the rental-car company, two banks, a credit union and a cafe called Coffee Works — that are neither owned by Ellison nor pay him rent.

Jolicoeur spent about three weeks strolling around the island, asking locals to hold his ungainly, foam-sheathed microphone and tell the camera how they felt about the big acquisition. Everyone seemed to feel very, very good. “I want to thank Mr. Ellison,” one fishing-boat captain says. “He’s got a vision, and he’s taking care of us over here on Lanai.” A pack of landscapers, shown assiduously raking dirt, say things like: “Thank you for work, Mr. Ellison! Thank you very much!” The owner of a salon: “I just want to take this time to thank Mr. Ellison for the unbelievable, incredible takeover of Lanai.” Inside the island’s Catholic church, a priest in a purple robe, surrounded by children, says: “Heavenly father. . . . We ask for your blessings for Mr. Ellison, particularly, and those who work with him, that all the good plans and intentions that he has for Lanai be fruitful.” Elsewhere, a woman shouts a little breathlessly: “Mr. Ellison! Thank you for being here! We love you! I’ve never met you before and really would like to, and I can imagine that you will do awesome wonders for this place!”

Jolicoeur is still working on his film but has posted some footage on YouTube in the meantime. From time to time, he makes an appearance himself, pontificating about the bewildering new relationship between Ellison and everyone else. Introducing one segment, Jolicoeur announces, “The great philosopher Plato said, 2,500 years ago, that rulers of man must be philosophers.” A title card reads, “ORACLE = A person who delivers authoritative, wise or highly regarded and influential pronouncements.”

Ninety seven percent of Lanai may be a lot of Lanai, but it’s a tiny part of Ellison’s overall empire. Ellison, who stepped down as C.E.O. of Oracle on Sept. 18, is estimated to be worth $46 billion. He made an estimated $78.4 million last year, or about $38,000 an hour. He owns a tremendous amount of stuff — cars, boats, real estate, Japanese antiquities, the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, an America’s Cup sailing team, one of Bono’s guitars — and has a reputation for intensity and excess. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that when Ellison has played basketball on the courts on his yachts, he has positioned “someone in a powerboat following the yacht to retrieve balls that go overboard.” One biographer called him “a modern-day Genghis Khan.”

At a public meeting on Lanai last year, an Ellison representative explained that his boss wasn’t drawn to the island by the potential for profits but by the potential for a great accomplishment — the satisfaction one day of having made the place work. For Ellison, it seemed, Lanai was less like an investment than like a classic car, up on blocks in the middle of the Pacific, that he had become obsessed with restoring. He wants to transform it into a premier tourist destination and what he has called “the first economically viable, 100 percent green community”: an innovative, self-sufficient dreamscape of renewable energy, electric cars and sustainable agriculture.

Ellison has explained that Lanai feels to him like “this really cool 21st-century engineering project” — and so far, his approach, which seems steeped in the ethos of Silicon Valley, has boiled down to rooting out the many inefficiencies of daily life on Lanai and replacing them with a single, elegantly designed system. It’s the sort of sweeping challenge that engineering types get giddy over: a full-scale model. Of course, there are actual people living inside Ellison’s engineering project — a community being hit by an unimaginable wave of wealth. But unlike all the more familiar versions of that story, Lanai isn’t being remade by some vague socioeconomic energy you can only gesture at with words like “techies” or “hipsters” or “Wall Street” but by one guy, whose name everyone knows, in a room somewhere, whiteboarding out the whole project.

Jolicoeur seemed to understand the precariousness that power imbalance created: the staggering responsibility, the incomprehensible control. At one point, standing on a beach, he announces theatrically to the camera, “The Bible says, ‘Where there is no vision, people perish.’ ” Eventually he visits the island’s animal-rescue center, where a young employee explains that because there are no natural predators on Lanai, the feral-cat population just explodes. Right now, she tells him, the shelter is housing 380 cats.

From behind the camera, Jolicoeur hollers: “So basically, these are 380 cats of Mr. Ellison’s?”

“They’re his cats!” the woman says, laughing and laughing…

Read the whole article here.

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