He lives in a treehouse and rides a bike to get from A to Z. Though that might sound childlike, there are mature, progressive and forward-thinking ideologies and practices emanating from green economist and Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative board member candidate Ken Stokes, who proves by example that sustainability is fun, fresh and possible.
Calling a 480-square-foot space with an equally small carbon footprint home, Stokes and his wife of seven years, Susan Dixon, cite one word to describe living this way, above it all (literally): Discipline.
“Everything has a place,” Stokes says. “Everything is put back where it goes.”
Laughing, a bit knowingly, Dixon agrees. “It’s particularly hard with clothes.”
Overlooking the Kapa’a reef among the branches of a monkey-pod tree with a neighboring banyan that helps with shade, the couple has carved out a mind-blowingly organized and cohesive sense of place in their treehouse, where even books on a bookcase (which doubles as a wall) are meticulously in alignment, creating a visual order and elegance in this small space.
Nothing is out of place in the Stokes’ tree-household, where there’s serenity along with a certain poetic freedom from massive amounts of “things.”
In fact, the few “things” in the household don’t collect dust, but rather are used to the maximum.
Perhaps this existence is a bit of a throwback to childhood for Stokes, as he had a rural upbringing all his own, having grown up in Alaska (when Juneau wasn’t much bigger than Kapa’a, he says). Stokes, whose mother was an artist and grade-school teacher and father was a corporate manager with the Department of Interior, says he and his siblings spent their time skating on a nearby lake, sledding on the hill up the road and relinquishing their back porch to the black bears during spawning season, “so they would have a place to de-bone their fish from the stream,” he says.
As for how he spends his free time on-island now, it’s a mix of blogging, bodysurfing and cycling, along with finding inspiration in the “ordinary heroes around Kaua’i whom I call ‘taroists,’ because they see something that needs doing and they just do it.”
Of course that’s a taro/kalo reference, and Stokes is all about the “garden” in Garden Island.
Stokes is a self-proclaimed “life learner” who studied urban economics in graduate school at Syracuse University. A tad impatient when it came to getting out there in the world and making a difference, Stokes completed three years’ course work before leaving without his Ph.D., because, he says, he was ready to work on cities, noting he didn’t want to teach. Upon leaving grad school, Stokes continued learning on the road, as he was hired to help create strategic plans in cities across North America.
“It was a lot of miles on airplanes in those days,” he says. “I was fortunate to get involved in urban economic planning and to head 12 cities to get a federal grant for urban economic planning.” One of those cities was New Haven, Conn., where Stokes served two terms on the City Council. He then attended Stanford to get his MBA, because he became interested in a tech venture and also wanted to augment his management skills.
Following that, he came to Oahu after a failed business venture with some colleagues.
“I don’t know how to describe what happened with my flashy MBA,” he says. “I spent every penny I had on a business plan and concept I and some of my colleagues had, and failed to raise capital. I was broke and brain dead and moved to Oahu in ’87. It was a left turn in my life. I got off the career track. I decided I wanted to live.”
Stokes became founding manager of the state’s first relevant corporations incubator, Kaimuki Tech Enterprise Center. “I opened the place and filled it with good tech ideas,” he says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t last very long inside of that state bureaucracy. I did kind of keep a hand in a new tech startup, and ran an upscale services company for three or four years right at the height of the visitor boom in 1990-91, when there was a lot of Japanese investment.”
Stokes eventually sold the company to Japanese investors and came to Kaua’i.
After meeting and falling in love with his wife here, he began talking with farmers and kupuna, and it wasn’t too long before he wrote a book, Tending the Garden Island, which set out a gardener’s mission in terms of sustainability, with respectful deference to the host Hawaiian culture. The book takes into consideration our ecological footprint, and offers the simple acknowledgement that our island moniker has the very word “garden” within it, suggesting to “think ahupua’a” when it comes to organizing thoughts on ecosystems. Stokes’ synopsis of the book is that it is “about achieving sustainability on our island from the bottom up.”
Next up was launching his increasingly popular DIY blog on sustainability, SusHI (Kauaian.net/blog), a site that has tipped off a few news stories here and there and has attracted attention around the globe.
Though some may recognize Stokes more for being a KIUC candidate in this current election (online voting deadline is March 19), it seems being a board member is a job for which Stokes has been prepping for decades, and one he hopes, given the opportunity, will enable a continuation of forward-thinking collaboration with KIUC board members such as Ben Sullivan and Carol Bain.
A man with a plan – “greener, sooner, cheaper,” Stokes has often said – investing in renewable energy and smart design is one way that will help Kaua’i. Using the housing sector as an example, Stokes says we’ll have to switch away to sustainable systems, not just toward clean technologies.
“You know, most practitioners in sustainability these days are very depressed because it just seems incomprehensible that we will be able to shift these systems in time,” Stokes says, wryly. “But I’ve always been an optimist … I also get that some of these behaviors can change in the blink of an eye, and if it’s true as the numbers bear out that it’s a smart money move to invest in solar for your house – which I believe is taking off as we speak – we could literally convert in a fairly short time once people got clear that it was not just affordable, but that you could make more money doing that than from a savings account.”
Investing roughly $40,000-$50,000 in solar (which Stokes says is closer to $20,000 per household after incentives) will have its return. “Even if you have to go borrow to make that investment, and you pay it off in seven years, what happens in the eighth year? Can you say, ‘free’? That’s the attraction.”
Stokes says it’s this kind of thinking that could make high utility bills a thing of the past. “You could take a bank loan whose monthly payment was the same as your current utility bill, pay it for seven years and then, it’s free,” he notes.
The strategic plan for KIUC doesn’t forecast or plan for energy coming from the household sector, which is a concern for Stokes.
“I’m a strategic planner who’s not excited by this document,” he says. “But the wonderful thing is you’re refining it all the time, and that is something that occurs at the board level.”
As for those out there who might feel getting residents off the grid will leave the utility stuck with core costs, Stokes said that’s why the co-op is in need of a new business model, the most obvious element being that you split it into two parts: generation and distribution.
Regardless of the election outcome, however, Stokes says he is willing to help any way he can.
“This is stuff that needs to happen whether I or anybody else gets elected or not,” he says. “I’m certainly not going anywhere – I’m getting older – but I do have a sense of urgency and yes, I’m committed. This is me, this is my life, this is what I do. The prospects of participating in the discussions that help us finally turn our utility toward a sustainable future is:You’ve got to want to be involved.”
To take a peek at Ken Stokes’ sustainability site, go to: kauaian.net/blog.
To vote online for KIUC candidates through March 19, go to: alohavote.com/KIUC/AlohaVote.html.