Wayfinding and Sustainability: A reflection on the 7th Annual Schneider Memorial Lecture


On the first Tuesday of February, I listened to a story of struggle, death, and extinction, of honor, heritage, and revival. The storyteller was Nainoa Thompson, a native Hawaiian navigator who led a worldwide voyage to bring dignity to his culture and build a worldwide network of people thinking about sustainability in our modern world.

The evening began with a powerful musical welcome from Hui o Na Moku, Stanford’s Pacific Island Cultural Club.[1]The sound of their voices echoed in the auditorium and set a tone of reverence and respect for the night. Mr. Thompson carried this tone throughout his story, and it showed most strongly when he spoke about the mentors that had supported him along the way.

His mentors were people that taught him about his identity and his relationship with nature and those around him. His father set the example of caring for the ones whom society cared for least, sometimes drinking water for dinner in order to feed the children on the streets. One of Hawaii’s heroes, Edie Aikou, taught him the value of sacrifice; while caught in a storm, he got off the boat and paddled to an island he couldn’t see to find help for the others stuck in the boat. The last living Polynesian navigator taught him to learn everything that his instincts believe in, to see knowledge as sacred, and to cultivate a love and responsibility for the earth.

These strong mentors supported Mr. Thompson in becoming the expert navigator he is today. After his training, he decided to embark on a worldwide voyage called Malama Honua, meaning “Care for our Earth.” This voyage hoped to “bridge traditional and new technologies to live sustainably, while sharing, learning, creating global relationships, and discovering the wonders of this precious place we all call home.”[2]They traveled over 150,000 nautical miles, stopping at ports and engaging local communities in conversations about how to live sustainably. This voyage became a way to synthesize local culture and global change; the voyagers took the tenants of the Polynesian lifestyle and applied them to create a network of motivated individuals.

This journey in turn helped the voyagers foster a deeper relationship with the ocean as well. As Mr. Thompson emphasized throughout the night, “you can’t protect what you don’t understand.” This is a call to action; his story emphasizes that we must develop a kinship with our world to protect it.

This kinship with nature also became a central part of Mr. Thompson’s sense of identity. During his childhood, he felt as if his Hawaiian identity was a source of shame; the language was being forgotten, and many skeptics doubted whether the Polynesians actually could have sailed such far distances without the help of modern-day technology. However, on the voyage, he found a place where he could be Hawaiian. The idea of finding oneself in one’s relationship with nature was central to his talk. This relationship is of increasing importance as we alter our earth and its climate in new ways. Mr. Thompson pointed out that the early Polynesians had figured out a way to live sustainably with the islands, and that we should look to their knowledge and practices as we wrestle with this question ourselves.

This lecture was held in honor of Stephen H. Schneider, and Mr. Thompson’s references to sustainability were framed within the context of Schneider’s work. Prior to his death in 2010, Schneider was a leading climate expert and Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University. In a video montageof Schneider shown at the beginning of the lecture, the renowned scientist explains that the more carbon dioxide we add to our atmosphere, the more tipping points we will cross. For example, as Greenland melts, the water reaches the bottom of the ice sheet, heating and lubricating it from beneath. At some unknown tipping point, the entirety of Greenland could melt, and we may experience rapid sea level rise of over five meters.[3]Schneider also demonstrated his frustration with the way media distorts the relative credibility of information. For example, private interest group announcements are given the same amount of air time as peer-reviewed, government-issued reports, leaving their relative importance unclear to the public. Schneider’s ability to effectively communicate science was incredible. Mr. Thompson employed unique tactics to continue this legacy, like incorporating his Polynesian heritage of wayfinding to build a community of people who care about the planet.

Throughout the story of this voyage, Nainoa Thompson became almost superhuman in my eyes. Here was a man who remained incredibly humble and humorous, and yet had taken it upon himself to revive an ancient Polynesian wayfinding practice to sail around the world and bring dignity back to his culture. His insights, that we must understand something before we can protect it, and that we must create culture which will care enough to make a change, were profound. Perhaps the most impactful question he posed, however, was this: “what do I do with this privilege that is life?” I think his story is a beautiful answer to that question.

Cover photo courtesy of Jules Wyman.


  1. Hui O Na Moku (Pacific Island Culture Club). Retrieved from https://nacc.stanford.edu/events/hui-o-na-moku-pacific-island-cultural-club
  2. The Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage Continues into 2018. Retrieved from http://www.hokulea.com/worldwide-voyage/
  3. Stephen Schneider Climate One Montage. (2013). Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YZ84pD895Q