By Alan McNarie
Governor David Ige, finally stepping in on the crisis on Mauna Kea, has called for a week-long “time out” on construction of the giant Thirty-Meter Telescope, afte days of protests, arrests and an uneasy standoff on the mountain.
I have to express my admiration for the way that both the protestors and the police are handling themselves. Look at the videos that have come down the mountain, and compare them to the ones from Ferguson, Missouri, or any number of places around the world. It’s tragic when anyone has to be arrested for their beliefs. But this is exactly what nonviolent dissent is supposed to look like: nobody throwing punches or rocks, nobody using pepper spray or billy clubs, nobody grabbing cameras, nobody beating anyone up. The county police and the DLNR agents appeared to do their jobs without rancor or excessive force, and the protestors did theirs in the same way.
I hope these videos go viral, because everyone around the world should be aware of some of these issues, and everyone needs to see that a conflict, even where religion and huge sums of money are involved, can be handled without violence and with mutual respect.
I’ve been covering the conflict on the mountain, now, for over two decades. I have genuinely mixed emotions about the Thirty Meter Telescope. On one hand, I think the science it would do is important. And frankly, Mauna Kea may have seemed the center of the universe when Polynesians first came here, but it isn’t–and we know that, in part, thanks to science. What science can tell us about our place in the universe is more honest, in at least the physical sense, than what any religion tells us, be it Christian, Hawaiian, Hindu, Muslim or Zoroastrian. Religion, originally, performed some of the same functions that science does: it offered explanations about who we are and where we came from. But in many cases, science now can do that better. Religions can still function in areas where science can’t: they can can ask why we’re here and what our purpose is, and suggest what is good and valuable. Science can tell us what the universe is made of and teach us our place in it, but religion-and philosophy, and ethics, and sound rhetoric–can help us to decide what to do with that knowledge. We need to give science its due where science does best, and give religion its due where its due is truly due.
On the other hand, a lot of what this project is about has nothing to do with science: it’s also about construction jobs and bragging rights. Some of what the TMT’s backers have said contradicts facts, in the worst possible violation of the spirit of science. The telescope’s supporters–and major media outlets echoing them– have repeatedly stated, for instance, that the TMT will be the biggest optical telescope ever built, but there’s a bigger one going up in Chile: Europe’s 39-meter, aptly named, Extremely Large telescope, which will likely see first light before the TMT. Misinformation continued yesterday: Covering the Governor’s announcement, for instance, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser said the TMT was “being billed as the world’s largest telescope.” without even the “optical” qualification. That’s just flat-out wrong. There are already radio telescopes and telescope arrays that are larger–Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, for instance, has a 305 meter radio reflector.
The Environmental Impact Statement for the TMT is probably the most environmentally conscious one ever submitted for a telescope on Mauna Kea, and I think the TMT people are really trying to do a good job of minimizing impacts. But it would be silly to pretend the TMT is not going to have an impact: This thing has a height and footprint equal to that of a major resort. And the University of Hawaii and the state have conspired to make rules that blatantly favor the telescopes in general over any other use of the summit, which has only inflamed the people who see other values for it. The TMT may have been designed to have “minimal” impact on the wekiu bug, the tiny weevil that lives nowhere but on the summits of Mauna Ke and Mauna Loa-but some wekiu habitat will be lost just in road construction. And the expansion onto another previously untouched plateau of he summit can only add to the cumulative impacts of all the telescopes.
Just being the biggest, of itself, isn’t a good enough excuse to build anything, anywhere. There are more persuasive reasons to build the TMT, in terms of science: its backers could emphasize the fact, for instance, that the other really big telescope projects are all in the southern hemisphere, leaving half of the sky unexplored. But a lot of it of the hype about the telescope is just an appeal to jealousy, a “We’ve got to keep Hawai Number One.” That may be good business, but it’s not good science. In fact, it’s just the opposite of what we’re learning from astronomy: ironically, the biggest lesson that we can glean from the world’s greatest telescopes is humility: we are just a tiny speck of dust in an incredibly vast universe, and there’s nothing unique or special about our planet, our sun or our galaxy, except that life grows there and one form of life has learned to look out at the cosmos in awe. And with the help of the big telescopes, we may soon find out that we’re not the only life in the universe, either. We may even find something out there that sees us the way we see wekiu bugs, so maybe we need to work on our attitude.
I used to hope that people could find some common ground–that Hawaiians could perhaps see that scientists are seeking some of the same things that inspired Hawaiian religious stories about the mountain: a reverence for nature and a wish to understand our place in it better. I said as much in some of my early writings about the conflict, and I hope maybe those early writings had some part in the inspiration of Imiloa, which seems to have that building of bridges as its main theme. But I think that there’s a hard core on both sides for whom compromise is finally impossible. I think the government and the TMT backers should have waited until the TMT opponents’ last court appeal was exhausted before forcing this confrontation, and I think they should have set rules that made it a fairer fight—but I expect that this confrontation would have to have happened eventually. Like the ongoing battle in Israel/Palestine, this is a bitter lover’s quarrel between two groups in love with the same land.