Commentary: Nonviolence at its Best on Mauna Kea

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.



20 replies
  1. Grif Frost
    Grif Frost says:

    Aloha Alan! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Well reasoned, well written essay which is very timely. Will look forward to sharing this widely. Helped me better understand why I am feeling conflicted about both the TMT project and the on-going protests.

  2. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    I agree with your comments. The law enforcement people and the protectors have been admirable in their respect for each other. Walter Ritte, has no business sticking his spoon into Big Island business. The Big Island has the lowest median family income of all the counties and education is the best predictor of family income. Until he has a solution for the rubbah slippah folks, Walter Ritte shoul speak from Molokai.

  3. joy cash
    joy cash says:

    Let’s be clear, science is many times a galmorized dressing for using tax & investor monies to foster big “science projects” that will benefit mostly the elite of our shared world.
    Insiders involved in TMT admit privately that technologies involved will be out-dated before construction is completed. And perhaps more importantly, our telescope project is more of a “showroom for elite international investors & thrill seeking tourists” in an exotic setting.
    Sexy salesmanship, yes, great science, highly questionable at best.
    Common people, animals, ecological environments all suffer at the hands of so called progress.
    Once damages are recognized, very rarely can they be repaired.
    When are we encouraged to look forward to longlasting effects of this massive ecological disruption of our unique archipelago?

  4. Geoff Shaw
    Geoff Shaw says:

    You make a good point that the people who are pushing for the TMT, which is supposed to be about science, are fast and loose about the science itself. Let’s start with the ubiquitous phrase that most reports about the TMT start with, that scientists are excited by the opportunity to see 13 billion light-years away so they can get a glimpse of the beginnings of the universe. They are rounding off 13.7 to 13 which is more than a 5% difference but I guess if you’re trying to save a numeral and a decimal point then it might be prudent to not appear to be stretching the number kind of sort of. What makes that number even less consequential though is that there are images from the Hubble Telescope that are estimated to originate 13.4 billion light years ago. I also came across an image of a star cluster 28,000 light years away that they estimate all the stars being 15 billion years old. This means that they know the universe is at least 10% older than the number they mention most of the time but for some reason that fact seems to be hidden from us. This is information I gleaned from the NASA site so I trust it isn’t total BS but the more you go down the rabbit hole the more questions are raised. In a sense that is the nature of science, on the one hand it is supposed to be a principled search for the truth but there will always be more questions than answers and most of those answers will be proven wrong when we ask more questions. I guess the best we can ask for is that the people who are supposed to be about the truth are at least truthful in their explanations why we should support them and they seem to be far short of that.

  5. Cory Harden
    Cory Harden says:

    Thoughtful article…some observations…

    Most of what TMT would do could be accomplished at the Chile site.

    Maybe military concerns are one of the forces driving more observatories. If they’re doing their job right,
    the military always wants to be the firstest with the mostest. Some think they would love to find a way to use black holes as a weapon.

    I’d say spirituality and science are not different ways of knowing the same thing, but different wavelengths…kind of like a flower looks one way to a human, but very different way to a bee that sees in infrared.

    I’d say Mauna Kea has led people to go beyond non-violence, into action with aloha. Non-violence maintains a separation from your opponent. Aloha goes further, connecting everyone and everything.

  6. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Hawaii Island has the lowest median family income of all the counties. The west side of the Big Island has a higher median income than the average and the east side of the island has a lower median family income than the average. The Pahoa school complex has the highest number of students participating in the free/subsidized lunch program in the state, followed closely by Kea’au and Ka’u. Spouse abuse, drugs and the attendant social ills that are associated with low income are prevalent in the neighborhoods. The best predictor of family income is education. The TMT is providing $1 million annually to an education fund for Big Island youth. We did not have to tax ourselves to get this benefit. Lots of local people work on the mountain now. Many Hawaiians will have jobs during the construction phase. The education value to the Big Islands youth will last for nearly 60 years. This is not an intellectual exercise Shutting down the TMT will have real live on the ground consequences. More so, if oil prices start to rise again.

  7. Puna Ohana
    Puna Ohana says:

    what is the life expectancy of this before it’s an obsolete 17 story zit? They going to come in and dismantle this white elephant and restore the area? no, once land it taken it’s rarely given back. Just another eyesore on the mountain.
    Profits and profiteers both use science or religion as their reasoning.
    I think the Israeli/Palestine correlation was off the wall, white phosphorous isn’t being used by either side, people aren’t dying in a religious border war. 🙁
    Just Say No, Kapu

  8. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    What about the rubbah slippah folk? What is wrong with $1 million being set aside annually for youth education? Education is the best equalizer.

  9. Dond
    Dond says:

    Mr. Ha
    I find your ‘rubba slippa folk’ most insultful. Is one more superior because of footwear? You seem like you talk down to everyone when you use that term. Just sayin’
    My opinion.

  10. rj nadal
    rj nadal says:

    Mr. Ha,

    With all due you respect you are probably looking at this really idealistically. Certainly, the local folks, and particularly my native Hawaiian cousins and bretheren will have temporary jobs building the telescope, and probably permanent jobs cleaning the facilities and maybe doing some clerical work at the offices in Hilo town. But the high paid astronomers, scientists, IT professionals and project managers need to run this thing will likely be imported from the Mainland and other places. When the construction is pau, the natives are back to looking for low-paying retail jobs or commuting an hour or more to Kona side to work in the hotels.

    Granted, I no longer reside on the Big Island, but I would like to show my children one day where their ancestors came from, and give them the opportunity to connect with nature, with the ‘aina, with the mana of their kupuna. The TMT might not even be functional when that happens, and will likely be sitting up top there.

    And what’s up with the nine telescopes that are not being used?

  11. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    My point is that education is the great equalizer. That is what I am advocating for. You have your education. I am not talking about you and me. I am talking about future generations. I am perfectly happy with my position.

  12. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Equating ‘education’ with the TMT project, despite the one million dollar grant, is idealism detached from reality. University education more and more favors the wealthy families (who can afford tuition without loans), putting lower income students into massive debt as they strive for degrees for which there are fewer and fewer jobs. Higher education costs way more for low income people,
    and huge wealth disparities grow larger despite the myth that higher education is some great equalizer.
    The TMT project is embedded in an economic system that is inherently faulty. Clean air, clean water, wholesome food, and cultural respect are not valued in the present economic system.
    Astronomy is fascinating to many of us.
    Continued disrespect to Hawaiians,
    in the name of science or profits,
    is continued colonization.
    End the prolonged illegal occupation.

  13. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Mana Magazine asks Paul Coleman, the first native Hawaiian astrophysist. I imagine there are only a handful of Hawaiians in the astronomy industry?
    “It is true that there is only a small number, but everybody knows that this is an untenable situation. This is not how you want to run things. In fact, this is one of the things that is really kind of cool with the TMT’s approach to stuff. They are really trying to be a neighbor rather than a landlord. They really want to be a part of the islands and the people and its cultures. They have committed to a million dollars a year for workforce development. This is completely different from the other million a year that they are giving to just Hawaiian programs. They are really looking to build more local people for positions that are going to become available at the TMT and that means helping [the students] get through college, offering assistance and setting up summer research [for them] with top-notch scientists, and continue to get more and more [local people] interested and involved in a possible future with them. It’s a great thing. If you’re running a big project, you want local-grown people running that project because it makes more sense. I’m very proud of the fact that this is something that is a part of Hawai‘i and we can make it even more a part of us. It’s something that we can all be proud of”.

  14. Hilo35
    Hilo35 says:

    Why is it assumed that the jobs local could get would be construction, clerical or janitorial work? Having the technology present here along with the allocated funds can only help to increase opportunity for all local youth. Why does it have to be linked to only university education when all levels of education could benefit from this.

    It could help for people wanting to understand more how the building of the telescope would stop someone from showing their kids where they came from.

  15. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Its all about attitude. Why not aspire to be best in the world? We are limited by our aspirations.My dads cousin Frank Kamahele was a small kid living down the beach at Makuu our family land during World War 2. Planes would fly from HIlo to make strafing runs on Moku Opihi a mile down the coast. The pilots soon noticed the small kid who jumped up and down every time they flew past. Some started to buzz the house, others turned their planes sideways and waved at the kid.Frank told me from then he wanted to be an airplane pilot. How unlikely is that? There were no subdivisions and he had to ride horse to get to Pahoa Frank played basketball and when a new coach from Texas came to Pahoa High he got Frank a scholarship to play basketball at UH Manoa. Frank joined the Air Force ROTC and got assigned to an airforce squadron and got his pilots license. Eventually he flew a bomber command post in the air. When he retired from the Air Force he came back to the Big Island and applied for the job of airport manager for the Big Island. How unlikely that a small kid living down the beach far from a regular road would want to be an air plane pilot? Why not let our kids dream big. Not, no can. CAN!!

  16. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    It is a profoundly sad that a local kid found his dream only through the military force of the occupying empire.
    Being the ‘best’ at something is meaningless.
    Unless that something is meaningful.
    (My father was a decorated AF pilot/flight trainer in WWII, flying B29s. When he returned to civilian life and helped start an aviation business with some AF buddies, they made a commitment to do no business with the military. They saw the poison that President Eisenhower spoke of, the military industrial complex.)
    Hawaii could be the best at feeding and housing everyone
    Hawaii could be the best in education for everyone, in a way that honors Hawaiian culture and peoples.
    An education that advocates for the end to the prolonged unlawful occupation by the U.S.
    Hawaii could be the best at decolonizing itself of empire.

  17. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Education is the great equalizer.That is the bottom line. the folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are too frequently Hawaiian folks.

  18. Jim Albertini
    Jim Albertini says:

    Alan, I find your piece offensive. Who are you, or other non Native Hawaiians, to decide “to give science its due where science does best, and give religion its due where its due is truly due.” We are talking about what many Hawaiians consider their most sacred temple –Mauna Kea. To many people, science, economy, etc. that conflict with the religious/spiritual beliefs of Hawaii’s host culture is desecration. TMT is not pono and should not proceed. There is more to life than $$$ and scientific discoveries. If we cannot see that TMT is trampling over native people’s religious beliefs in the name of science, we are out of balance ourselves. Restoring harmony with the sacred has become a key issue not only in Hawaii, but of human survival on planet earth. Let us begin the journey of restoring harmony with Mauna Kea. More and more signs are appearing that say — “We Are Mauna Kea!”

  19. Alan McNarie
    Alan McNarie says:

    ‘Sorry you feel that way, Jim. And I have great respect for the input you’ve given in helping people with training in nonviolence, and for the role that training has played in numerous events over the years. But I’ve gotten far more positive than negative feedback–including from Kanaka Maoli–about his piece. If you’ll take another look at it, I think you’ll see that I’m not wholly in favor of what either side believes or is doing, nor am I totally disapproving, and that’s as it should be. When people start taking offense at the mere questioning of a religious tenet-especially if that tenet flies in he face of observable fact–then religion becomes an inflexible tyranny, and all kinds of awful things can happen in its name. Fortunately, many of the people involved on the mountain are more thoughtful than that

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