In Defence of the Protectors of Mauna Kea

We said no to the Superferry. We said no to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 650-foot skyscraper. We should say no to the astronomers’ cyclopsian temple

Screen Shot 2015 08 08 At 6.56.40 PmHonolulu Civil Beat - Connections > Mauna Kea

By Warren Iwasa -  A native Honoluluan, Iwasa has worked in Hawaii as a journalist and government employee.

I applaud the Protectors of Mauna Kea. They send a strong message by defending the mountain with the mountain’s own rock and stone. The angry rocks strewn on the road say, “Welcome mat withdrawn!” Stones shaped into a boundary marker call attention to the difference between what is of Hawaii and what is not.

Mauna Kea, our tallest mountain, may or may not be sacred. It doesn’t matter. The mountain’s value is environmental, not religious. It’s first of all a mountain, a natural monument. As a mountain, it doesn’t need an explanatory mythology. It asserts its own value.

The ancient gods have fled and won’t return — not until the unpopular eating and other kapu are restored. Meanwhile, science is worshiped as the new deity. The new priests, like the old, demand obedience.

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The protectors remind us that protest in Hawaii remains alive, that there is an alternative to passively accepting what the new priests want. They recall earlier actions to protect the island of Kahoolawe, Kalama and Moanalua valleys on Oahu, Hanalei Valley on Kauai, Kaluakoi Beach on Molokai, the water resources of Lanai, and, not least, Haleakala Crater on Maui.

I’m wary of astronomers bearing blueprints for an 18-story, $1.4 billion viewing cathedral. Their desire to build at any cost is a kind of derangement. Their focus seems to be more on career goals than on scientific research.

Stopping the Thirty Meter Telescope means scrapping an ill-conceived construction project. If the project is completed, contractors, builders and suppliers will turn a profit. Their bottom-line success will be our loss. We will have lost the ability to say no to outside business interests who believe they know what’s best for us.

We said no to the Superferry. We said no to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 650-foot skyscraper. We should say no to the astronomers’ cyclopsian temple.

Our politicians and government officials uncritically support developers and development. They no doubt have their reasons for doing so. But in doing so, they have given us Kakaako in urban Honolulu. Why create another Kakaako on the summit of our tallest mountain?

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Stopping the TMT will not halt star gazing. Large telescopes can be built in other locales where there is no local opposition or in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s not my purpose to denigrate astronomy. I, too, am on pins and needles waiting for the next update on our expanding universe and news about what’s happening in our galactic neighborhood. I’m also all ears about what astronomers say came before the Big Bang.

Stopping the project will no doubt alter the career plans of the TMT team. Research papers will not get written and published quite so soon. Promotion and tenure expectations will have to be recalibrated. Reputations will not receive the boost that a slew of findings from the new telescope will provide. But there will be benefits. The mountain’s long-term prospects will improve.

The work of the protectors is no less important than the work of scientists. Scientific research needs to be subjected to scrutiny. The protectors are telling us that where and how science is done matters. They raise questions about whether the natural environment should be subordinate to modern cosmology.

Man. Mountain. Nature. We’re all part of cosmos. Wasn’t this what Carl Sagan meant when he talked about stardust?

Besides, cosmos is indifferent to the individual reputations and institutional affiliations of those who probe its secrets. Cosmos is indifferent to profit margins. The TMT team has its budget, financing, and schedule in place. That’s fine, for cosmos can wait. It won’t go anywhere. Time is money, you say? Tell that to the stars. It’s time for the team to look for a new construction site.