Before construction has even begun, the Thirty Meter Telescope, which promises to bring groundbreaking scientific research with it, has revealed deeply rooted issues in the current state of democracy in Hawaii and escalates the debate of who gets to decide the future of Mauna Kea.
An artistic representation of the kiaʻi, Mauna Kea, and the cosmos, aligned in perfect harmony — awaiting the fate of the summit. Mer Young for Green Dream
July 29, 2019
By Nathan Bek
“We are moving at 30 km per second around the Sun. The Sun is circling the center of our Milky Way at 250 km per second. Our Milky Way is orbiting around the center of mass of our Local Group and the Local Group is falling towards the Virgo Cluster. The Local Group is moving at 600 km per second relative to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (responsible for two Nobel prizes), and that's 0.2 times the speed of light.” Dr. Eugene Tsiang
At first glance, it would seem that our universe is in constant motion; However, at the now infamous Mauna Kea access road, everything seems to be at a standstill: science, culture, and politics intersect, causing an unwavering protest (protection) and debate that has caught the attention of the universe.
Construction of the telescope has yet to begin, but it has already magnified and exposed parts of our personal values that most of us have yet to explore. In essence, it has turned back its scope towards us, humans, challenging each of us to look deeply at ourselves to decide at what cost should science have on culture and sacred land?
Hawaiian Activists blocking access to the Mauna Kea summit. They stand under a flailing upside down Hawaiian flag: A rally cry for Hawaiians and a distress signal to the world. Photo taken by Caleb Jones/AP
One Nation, Under Mauna Kea
In 2009, Mauna Kea was declared the preferred location for TMT. This news was met with heavy resistance and initiated the protests that are still going on to this day. Over the ten year span of the debate, many symbolic moments took place, gaining global attention.
Hawaii News Now reported that on March of 2015, “the state gave the project the notice to proceed on construction, but later that month, demonstrators blocked the road to the summit and arrests were made.” This was the first major victory for the pro Mauna Kea movement. It would go on to prolong the project for 4 years until, in 2019, Governor Ige said “We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point,” going on to say: “The date for construction to begin has arrived.”
On July 15, 2019, the date decided to begin construction, crews were denied access again because of a massive roadblock that was put on by the Kiaʻi (protectors) of the summit. At first, the rally included about 500 people, but as the protest began to pick up momentum, it would go on to amass 3,000 people. Some of those activists included prominent celebrities like Damien Marley and Dwayne Johnson. Now, two weeks later, no progress on the construction has happened and the protest and its message is spreading around the world.
Pro Mauna Kea supporters attending class at Pu’uhuluhulu university. Kapulei Flores for Green Dream
Part of the reason the road block at the Mauna Kea access road has been able to thrive is the incredible organization of the rally’s base camp (Pu’uhonua). Those who come to resist the construction are offered basic necessities from the Kanaka Costco, a self named resource center supplied by communal donations, provided entertainment by local artists, and even educated through a pop up school entitled Puʻuhuluhulu university. This is all remains possible because the camp is governed under a single set of rules: Aloha.
This two week protest, however, has not been completely one sided in favor of the Kiaʻi. Starting on the morning of July 17, 35 arrests were made, which mostly include the Kupuna (elders) of the group. On that same day, Governor Ige attempted to silence his own people by declaring a state of emergency against them. For many, these actions by the state seemed oppressive, emotional, and entirely familiar. But in the face of it all, the Kiaʻi and all their supporters continue their peaceful crusade to defend the summit.
Thirty Meters Forward, 130 Years Back
The situation on Mauna Kea has brought forth a discussion about the authority of the native voice. Despite the environmental concerns — the telescope will pollute the mountain's aquifer — protests are rooted in a much deeper fight for fair democracy, which can be argued to have been degrading since the start of the American occupation and overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1898.
Take a step back and you’ll notice these rallies for fair democracy are happening world wide. In China, protesters are running rampant to express their disdain for the newly imposed extradition laws. And in Puerto Rico, citizens came together to demand the resignation of a leader that came at his own people.
Protesters atop Mauna Kea, in the streets of Hong Kong, and in Puerto Rico fear that if they fail to succeed in their protests, generations to come will lose their confidence and ability to act against cultural, legal, and societal concerns of the future.
Mauna Kea Against the World: Perspectives by an Astrophysicist
In order to better understand why Mauna Kea remains the preferred site for TMT and to discuss possible alternatives, I interviewed Dr. Tsiang — an astrophysicist with a phD from Columbia, contributor to the Hubble, and an immigrant from China. Here are the key takeaways from our conversation:
How can we view La Palma Spain as an alternative?
Despite the Hawaii supreme court ruling in favor of TMT’s construction atop Mauna Kea, legal actions required the TMT team to look for alternative locations. In March 2016, the team declared La Palma, Spain on the Canary Islands as a viable option. I asked Dr. Tsiang to compare the two locations and what makes the two summits a perfect environment for a telescope, he said: “The best window for doing this [project] are sites that are high and dry, and in the Northern Hemisphere the two best sites are Mauna Kea and the Canary Islands, in descending order. At nearly 14,000' Mauna Kea's summit has the least water column above it.”
Is putting the telescope in space a legitimate alternative?
What excited me about Dr. Tsiang was his knowledge of space telescopes, up to this point, placing the telescope on a satellite and launching it in orbit was never considered, so I wanted to know his opinion on this idea. Despite their being “pros and cons to both space-based and ground-based telescopes”, Dr. Tsiang ultimately suggested that keeping the telescope on earth would be ideal. The first, more prominent, reason being the advantage of “the absence of turbulence on the seeing qualities of the telescope due to the Earth's atmosphere” and, of course, the “ability to stare at something for a very long time”.
Are there any cultural advantages to placing the Telescope on Mauna Kea?
Dr. Tsiang sees much of the same type of protest currently happening in China. “Being a Chinese immigrant who won't be here in Hawaii today if it weren't for a war in China in 1842, I know the consequences of colonialism and its evils. There will always be aggrievement against what tyranny has done to the injured party.” Despite this, he would argue “that building the telescope is not desecration, but consecration of the spirit of the original Polynesians who risked the hazards of the unknown when they fanned out across the Pacific from SE Asia and then the Marquesas in search of landfall.” And to him, Mauna Kea would not only remain the piko and center of the Hawaiian universe, but it would also serve that for mankind as a whole, as he believes: “Cosmology is measurable and telescopes are the probing instruments.”
The Case for Science
Above everything else, employing the Thirty Meter Telescope will bring us closer to answering some of science’s most fundamental questions of the universe that still remain. Dr. Tsiang created a to-do list for TMT and future astronomers to explore; his list includes:
(a) What is the Dark Energy that seems to lead to accelerated expansion?
(b) The Hubble Distance Scale, the cosmic distance ladder and the age of the Universe
(c) The Dark Ages between the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and the first stars and galaxies.
(d) Dark matter distribution.
(e) Early stellar formation and evolution.
(f) Extrasolar planets and life.
(g) Pictures of more supermassive blackholes at shorter wavelengths than the submillimeter waves that were used in the VLBI picture of M87.
The People’s Choice: Technology or Tradition?
On one side, it can be argued that building the Telescope atop Mauna Kea could allow it to double as a statue, on the world’s tallest pedestal, honoring the Polynesians who first gave meaning to the summit. Perhaps it will continue the ancient Polynesians original quest to discover the unexplored in a similar fashion: setting sail across the cosmos, using “photons instead of wind”, ignoring the risks of the unknowns — instead of battling unpredictable currents and tides, the imaging coming from the telescope will need to navigate its way through radio, light, and heat waves — all in a search for the truth.
Conversely, allowing for the telescope to be placed on Mauna Kea could create desecrating ripple effects on not only the summit, but also the Hawaiian culture, pride and democracy. To many, this is too high of a cost for a telescope, especially when there are viable alternatives like La Palma, Spain — a location and community that already disclosed they would happily accept the colossal telescope and all its grandeur.
No matter where the Thirty Meter Telescope ends up, it will undoubtedly accelerate our understanding of the universe, all while carrying the spirit of ancient Polynesian voyaging with it.
I would like to see the telescope built in La Palma Spain and not on Mauna Kea. While the telescope does celebrate core Hawaiian principles, it does not consider the voice of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and that alone could have devastating ripple effects on future generations. The way I see it, if the telescope is to be built on Mauna Kea, nothing will be sacred anymore.
I would also urge the Hawaiian Government, Kamehameha schools, UH, or any other benefactors/beneficiaries of the TMT project to update the Bishop museum planetarium to showcase the amazing discoveries that will surely be made by TMT to a community that, to this point — has only seen its destruction.
I would like to extend a huge Mahalo to Mer Young (@Youngmer) for allowing me to use her beautiful artwork, Eugene Tsiang for giving me incredibly valuable insight, Kapulei Flores (@Kapzphotography) for allowing me to use her amazing images, and Imai Bates-Domingo for always adding to my perspective.