Why We Shouldn’t Build the 30-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea

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Aloha science nerds, it’s time to talk about what’s happening in America’s beautiful 50th state, Hawaii. Hawaii is made of a series of volcanoes, which makes it great for observing our universe — at least from the volcanoes that aren’t spewing lava anymore. That’s why people are currently attempting to build a brand new telescope on Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano on the Big Island. It’s called the Thirty Meter Telescope (or TMT), so named because of it’s big-ass reflector that will allow astronomers to view the universe at 13 times the resolution of Hubble.

I say “attempting” because other people are protesting this telescope, and blocking the construction vehicles from entering the build site. It’s now a big thing, so let’s dig into each side.

Note that I say the general word “people” — people are trying to build and people are protesting. That’s because it’s easy to make the mistake of saying “scientists” are trying to build and “Native Hawaiians” are protesting, which isn’t fair because there are also scientists protesting, Native Hawaiians who support the TMT, and many people who are, shockingly, both scientists and Native Hawaiians who have their own feelings about it.

If you make that mistake, you can then (if you are a “skeptic” or “science enthusiast” like I am) easily fall into the trap of saying that one side is about the noble pursuit of exploring our universe and that the other side is about hippy dippy religious bullshit. One is about “facts” and the other is about “feelings.” This is wrong. And dumb.

To learn why, listen to the actual facts. 

Back in the 1960s, scientists first came to Mauna Kea to see how good it would be for observing. The answer was “super fucking good,” because of its high elevation (14,000 feet), its dry conditions, and its predictable wind patterns.

Oh, the fourth reason why it was so good is because America “owned” it, in that we invaded a sovereign kingdom, set up permanent military bases, created a coup, and annexed it against the will of the people 60 years prior, and then made it an official state a few years prior to the scientific “discovery” of Mauna Kea. Convenient!

So universities and the military started building observatories on the mountain. Yes, Mauna Kea is sacred to native Hawaiians and is extremely important to the ecosystem (including to the production of fresh, clean water resources), but they wanted observatories there so they built them, without bothering so much with permits or environmental impact studies. They built several telescopes and a decade or so later they gave themselves permits for them.

They kept building. By 1998 the Hawaii state auditor reported that Mauna Kea had been mismanaged for 30 years, bringing attention to the obvious need for a master plan that would protect the land, figure out which telescopes to decommission, and make sure any new construction was done competently. That didn’t happen. Two more telescopes were built before a master plan was finally created by University of Hawaii in the year 2000. That plan would allow for 40 new telescopes so they built eight more in 2002, bringing the number to 13 telescopes. 

In 2005 NASA was looking to construct the Keck Outrigger telescopes but were asked to do an environmental impact report. That report found that 30 years of astronomical activity had caused “significant, substantial, and adverse” harm to Mauna Kea. There had been numerous spills of hazardous waste like mercury and solvents, there had been overflowing trash that needed to be airlifted off the mountain — the scientists had well and truly fucked that mountain up. NASA withdrew funding from the project.

And now we come to the TMT. There’s a lot more, which you can read up on, but that’s a decent overview. The TMT would be the largest telescope built on the mountain, and Hawaiians are being assured that it will be environmentally safe and that it will produce zero waste. They are assured that this will be the last new telescope built on pristine land, and that any new telescope will have to take over the footprint of a previous one.

All of that sounds great, but if you were a native Hawaiian living at the foot of that mountain, and you had seen 50 years of construction, 50 years of lies, of broken promises, of a complete lack of concern for the environment on the part of the people who stole your people’s land and built things on it without pause — would you believe them? Would you say, “Oh, this time will be different”?

I actually do think that the scientists (though not necessarily the funding organizations and politicians) who want to build this telescope have good intentions and plan to hold true to their promises, but even if that’s true, they are not the sole people in charge of what is going to happen. Accidents happen. Changes of government happen. Funding changes happen. And looking at the history of this land, can you truly and honestly say that when things go wrong, someone at the top will be looking out for Native Hawaiians? I can’t. 

I’ve focused mostly on the recent history of Hawaii and the environmental impact of this construction, because I know that many people in my audience are atheists and skeptics. But it is worth noting that Mauna Kea is also culturally and spiritually significant to native Hawaiians. Astronomy isn’t the only science that matters — anthropology does as well. Studying the stars is as important as studying humanity. And so it’s worth noting that even if you do not believe in native Hawaiian spirituality, they see Mauna Kea as a sacred mountain, where chiefs are buried and legends took place. That is worth something. If Mauna Kea were literally the only place in the world where we could build this telescope, maybe it would be worth trying to make a deal, but it’s not. This telescope would also fit nicely in the Canary Islands, but this is easier for people who don’t care about Mauna Kea. Because we “own” the land already.

Maybe there was a time when thoughtful scientists could have sat down with native Hawaiians and hammered out a way to build this telescope with minimum environmental and cultural impact. Polynesians were studying the stars and using them to navigate their ships 5 millennia ago. Native Hawaiians value education and astronomy just as much as, if not more then, many other cultures. But the time to do that would have been before 50 years of colonization, lying, and environmental and cultural destruction. With the TMT, funders are hoping to just skate by without ever proving that times have changed, that values have changed. If a friend constantly asks to borrow money from you and never pays you back, why would you believe them the 14th time they ask? If they really have changed, they’ll show it. They’ll make good on their previous promises first, and only then know that you will trust their new promises.

If you want to read up more on the TMT and the protest, check out Kahea, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. They need your support, especially now that protestors are being arrested by police and military forces who are cracking down on them on the part of the government. If anything, we can all agree that the military shouldn’t be involved in a conflict between the government and people wishing to practice their culture and protect their environment.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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