Skepticism

Maui Fires: Was it Space Lasers or Colonialism?

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I’m sure by now everyone watching this is aware of the horrific fires in Maui, now the deadliest wildfire in US history, if you consider Hawaii to be a part of the US, which…well, we’ll get into that in a bit. But the fires have destroyed the beautiful and historic town of Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. If you have extra cash laying around and want to help, and especially if you have ever visited the island as a tourist, please check out the Hawaii People’s Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation, or the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement. In addition to those, I’ve also personally donated to the Maui Humane Society, because there are also a lot of animals in need of help. As always, links to everything are in the transcript, linked in the description below.

A lot of people are shocked that this could happen in a place that we tend to think of as a lush paradise. Maui has a wet season from November to March or so, and even the “dry” season has some parts of the island getting a decent amount of rainfall (at least compared to somewhere like here in Northern California, where we are constantly at risk of drought and the resulting wildfires). So how could this happen? Naturally, many people are wondering if the answer isn’t “Jewish space lasers.”

Jewish space lasers first gained serious popularity in conspiracy theory circles a few years back, when the internet discovered a 2018 Facebook post from Marjorie Taylor Greene in which she postulates that the California wildfires of that year were caused by the Jewish Rothschild family for firing laserbeams from space. She wrote, “Then oddly there are all these people who have said they saw what looked like lasers or blue beams of light causing the fires, and pictures and videos. I don’t know anything about that but I do find it really curious PG&E’s partnership with Solaren on space solar generators starting in 2009. They announced the launch into space in March 2018, and maybe even put them up before that. Space solar generators collect the suns energy and then beam it back to Earth to a transmitter to convert to electricity. The idea is clean energy to replace coal and oil. If they are beaming the suns energy back to Earth, I’m sure they wouldn’t ever miss a transmitter receiving station right??!! I mean mistakes are never made when anything new is invented. What would that look like anyway? A laser beam or light beam coming down to Earth I guess. Could that cause a fire? Hmmm, I don’t know. I hope not! That wouldn’t look so good for PG&E, Rothschild Inc, Solaren or Jerry Brown who sure does seem fond of PG&E.”

She ends by saying “But what do I know? I just like to read a lot.” Sure, Jan. Try reading something other than Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

A good anti-semitic conspiracy theory rarely dies, even when it involves a ludicrous assertion, so we are, of course, seeing the same idea pop up in the wake of the Maui wildfire. For instance, check out this fucking dweeb with 1.2 million Twitter followers who is posting things like “Perfect Circle Burning in The Maui Fires ?? DOES THIS LOOK NATURAL TO YOU?!?” (which it does, by the way, this happens all the time in wildfires) and “Are you prepared to handle the truth?” (with an image of the burning Waiola Church in Lahaina, on which someone has helpfully photoshopped in a space laser), and “I WAS WARNED NOT TO POST THIS VIDEO ??.” Presumably he was warned not to post it as “proof” that space lasers destroyed Lahaina because it shows a transformer exploding in Chile, posted to YouTube two months ago.

Here’s another asshole with more than 104,000 followers posting a photo of a 2019 SpaceX launch from California and passing it off as a laser striking Maui.

While misinformation has always been a problem on Twitter, it’s impossible to miss how Elon Musk’s recent changes to the platform have made it much, much worse: the most popular posts are coming from people who have paid for verification, which not only makes their posts appear to be from legitimate news sources, but which also now means that the algorithm prioritizes their posts and shows them to more people. The final cherry on top is that Musk has introduced revenue sharing, which means that these accounts are incentivized to post absurd misinformation that will be most likely to be retweeted by conspiracy theorists AND quote-tweeted by skeptics trying to debunk them or just dunk on them. By the way, if you’re reading all this in the transcript and clicking on links, that’s why I haven’t linked directly to any of these jabronis. 

I find it interesting that a lot of these accounts go on to suggest that the fires were started by rich people in order to secure the land for themselves. And this is what we see time and time again with so many conspiracy theorists: they’re so, so close to getting it. Yes, the fires WERE started by rich people. And yes, rich people WILL try to benefit from them. But the truth is a little more complicated than “space lasers.”

Obviously it’s still early, and investigators will eventually figure out exactly how the fires started and spread. But there are two very clear problems that set the stage for them: climate change and colonialism.

Climate change, which continues to plague the planet thanks in large part to billionaire fossil fuel executives and the politicians they buy, is causing more extreme weather events around the world every year. Scientists predicted it would happen, and it’s happening now. In relation to these fires, Maui experienced what’s known as a “flash drought,” moving from not “abnormally dry” at all in May to 83% “abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought” just three weeks later. Flash droughts are becoming more common due to climate change, and so are more intense hurricanes like the one 500 miles off the coast of Maui that caused strong winds perfect for fanning flames.

So, that’s one way rich people lit these fires. Let’s talk about the other one: colonialism. The last time I talked about the horrific effects of colonialism I had a lot of people in the replies arguing that it’s not true and that I just hate white people. Just a note for those people who are gearing up to jump into the comments on THIS video, that’s not a good rebuttal of my points. Two things can be true at the same time: colonialism’s evils can reverberate throughout history in ways that continue to cause problems for everyone today, AND I hate white people.

So. At the start of the 19th century, Lahaina Town was mostly wetlands. But within a few decades, Christian missionaries arrived and began setting up large scale sugar plantations, which required the digging of tunnels and building of reservoirs to divert vast quantities of fresh water to the mills, with an entire ton of water required to produce just one pound of refined sugar. It also required large scale deforestation, with a cord of wood required to burn for four hours to turn that sugar into molasses.

There’s a lot I won’t get into here, about how these plantations as well as James Dole’s – yes, the pineapple company – displaced native Hawaiians, hired them on as indentured servants, suppressed their language, and then destroyed their system of governance and forced them to become a part of the United States against their will. But know that they abused their local workers to the point that in the 1920s the workers finally rebelled, forming unions and striking for better working conditions. The companies decided that rather than do that, it was cheaper to just move on to destroy people in other countries, so they abandoned the Hawaiian mills. Not only did they leave behind a land stripped bare of trees and drained of fresh water, but now there were these large areas that were left to be overrun, not with the native plants that had evolved to grow in fertile soil, but with invasive grasses that could handle a completely devastated landscape.

As I mentioned earlier, Maui still has a “wet season,” but now that wet season leads to the overwhelming growth of those invasive grasses. And guess what burns really, really well in a wildfire? Grass! Especially grass that went through a rainy growth spurt immediately followed by a “flash drought” that makes them nice and crispy.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this, I recommend you check out Kaniela Ing, the director of the Green New Deal Network, and other native Hawaiians who are incredibly generous about sharing their expertise on the history, present, and future of Hawaii.

And this is where we get to the conspiracy theorists’ claim that the rich people set these fires purposely to gain control of the land: again, so close! Rich people didn’t NEED to set the fires intentionally. Hundreds of years of capitalism and colonialism did it for them, but yes, they will attempt to profit from this tragedy, because that’s what rich people do. They profit from the pain and misfortune of others, with sociopathic ease. Displaced Hawaiians are already reporting that within days of their homes burning down, realtors and developers are offering them cash for their land. Imagine: your home and everything you owned is gone, the hotels and flights off the island are full of tourists so there’s nowhere to go if you don’t have money, and a lot of it. And here’s someone offering you that money, but to get it you’ll have to give up the only capital you have left, and to give it up for a song. So this fire may very well lead to an increase in the number of displaced and unhoused native Hawaiians, and an increase in rich white Americans building their second or third “dream home” in paradise.

The only way to stop it may be for the US government to step in and provide substantial relief to the people affected, and to set down serious restrictions on what gets built on Lahaina Town’s charred remains. The government can prioritize rebuilding in a sustainable way that can not only provide ample housing for the island’s population, but also rehabilitate an environment devastated by centuries of purposeful mismanagement.

Or, hey, the US government could just pull up stakes and turn over Hawaii back to Hawaiians completely. But we don’t deal in fantasies here.

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 mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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