Recently I came across an article written by businessman Richard Ha criticizing Hawaiian activism regarding TMT, and related social-environmental movements in Hawai’i. After hearing similar arguments and rebuttals from friends, family, and acquaintances, this article is meant to provide context and to challenge these “anti-science” accusations, to illustrate how this argument perpetuates Hawaiian diaspora through racism, misinformation, and contextual ignorance.
In the Ha article, he uses three examples of Hawaiian activist movements to illustrate an alarmist message of “anti-science” Hawaiian activism, speaking of Geothermal, GMO, and TMT critiques saying Hawai’i is going “backwards”. It’s important to note Ha himself is not a scientist, but a business owner, which is incredibly significant in terms of political context. This article has surfaced often in response to TMT protesters, and also is representative of similar “anti-science” accusations against Hawaiian political movements pertaining to Hawaiian lands. Briefly, I’d like to describe the context for the three activism points made in the above article, the rest of this article will focus more in depth on the TMT issue, which has been more recently in the spotlight.
Often expressed as being “disrespectful to the fire Goddess” Pele, who fuels this resource, is also arguably hazardous to residents living by the vents in low-income areas. The monopoly electric company HELCO is also one of the primary companies seeking to control and operate geothermal on the Big Island, among other foreign corporate investors. It’s current privatization is not likely to solve Hawai’i’s inflated cost of electricity. Hawai’i has other opportunities for renewable resources, including wind, tidal, and solar, so the assumption that geothermal is our only sustainable resource to tap is flawed. But either way, being hesitant to drill into the earth to tap a resource that has destroyed whole towns in Hawai’i, and that is actively researched by scientists internationally, could also be viewed as prudent and responsible, rather than “mystical”. It’s not just a noise issue, but one that deals in public safety, land access and wealth distribution.
The Anti-Gmo and specifically the global anti-Monsanto movement has been primarily spearheaded internationally by Vandana Shiva, an indigenous activist of India who holds a PhD in Physics (and thus is not anti-science) and manages Navdanya, an international seed bank for farmers to promote genetic diversification and address global hunger. Mono cropping of GMO and copy-written foods for profit is a huge threat to our planets biodiversity as well as a burden on economics for the working and lower classes. I personally believe GMOs have the potential to be very useful, however as long as they are primarily developed by for-profit corporations designing products like self-destruct crops -and suing small farmers when seeds spread- it is absolutely rational to consider weather this technology is beneficial to our environments and our societies. In many cases it is more ecologically viable and humanitarian to outright reject the current state of GMOs. In the microcosm of Hawai’i, it has also been suggested our land was the target of GMO experimentation by Monsanto specifically because of our geographic isolation: in other words, the rationale was if things went very wrong (and indeed, they did) then only Hawaiian residents would suffer. The opposition to GMO experimentation in Hawai’i is rooted in both scientific and political contextual understanding.
3) Now the TMT:
Note the 5000 waste tank buried beneath, the sheer surface area of land being dug out with explosives and heavy machinery. Ask yourself about the building materials used and left on this mountain, and remember, we are the endangered species capital of the world. Not only this, but the main environmental concern regarding TMT is our islands supply of fresh water.
As Lanakila Mangauil points out in his talk on this topic the gods and goddesses most associated with this mountain are not just astronomy gods, but are primarily water gods. Our Hawaiian ancestors knew where our drinking water came from. To pretend that Hawaiian people need a better grasp of astronomy in order to progress as a society and fully grasp this issue is pretentious on the part of foreign interests. Ancient Hawaiians wrote the Kumulipo, and navigated impossibly vast oceans based on their understanding of the stars. Being both Hawaiian and an appreciator of astronomy, I find it ironic that some Western “pro-science” foreigners now attempt to discredit what Hawaiians today know of our environment, using our ancestors scientific knowledge as ammunition against larger comprehension that has been passed down to us through generations. (This is kind of like if I came to your thanksgiving dinner, and told you I felt your dead ancestors -whom I’ve never met and have no connection to- would be ashamed of your actions because I’m sure they would have agreed with my political values more.) Sure, a small minority of Hawaiians have agreed with this sentiment, however those who I see “sharing” these articles -with impassioned relief- most often, are not Hawaiian themselves.
On the subject of Mauna Kea’s unsung water gods, -and the 5000 gallon waste tank drilled into the ice and soil on the mountain that holds our largest fresh water supply- I think its valid to remember that one cannot last three days without water. The studies done assuring us the water supply of millions of people will be safe were not done on the mountain here, and for some of us are considered speculative. We are gambling our wai, our most precious resource, while those who express this truth are being dismissed as “superstitious”.
For those scientists studying the endangered Wekiu on Mauna Kea, I’m sure the impact of TMT is of grave consideration. An interdisciplinary understanding would mean astronomers working with habitat specialists and researchers to support their work as well, and understanding that no science is necessarily greater or more important than the other. If all sciences were “pooled” for their knowledge of life and the universe, we could likely do better work, rather than only seeing “the astronomy issue” or “the ecology” issue in detached microcosms. Often, a scientist in one field will be passionate about his niche area study, when a deeper connection with and respect for other research areas could enhance and support a wider understanding of truth.
Hawaiians as a cultural group are not “anti-science”, and are in fact the opposite. The opposition to TMT is based on observation of land carrying capacity, the health of the habitats we survive on and our status as the endangered species capital of the world. While a lot of scientific knowledge comes from Polynesian astronomy, most of us do not hold astronomy above other forms of scientific understanding. Ancient navigators used the stars to find land to survive, among other things, now that we are here, worshiping the stars at the expense of the health and survival of other life is not necessarily logical. This argument is by no means “anti-scientific”, and any scientist with a tentative grasp of interdisciplinary research can begin to see why. In the midst of what may be the 6th extinction triggered by unchecked technology and development, it is only logical for people to protect their communities and habitats. Calling these activists anti-science, is a language barrier and marker of contextual ignorance.
Similar to the dark ages when the church influenced nearly all aspects of life and law, “science” has replaced religious faith in modern times, but those who follow this ideal of truth seeking as a way of life do not always view issues as a scientist would. I argue it is not really entirely valuing of science here we are looking at, but worship of what -semi-educated- masses think science is.
As we become globalized and more affected by corporate influence, what research gets funded and published should also be considered- as well as what research ideas that are not funded, and who it is that funds them, and how that research is being conducted and by whom. In the post-colonial age of corporate regime, we no longer can see science as salvation from religious fanaticism, lest we replace it with science fetishism as a similar social phenomena.
Just because a study has been done, does not negate what your physical senses tell you, or what your ancestors have taught for thousands of years. In the past we’ve seen Western scientists scoff at what indigenous ancestors have known all along, only to later affirm and/or take credit for their wisdom. A great example of this is Darwinism, taught in schools as the ultimate theory for the genetic interconnection of all life. This “breakthrough” theory is taught in our schools alongside history of Native American peoples, where their expressed understanding of inter-species kinship is often painted as a quaint and primitive “mystic belief”.
To say “Why don’t they say it in English?” or “I don’t believe in a snow goddess” is emblematic of continuing colonial ignorance and systemic discrimination. To call Hawaiian protectors “anti-science” is reminiscent to words like “heathen” or the former “scientific research” of skull measuring for intelligence. It’s perhaps a harsh comparison, but in the historical context, carries a similar feeling: that indigenous people are incapable of comprehending, rather than a just as likely scenario of Western people failing to comprehend.
Yes, the gods are often referenced. Gods that an astute researcher would see are all pertaining to life and the elements, and the observation of the natural world. Whether you believe in their existence as deities or not, these symbolize the interwoven systematic understanding of our environmental systems, the universe, origins, and how to live a sustainable life. Perhaps no other objective in this era trumps sustainability, Western science has shown this, while native people have expressed this idea long before climate impact findings were ever published. To act in protection of our environment, indigenous people are speaking now. Must we wait for another Western figure like Darwin (or Gore) to validate what a whole people have expressed all along?
Our planet is in a fragile and heightened state in terms of collective survival. To risk more environmental impact in the pursuit of truth is illogical and perhaps even ecosuicidal. You can pursue truth without using chemicals and products that threaten your own species’ habitat. If scientists are to truly progress into the future, survival and environmental stability should be of a higher priority. We cannot pursue truth and add to our collective body of knowledge as a species if we are dead. This is not to say TMT in and of itself is will necessarily kill us, only that the attitude that unchecked building and environmentally questionable practices are socially acceptable so we can “learn”, grow, and obtain international or academic status, is a flawed rationale.
From an ecopsychological sense, mainstream science is actually notably limited in its ability to comprehend some truths because it requires the researcher to remain detached from its subject. In the case of Mauna Kea, this detachment is seen by those who are unconcerned by the upheaval and pollution the mountain now experiences due to over building, poor land-management and unsustainable designs. It is easy to devour a planet that sustains you when you are forced each day to see yourself as a completely separate entity from it. Of course objectivity is important in service of collecting and processing data within a project, but this way of thinking is rooted in dogmatic hierarchy over life that actually stems from Greek-Roman and Christian origins: where God rules over man, man rules over women, humans over animals, and where the earth is “our domain” like a plaything, and humans are invariably “special” in comparison to other species with whom we share the biosphere with. These concepts are so ingrained in our society we barely acknowledge or see them, and yet they are arguably at the root cause of threats to life on our planet.
Many Western researchers still subscribe to some modified form of this hierarchy, seeing themselves as rulers over earth rather than stewards, and seeing their objectives on a higher plane of importance than the survival needs of other living systems (or level of respect for the cultural beliefs of an entire indigenous group). The culture of science that promotes separateness and compartmentalization of life until it’s web of interconnection becomes abstracted has the potential to stoke the fire of a global culture all too willing to kill and die. This ideology is not mysticism, to those of us who study in interdisciplinary fields the protection of our biosphere, our ‘aina, it is simply basic logic.
The rationale of protecting, of all activism, comes from the idea that we shouldn’t wait for an institution to give backing, to put known truths into action, and to trust in and live by our collective wisdom and understanding of global systems and survival. And while I love science, see it as incredibly useful and valid, Western science is not superior to other ways of knowing, and it has flaws, such as the compartmentalized view of issues that sometimes do not take into consideration the larger -interdisciplinary, long term, and global- scope. Often while peering into the petridish, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. This is not to say such attention to detail and data collection is unimportant, but that we must not lose perspective believing such methods of finding truth are all there is -all we should pay credence to. Nevermind that indigenous people of Hawaii previously lived in harmony with the land, had food independence, and were an otherwise green society. Are these credentials not enough to be taken seriously?
But this objective “detachment” from ones environment is only a tiny piece of the problem with the well funded TMT PR campaigns and “pro-science” arguments. Of course science is not the say all end all in truth seeking, and yet, real science isn’t even what TMT supporters are referring to: often what is touted as “anti-science” in rebuttal to liberal political movements is a total misnomer and misrepresentation of activists concerns: those protecting land are anti-pollution, anti-corporate control, anti-propaganda, but never actually anti-science. TMT supporters critiquing an “anti-science” movement have mistaken the meaning of science for scientific equipment, clout, and massive financial backing.
Many powerful countries are invested in these structures which boasts not only technical ability, but a sort of status in the world. They seem to say “here we are in paradise, here we are in the best location, here we are the smartest and the richest of countries, look at us gleam with advancement and opportunity”. This kind of thinking is easy to distrust, from a sociological vantage, when an arguably disphoric native demographic still struggles with basics like gainful employment, food, freedom from imprisonment and rights to land ownership. The gleam of opportunity only shines for those whose financial interests and ways of being are aligned with a colonial, industrial perspective. This perspective is also applies to the idea of “bringing jobs” to Hawaii. Where few Hawaiians have felt the previous 13 telescopes touted to do the same have ever actually delivered.
As a researcher and a Hawaiian, I must say most of my peers are not in a large way gravitating toward astronomy, but are graduating in and declared as majors pertaining to culture, land restoration, communications and other sciences. Most often, I see Hawaiians working to take care of land and people here, on Earth. For my own interest in science, I see astronomy as akin to the study of God, but in the context of environmental catastrophe, dynamiting the mauna where our water is stored then shoving a 5000 gallon toxic waste tank in there may not be our highest, most noble, scientific priority.
It is important to note that while this problem of cultural misunderstanding exists, not all indigenous peoples have always lived in harmony with environment. Rapa Nui for example, is an interesting case preluding our own cultural obsessions with growth that devours habitats. Rapa Nui is also a stark look at the effects of human impact and Colonial clashes bearing disease and slavery. The people of this island rapidly died out partly due to over foresting likely for the building of Moai for religious and territorial purposes, as well as rats brought over on boats, and slavery and disease from Western contact.
Although other Polynesian islands do not seem to have similar stories of pre-Western destruction, it is important from an ecopsychologic context to not “romanticize” the indigenous ways of living, but still to heed these examples, especially in cases where indigenous peoples did manage land harmoniously. Hawai’i is one of those places, and I bring up the past of balanced land management as an example of the “blind spot” in TMT support, when an overwhelming vocal population is outspoken against it. Saying “you have Hawaiian friends” or heard “one or two” Hawaiians in support of it, does not negate the hundreds, and thousands of indigenous people internationally supporting this anti-development movement.
To my fellow Hawaiians who are in support of TMT, I understand you represent some of us also and for a moment considered counting myself among you. I thought long and hard, as an astronomy lover about why my other senses felt this overwhelming reaction holds credence. I ask you, when you recall our history, have large industrial foreign investments ever been good for our land, or our people? When we are told by Western investors this is the only way our economies will survive, the only way our children will do well, were those statements generally factual? Did the industries and developments ushered in before protect or harm our ecosystems? The cattle? The sugarcane? And let us not forget, of kupuna and ancestors who protested before. It is the generously funded TMT PR campaigns, not our communities, that have called the Mauna Kea protection movement new and “trendy”.
I consider Astronomy, the study of the outer universe as profound as the discovery of all spiritual awareness. But like the collapse of Rapa Nui, it is good to remember the soil that sustains ones body, before seeking to stake flags or unravel cosmic meaning. Hawaiian activists are not anti-science. We are questioning the blinders that one Western science may have for another. That those studying a black hole light years away are not risking the ecology of our complex environments here and now to do so; are not threatening our sources of water and the cultural heritage of our ancestors. Yes, perhaps quantum physics could unravel all meaning of the universe allowing us to time travel and heal these environmental challenges we have created, but just in case it doesn’t, do you really expect us to remain silent while you put all these eggs in the same basket? Ignoring the wisdom and outcry of thousands?
Sure, we need progress, but a lot of “progress” –like the Hindenburg, Titanic, Nazi eugenics, Fukushima– should really be thoroughly evaluated. Being unwilling to take a corporation or institutions “word for it” when we are told it is of no environmental concern, is not ignorance. To say that these arguments for less growth are primitive and superstitious, to me unveils the prevailing denial of our culture in a continually colonial context: devaluing indigenous people, culture, and rights as less significant than your own. And also alludes to the idea that native people are not literate, when in reality indigenous observations span vast systems, containing cyclical truths that perhaps extend out beyond compartmentalized Western comprehension.
No, native people today perhaps are not subscribing to a dogmatic and institutionalized romanticism over “the pursuit of knowledge” for the sheer sake of it. Our eyes are right here, on this earth which is suffering, our collective survival that is at stake, and our futures that now appear cloudy due to unchecked development, profit, “advancement” and compulsive striving for international competition and clout. By the time the TMT would be built, other countries telescope structures will have surpassed its technology. Is it worth thousands of gallons of toxic waste injected into this sacred site?
When we speak of “job creation”, it is foggy how exactly, other than through tourism, a structure which requires millions of dollars and a PhD to operate will benefit a majority of Hawaiians in our community. And while many indigenous peoples still struggle with obtaining gainful employment and land rights, few of us hold such higher degrees or access to government grants to study there. Increasingly we do, but for myself, I find many are interested in education, in food independence, in environmental protections, more often than theoretical physics. This is not to say that study is not profound, just that in context it seems somewhat obscure, even frivolous in the context of climate crisis. Adding this to the extreme cost and high levels of education required to obtain in order to simply step into the TMT building, I am skeptical that this is the most viable solution to addressing Hawaii’s social-economic concerns.
Those who say TMT will benefit “the children of Hawaii” are sugarcoating a likely harsher sociological reality. Our people need social services, food independence, and land rights, a lot more than more multi-national foreign interests. So when the people speak out, it is not them “destroying Hawaii’s economy”, or “giving up” on some vast opportunity, but a matter of peoples priorities. It is also a legitimate expression of land and human rights stemming from our significant historical context, and ultimately, our recent memories. We have 13 telescopes, many foreign interests, and still a rocky economy. Exactly how many jobs were these telescopes intended to create? Engineering for energy and food independence, however, would be an infinitely growing economic project, non-centralized that millions of Hawaiian residents would directly and immediately benefit from.
Historically all forced development on the Hawaiian islands to “better our economy” and “elevate” us have benefited the wealthy, and the foreign, often leaving Hawaiians homeless with jobs at the bottom of society, and leaving our ecosystems stripped of irreplaceable biodiversity. So if you’re not Hawaiian and just moved here, please stop saying we are screwing up our children’s futures by protecting this ‘aina, and treat yourselves sometime to a Hawaiian history class.
From an anthropological, archaeological, ecologic, and socio-economic perspective, perhaps TMT is another case of big business attempting to devalue our collective histories, voices, and habitats. An ethical, authentic scientist -ultimately just a seeker of quantifiable truth- would never claim to know all the answers, would never use dogmatism suggesting Hawaiians support TMT or be deemed ignorant or primitive by devaluing the host culture, language and heritage. We can state concerns over environment in whatever languages we please, English or Hawaiian, and they are as valid or more than foreign interests. We must acknowledge the truth that unchecked industrial growth has gone far enough; seeing this as a matter of concrete ecologic observation, not superstition or fanatic mysticism. This argument indigenous lands protection is a visceral form of racism, and it is a form of ignorance both of our people and of the “science” Western culture holds sacred. The same science warning us of climate change due to human impacts and development, is the same science that is rooted in the pursuit -not the declaration- of truth.
Personally, when I hear an indigenous scientist speak I tend to honor their depth of knowledge, because they pull from more than one vantage when basing conclusions. There are many dimensions to knowing, and those who remember the practices of cultures that once lived in balance with our planet have a lot offer our scientific communities and our greater world.
For myself, as a researcher, a Hawaiian, and a land rights activist, I’ve found at the core of all these identities, these ways of understanding have never been mutually exclusive.