Politics In Hawaii Threatens To End Astronomy As We Know It (Synopsis)

"We cannot be vengeful. We need to find pono [righteous] solutions. We need to find good things for astronomers. Cooperation is, I think, really the true part of our human nature, not competition. I think we have to go back to cooperation to survive the future." -Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

If you want to explore the Universe, you need a telescope with good light gathering power, a high-quality camera to make the most out of each photon, and a superior observing location, complete with dark skies, clear nights, and still, high-altitude air. There are only a few places on Earth that have all of these qualities consistently, and perhaps the best one is atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii.

Image credit: Subaru Telescope collaboration, of the summit of Mauna Kea. Image credit: Subaru Telescope collaboration, of the summit of Mauna Kea.

Yet generations of wrongs have occurred to create the great telescope complex that's up there today, and astronomers continue to lease the land for far less than it's worth despite violating the original contract.

Image credit: the Protect Mauna Kea instagram account, via https://www.instagram.com/p/-16cNPPwJM/. Image credit: the Protect Mauna Kea instagram account, via https://www.instagram.com/p/-16cNPPwJM/.

That's astronomy as we know it so far, and perhaps the Mauna Kea protests signal a long awaited end to that.

More like this

“"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works."” -Stephen Hawking Every week on Starts With A Bang brings with it a new set of considerations about the Universe we all…
The biggest object in the Universe is glimpsed, and everyone is surprised: An enormous amoeba-like structure 200 million light-years wide and made up of galaxies and large bubbles of gas is the largest known object in the universe, scientists say. The galaxies and gas bubbles, called Lyman alpha…
“the way to create art is to burn and destroy ordinary concepts and to substitute them with new truths that run down from the top of the head and out of the heart” -Charles Bukowski When it comes to destructive forces that are also mesmerizing and impossible to look away from, it's hard to compete…
“To me there has never been a higher source of earthly honor or distinction than that connected with advances in science.” -Isaac Newton And the advances continue, not just here at Starts With A Bang but everywhere humans are engaged in the practice of gathering knowledge about the world and…

I'm sympathetic to the leasing and contract violation complaints and hope the scientific community can work with the locals to be better economic partners in the future. I'm less sympathetic to the arguments from sacredness. Those rely on modern groups' rosy and ahistorical views of their ancestors. We've known since the '50s through archaeological studies that the pre-contact natives strip mined the mountain top for basalt for tools. Unless your god happens to be Hephaestus, I have trouble taking seriously any argument that land use for stargazing is somehow profane or unacceptable in a way that past strip mining was not.

Faith is all and good, but if it gets in the way of what you need, you learn that god really doesn't care about that.

Of course, *outsiders* can't make that claim. After all, THEY don't have the belief in god that they do, so they're "uninformed".

It's funny how god's word changes based on what god's earthly representative thinks is needed. Just ask the Mormons about god's claims on polygamy...

Anyone who has spent any real amount of time in Hawaii will tell you the number of native Hawaiians who support the idea of a free and sovereign Hawaiian nation is not limited to a lunatic fringe. I don't think the TMT on Mauna Kea has to do with the sacredness of the mountain top so much as it is a symbol of us vs them.

I am encouraged by the softer line by the opposition leaders as it may mean they can be placated *coughpaidcough* on this issue. The rank and file seem to be straight up zealots who are inventing stories about the birth defects being caused by all the mercury the telescopes put in the ground water. I didn't make that up. That is one of their arguments.

That being said, although I too have traveled that crappy access road to reach the strangely pristine pavement loop atop Mauna Kea, I can't say that I've walked a mile in their shoes. I hope it all works out.

This same folks crying out of the despoliation of their land think nothing of throwing pig carcasses, fish guts, or beer cans on the road. I won't mention the dead vehicles filled with trash bags of garbage in the front yard.

Please withhold my name. I live here.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 09 Dec 2015 #permalink

When the Thirty Meter Telescope becomes operational, it will pay $1 million for annual lease rent. $800,000 of that will go for maintenance of Maunakea and the rest to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In addition TMT is Investing $2 million annually to STEM education and to high-tech workforce development.

By Sam Kestu (not verified) on 09 Dec 2015 #permalink

It all comes down to the almighty god called 'dollar' in the end.

"Anyone who has spent any real amount of time in Hawaii will tell you the number of native Hawaiians who support the idea of a free and sovereign Hawaiian nation is not limited to a lunatic fringe. "

ANYONE here said that?

No.

So I ask WTF?

"astronomers continue to lease the land for far less than it’s worth despite violating the original contract."

What is it worth? Who decides? Under capitalism, it's what the market will pay, therefore the buyer cannot be paying less than it's worth. Under utility, it's what you can do with it, the value of production, that defines it. But it is pretty much uninhabitable by humans, and far too far for tourism to take of it, so it's really worthless, isn't it? Under rules of fairness, it's what it costs to keep the site at a reasonable state. Therefore it's worth paying for those who have to clear it, police it, and reform what has been changed if not done by the buyer.

So, what is it worth?

@8: Hawaiian lease agreements often go so long that they stop reflecting market values. For example, in many areas you don't get a mortgage for your land/house, you get a 100-year lease. Its pretty easy to imagine how the powerful non-native organizations in the early 1900s might have coerced the natives into legal agreements that were to the foreigners' long-term interests. At that point, the islands weren't part of the US and we do not allow ex post facto prosecutions, so any fraud or coercion committed against the Hawaiians before statehood would not have gotten a legal reconsideration after statehood.

so none of our laws against

Which is typically better for the original land-owner because they keep the land, but defending on the agreement, can quickly end them up in a situation where the rent they get is unreasonably low compared to the value (and taxes on) the land.

Ack cut and paste errors. Ignore the last two paragraphs (or not; your choice.)

re:#9. This is counterindicated by the phrase: "despite violating the original contract.”.

And it is still orthogonal to the post I made. What is it worth?

The article didn't make clear how building the TMT hurts the protestors. Is it that they aren't happy with the payment terms (amount they themselves would receive)? Is the land sacred in a religious sense? Is it now being used for something else?

I don't get it. If it's just money, then I have to disagree with Ethen. In that case, the protestors should be treated like any other "owner" in the U.S. That's how casinos in California get built.

Buyer the TMT ideas not a casino - it is being built for the advancement of science. Eminent Domain works for me.

Well, the title is a little alarmist. There ARE other places, and China is opening up a large and similarly appropriate area for observatories.

This could spell the end of observatories in Hawaii.

Not astronomy as we know it.

TBH, the way things are, I'd feel better about traveling to work at the observatory in China than having to go, as a foreigner, through US airspace to Hawaii to observe.

Seriously, they're far less scary a proposition. China may be repressive, but only based on our culture, the majority of chinese WANT the great internet firewall. They presume that if the government don't want it, it's not welcome for a reason and agree with culling it out.

I may not want it, but I don't live there. And china doesn't seem to want to make me obey their laws if I'm not there.

Anonymous on the Big Island:

This same folks crying out of the despoliation of their land think nothing of throwing pig carcasses, fish guts, or beer cans on the road. I won’t mention the dead vehicles filled with trash bags of garbage in the front yard.

Really? The very same people? Or are there perhaps differences among members of the native Hawaiian population, as there are within every people?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 13 Dec 2015 #permalink