Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea


Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

“Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?”

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

The quote above is part of a well-known UCLA astronomer’s response to protests against the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From Jewitt’s perspective, proposals to build notorious polluters such as coal-fired power plants or factories on such a site might justifiably cause a ruckus. But why, he wonders, should the ‘pure and clean’ work of astronomers raise problems?  The assumptions behind this line of thinking are preventing proponents of the TMT from understanding and engaging constructively with the protests.

Since mid-April 2015, work on the planned 18-storey, $1.4 billion TMT structure has been non-violently disrupted by protests led by indigenous Hawaiians, who see the project as the desecration of a sacred site.  In indigenous Hawaiian cosmology, Mauna Kea is the place where two deities – the sky father Wākea and the Earth mother Papahānaumoku – married and gave birth to the Hawaiian islands. Mauna Kea itself is understood literally to be the eldest sun and navel of the living body of the islands. Its flesh is merged with that of humans, who for centuries have deposited cremated remains and the umbilical cords of newborns on its slopes. It a place where human and nonhuman, living and deceased, past, present and future co-exist. To the protesters, Mauna Kea is not an extinct volcano, but rather a vital being capable of being harmed.

While previous protests have contested the building of 13 existing telescopes on the mountain,  the current movement is notable for its international profile. Indeed, it has been propelled into the international spotlight by social media campaigning (for instance see @ProtectMaunaKea and hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea), including the notable interventions of celebrities. As a result of its global reach, the arrests of 31 protesters on 29th April drew widespread attention, and construction stopped for two months. By last week another dozen protesters had been arrested for allegedly placing boulders in the way of construction vehicles on the project’s access road. While it’s not uncommon to hear of the arrest of protesters, the circumstances surrounding this incident are unusual. According to activist Walter Ritte, many of the protesters deny that they (or any other humans) can be held responsible for the blockade. Instead, Ritte states, “the Hawaiians are saying that the rocks were put there by the Menehune”. In Hawaiian lore, the Menehune are small people who live deep in the forest and hills, constructing ponds, roads and temples during the night. From the perspective of these protesters, the Menehune, too, are joining in opposition against the construction of the TMT.

This statement might not make much sense to the scientists who want to see the TMT built quickly. Western secular science is not renowned for its openness towards worldviews that attribute agency or ethical status to nonhumans. It is based on a cosmology that understands humans to be the only sources of agency, creativity and subjectivity, and the rest of the universe to be material for human use. This set of beliefs makes it difficult to understand why the construction of the TMT is a ‘big deal’ because it obscures the root of the conflict. While it has been framed in terms of a confrontation between ‘science’ and ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or ‘spirituality’,  this is actually a clash between cosmologies. For the scientists, too, Mauna Kea  could be understood as sacred –  albeit in a very different way. The unobstructed views from the top of the mountain offer a ‘crystal-clear window into the cosmos and the ability to look 13 billion light years into space. This kind of vision could transform human knowledge of the universe and the ability better to locate themselves within it. Moreover, planetary scientists believe that if they are able to study the formation of exo-planets, they may unlock the origins of the Earth – and potentially other Earth-like planets. So, in fact, both parties in this protest are concerned with affirming their beliefs about the origin and sustenance of the Earth and its inhabitants. Both seek to preserve and/or assert an explanation of how these beings came to exist by locating them within the broader cosmos. And for both communities engaging with the cosmos connects them to deep history and to the future of humans.

Understanding the situation as a clash of cosmologies helps to explain why the two ‘sides’ are failing to find common ground. Most importantly, the TMT’s proponents have not engaged with the cosmological claims of the protesters in their own terms. They have not ignored these concerns entirely, but they have reframed them in terms of Western secular cosmological beliefs. Specifically, they have framed protestors’ concerns in terms of two issues: ‘environmental impact’ and ‘cultural impact’.

These concerns are reflected in the 379-page Environmental Impact Statement produced as part of the seven-year process in which approval for the project was obtained. This report gives a brief account of the beliefs associated with Mauna Kea, as well as the ecosystems that will be disturbed if the project proceeds as planned. It acknowledges that “the impact of past and present actions on cultural, archaeological, and historic resources is substantial, significant and adverse” (and that it will continue to be in future). In particular, the project will involve transforming one of the mountain’s unique cinder-cones (as have the construction of the other telescopes before it).

The Statement addresses these concerns in two ways. First, it claims that the site has been designed to minimize (not to eliminate the risk of) damage. According to Sandra Dawson,  TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative, the structure was carefully sited so that it did not displace archaeological shrines, is not visible from holy sites, and is designed to minimize ‘visual disruption’, including particular views of the mountains.


Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

In some cases, ‘limiting damage’ takes the form of re-classifying the objects in question so that they are not understood as subjects of damage. For instance, the Statement claims that areas disturbed by construction are ‘not determined to be historic properties’. One site believed to be a historic shrine is thought to have been constructed 10 years ago. Another, it claims, is ‘likely to be a natural geologic feature’. From this perspective, damage is only done if the site in question is deemed to be both ‘historic’ and ‘manmade’. This approach assumes that history is something that happened in the past (or at least more than 10 years ago), ignoring its continuities with the present and future, and their sustenance within living communities. It also devalues sites on the basis of their being ‘natural’ rather than human-made, which ignores the entanglement of human communities and geological forces (see Nigel Clark’s seminal work on this subject). Similarly, while the project could affect two endangered species (the Nene Goose and the Silversword plant) and endanger a third (the Weiku beetle), the report determines that the species and ‘resources’ damaged “are not unique or critical to the survival of any species in that area”. In other words, these creatures are understood not as the co-constituents of a unique world, but rather as replaceable units of a generic category (species).

Second, and in a related sense, the Statement suggests that where damage cannot be avoided, what is destroyed will be replaced or traded for something else. Along with the numerous economic benefits it outlines, the TMT promises to be a bastion of ecological sustainability, as the first zero-wastewater producing facility on the site. It also proposes to replace every displaced mamane tree with with two more, and to introduce a program to limit the incursion of ‘invasive species’ (a hot-button issue in Hawaii ).

In terms of ‘culture’, the Statement suggests that significant funds should be earmarked for a ‘community benefits package’ to include exhibits exploring the “links between Hawaiian culture and astronomy”. Those working at the facility will be given training in cultural and ecological ‘sensitivity’ and the facility itself is to be furnished “with items to provide a sense of place and remind personnel of Maunakea’s cultural sensitivity and spiritual quality”. Moreover, stemming from the protests, Hawaii’s governer David Ige has demanded that the construction of the new telescope be offset by the decommissioning ¼ of existing telescopes by the time the TMT is operational. All of these measures appear to minimize, trade-off or compensate for the harms feared by protesters. From the perspective of the project’s proponents, the TMT offers fair trade-offs: what is lost will be replaced, so no harm no foul.

This kind of reasoning only works, however, if one is immersed in a cosmology that understands the nonhuman universe as disenchanted. From such a perspective, material goods (including living things) can be replaced or traded for other goods. This logic does not hold, however, in a cosmology in which a place is unique and irreplaceable – in short, a living being that cannot be disassembled and reassembled at will. Within the latter worldview, the sacredness of Mauna Kea cannot be reduced to the minimization of ‘environmental damage’ or by trading it for economic benefits. And it certainly cannot be compensated for by fetishizing ‘native Hawaiian culture’ as a museum-object, a topic for ‘sensitivity training’, or a motif for interior decoration. On the contrary, this approach seems only to compound the colonial strategies which have marginalized the Hawaiian people since the late 19th century.

Indeed, the Mauna Kea protest highlights an important new development in the history of colonization. It is marked by a clash of cosmologies in two senses: not only the conflict described above, but also the link between ‘cosmology’ as space science and the lifeworlds of indigenous peoples. The struggle unfolding around the TMT is a decolonial one – and it is oriented not only to the colonial history of indigenous peoples, but also to a potential colonial future.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner Licensed under CC  Attribution-Non-Commercial.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner Licensed under CC

To appreciate this, it is necessary to place the protest in the context of emerging projects of space colonization. Crucially, one of the scientific benefits of the TMT is that it will enable scientists better to identify and study exo-planets. While some planetary scientists pursue their work primarily in the interest of furthering knowledge, recent anthropologies (see for instance, the work of Valerie Olsen, David Valentine and Lisa Messeri) suggest that many are driven by a vocational desire. Namely, they want to identify other ‘Earth-like planets’ orbiting other stars, where humans might one day make a home. While there are important differences between the science carried out at observatories like the TMT and the goals of space entrepreneurs, planetary science cannot be neatly separated from the goal of space colonization.

Elsewhere, I have outlined some of the continuities between Earthly colonization and the ambitions of ‘NewSpace’ entrepreneurs. One of the key claims of these entrepreneurs is that their projects differ from historical colonial projects because they are victimless. This claim is based on the belief that there are ‘no natives in space’. I argue that this hardly guarantees a lack of victims. On the contrary, humans (let alone other beings) are harmed when they are subjected to the disciplinary processes of colonization. Although this is not the explicit aim of protesters, the Mauna Kea protest highlights two additional dimensions of this argument.

First, it shows that the attempt to colonize other planets can generate harms on Earth. As Messeri’s rather brilliant doctoral thesis suggests, planetary scientists simultaneously occupy virtualized places in outer space and very real spaces on this planet. The places in which these real structures are located – mountaintops, deserts, forests – may appear to be as isolated as the lunar, Martian and other surfaces they allow humans to survey. But modern history suggests that claims about ‘empty space’ can rarely be trusted. Indeed, as Peter Redfield’s work suggests, the development and testing of the European and American space programs was largely enabled by the use of (previously) colonised territories. In other words, the colonisation of outer space rests on the further (or continuing) colonisation of parts of the Earth. This certainly seems to be the case in Mauna Kea, where the desire to colonize outer space further displaces groups originally marginalized by the colonization of the Earth. In this sense, astronomy may be relatively ‘clean’ in terms of its ecological impacts but its practitioners and funders do not have entirely clean hands.

Second, careful attention to the issues raised by the Mauna Kea protesters helps to contest the idea that outer space is ‘empty’ and devoid of life. On the contrary, many indigenous communities understand outer space and its bodies to be a continuous part of what Western secular science usually glosses as ‘nature’ and limits to the Earth. To give just a few examples, a piece by M. Jane Young from the late 1980s explains how many Inuit and Navajo people believe that the moon is either a living being or the home of deceased ancestors, while the Skidi Pawnee believe that human beings originated in the stars. More recently, Debbora Battaglia has described how the communities she worked with in Papua New Guinea believed the moon to contain a woman with a child on her back. According to Battaglia, when one of her respondents encountered one of the moon rocks distributed by the Nixon administration as a diplomatic gesture, he was dismayed by the claims of returning astronauts that it was ‘only a rock’. I am certainly not an expert on Hawaiian cosmology, but it seems clear that a similar belief system animates the current protest. That is, the sky is understood to be a being – the Sky Father – whose integrity and relations with other beings (the Earth, humans, other living beings) is harmed by the building of the telescope. From this perspective, space is not empty and lifeless – and it can be harmed by colonization, even before would-be colonisers lift off from Earth.

Attending carefully to these beliefs illuminates why the TMT is such a ‘big deal’ to indigenous Hawaiians – and why this is so difficult for its proponents to understand within their own frames of reference. Many proponents of the TMT have expressed surprise at the fact that the measures they have taken have not assuaged the concerns of the protesters and a desire to engage respectfully with protesters. If they are serious about this, it will be necessary for them to change tack. At the moment, their efforts involve translating the concerns of the protesters into the terms of Western secular cosmology – that is, language of replaceable, compensable environmental or cultural damage.  Instead, it would be better for both parties to engage in what Bruno Latour  and Isabelle Stengers (amongst others) have called ‘diplomacy’ and ‘cosmopolitics’. This would require that none of the parties make a claim to universality and dominance.  In contrast, it demands the creation of political fora in which drastically different worldviews can be expressed without subsuming one into another. Instead of ‘rushing towards universalisation’, as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitics provides an opportunity for the expression of incommensurable difference. In this context, ‘diplomats’ are those who are able to travel back and forth between worlds, recognizing and conveying profound difference, rather than simply imposing the norms and structures of one world on another. In short, cosmopolitics means that multiple world views and forms of being need to be considered on their own terms rather than translated into a dominant paradigm.

Cosmopolitics, however, does not just happen. It requires work, the ability and willingness to peek beyond one’s own cosmological assumptions (if only partially), and above all, patience. By slowing down the process of the TMT’s construction, the Mauna Kea protest creates a profound opportunity to reflect on the conflictual co-existence of multiple cosmologies and the ongoing, subtle and not always intentional violence of colonization. It will remain to be seen whether the parties involved will seize this opportunity to engage in cosmopolitics. By publicly articulating and embodying their worldviews, the protesters have taken the first step in doing so, and  it’s now up to the TMT’s supporters to reciprocate. The collision of cosmologies currently unfolding on the slopes of Mauna Kea offers these parties a chance to inaugurate a politics attuned to the multiplicity of worlds on Earth (and beyond), and to the brutal but subtle, sometimes unintentional, violence of colonisation.  Let’s hope they take it.


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