To Gain the World: The Fight for Mauna Kea

“What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”

Mauna Kea Summit in Winter. 8/9/2001. USGS
Mauna Kea Summit in Winter. 8/9/2001. USGS

It’s a Biblical passage — and yet, it’s the phrase that kept repeating in my mind again and again as I listened to the first episode of the new season of the Offshore Podcast (a show exploring cultural and social justice issues in Hawaii). The voices of astronomers and native Hawaiians, park rangers and environmental activists each spoke in turn about the complicated conflict over Mauna Kea, the tallest and most sacred mountain in Hawaii…. Amidst the jostle of opinions and perspectives, that one phrase rose to the surface like something shaken loose from the depths of childhood memory: “What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”

Yet the question didn’t mean what it used to mean to me — in fact, somehow, now it meant the exact opposite.

That’s the thing about life. Contexts change. Cultures and societies evolve through a give-and-take of perseverance and preservation. Spiritual traditions thrive in the here-and-now even as they carry echoes of the deep past. The conflict about this sacred mountain in Hawaii is quintessentially about how the deep past continues to shape us to this day, and how we grapple with the interconnected web of being that weaves us into that past even as we strive towards a shared future.

Telescopes of the Mauna Kea Observatory,
Telescopes of the Mauna Kea Observatory,

Mauna Kea, which first formed one million years ago, is a shield volcano (now dormant) that reaches 33,500 feet high from its base on the ocean floor — not just the tallest mountain on the planet, but the second largest in the solar system. For native Hawaiians, the mountain connects them to a unique cultural history and shared spiritual relationship with the living earth beneath their feet. It is not just the physical embodiment of an ancient god (the son of the sky father and earth mother), but also a living elder, like a curmudgeonly but warm-hearted grandparent who reveals its face to those who approach with respect and love. Dozens of heiau, or shrines, are scattered along its slopes, and a journey to its summit is considered a kind of sacred pilgrimage.

For astronomers, on the other hand, the mountain is the single best spot on the entire planet on which to build a massive, 98-foot-diameter mega-telescope (known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT). The peak of Mauna Kea is an ideal place for such a telescope, not only because of its high elevation, but because its remote location in the Pacific Ocean means less interference from light pollution and turbulent air currents. If the $1 billion project moves forward, the TMT would become the biggest telescope on earth — one so advanced that it could allow scientists to look across vast cosmic distances, gazing farther into the universe and further back in time than ever before.

 stone structure, possibly a prehistoric marker or lele (altar), in the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, Hawaii,
Stone structure, possibly a prehistoric marker or lele (altar), in the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, Hawaii,

This might at first seem like the same age-old conflict between science and religion — between technological advancements that look to the future, and cultural traditions that seek to preserve the past. As always, though, the reality is more complex than that. The project is planned to be built on sacred conservation land, despite decades of protest against development by local people. The sacred mountain has become a symbol of the generations of conflict over land-use policy and the legacy of colonialism on the islands, where infrastructure has been pushed forward without the input or consent of native Hawaiians. But the fight for Mauna Kea is also a symbol of the uphill battle that STEM scientists so often face to fund research that has as its aim not military or industrial applications, but the pure joy of intellectual curiosity and the expansion of human knowledge. While scientists seek to build advanced equipment that will allow us to look deep into our universe’s past, indigenous peoples gather as Protectors to protest that the only future worth creating is one in which we live with mutual respect for the diversity of life.

Listening to the podcast episode, I found my sympathies veering back and forth, wishing that there was some reconciliation to the conflict between these interconnected and overlapping communities which, despite their differences, also share so much in common. And yet — “What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” — I kept hearing that phrase in my head.

Raised a Catholic, I’d always been taught that this passage from the Bible was supposed to remind us to value the spiritual above the worldly, to turn our thoughts towards the promise of heaven and salvation. Now, though, it seemed to say something very different. I’ve always loved the sciences, and so much of my own spiritual life is grounded in an understanding of the world that embraces scientific knowledge rather than rejecting it. Yet listening to the story of Mauna Kea, I couldn’t help but think that these astronomers, so intent on gazing out into space, were being pretty short-sighted.

Rather than an instruction to ignore the world and focus on the heavens, I felt like now that passage meant the exact opposite to me. What good will this cosmic knowledge do us, if we cannot live on this planet together here and now? What good will it do us to gain the whole universe, if we lose the sacred places that make our souls sing? If we lose each other?

There is only one Mauna Kea, only one Earth. The universe will always be there, waiting for us. Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel small at all — instead, it fills me with hope. We have all the time in the universe to figure this out. Let’s figure it out together…


In Season 2: The Sacred Mountain of the Offshore Podcast, reporter Jessica Terrell explores the story of Mauna Kea in-depth in all its complexity. If you want to hear native Hawaiians sharing their stories about race, religion and culture, you will love this show. The first episode of the season dropped this week — so check it out!

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