To Gain the World: The Fight for Mauna Kea

To Gain the World: The Fight for Mauna Kea March 10, 2017

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.


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