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Science vs. the Real World on Mauna Kea

Many view the debate surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope’s proposed construction on Mauna Kea and Kanaka Maolis’ opposition to it as fundamentally a question of science versus culture. On the benign end, the word “science” has come to connote something close to cool and objective rationality – nothing more nor less than a collection of knowledge to be used in man’s (isn’t it always “man’s”?) noble aim to transcend nature. More malevolently, however, pitting science against indigenous culture is nothing more than insidious racism. This racism operates on the often unchallenged claim that science is an inherently western way of knowing and therefore superior to indigenous ways of knowing.

In fact, some Mauna Kea protectors wish to avoid this rhetorical ploy so strongly they can be heard saying, “We’re not against science, we’re just against building this telescope on Mauna Kea.” Their words imply that the telescope could be built somewhere else and western science allowed to run its course everywhere but here.

Personally, I am against the construction of telescopes anywhere and I have lots of problems with western science. I am careful to emphasize the adjective “western” in western science because Kanaka Maolis often remind me that they’ve always known many of the things western science claims to have discovered. Remember, as Mauna Kea protector Hualalai Keohula has reminded me, that Kanaka Maoli navigated the world’s largest and greatest ocean in canoes built with wood and stone, aided with nothing more powerful than the naked human eye, centuries before the West realized the world was round. This, it should be said, is the right way, the least destructive way, the non-violent way to practice astronomy.

I speak only for myself, here, but I will go so far to say I wish western science never existed. I know in today’s dominant culture my wish is pure blasphemy. As my friend Derrick Jensen noted in his brilliant work Dreams, science is the new monotheism. The old monotheisms – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – succeeded in removing meaning from the natural world and placed meaning in the hands of a jealous, abstract God dwelling in far-off heavens. Science, then, erased God and obliterated any possibility of meaning with Him. When I make these arguments, I’ve found it to be like Jensen has observed, when you blaspheme God, you are called a disbeliever. When you blaspheme science, you are called an idiot.

Still, on the whole, science has been a disaster for life on Earth. The first problem with science is the first problem with so many products of the murderous culture we live in. The first problem with science is science’s epistemology is rooted in this culture’s epistemology. And, this culture’s epistemology is based on domination. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

One way to understand science is to trace what the leading scientific epistemologists have to say. Remember Sir Francis Bacon from your 6th grade science class? He invented what we call today “The Scientific Method.” He said his “only earthly wish is to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe” by “putting her (nature) on the rack and extracting her secrets.” As if that wasn’t scary enough, Bacon went on to say, “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

Or what about the hugely popular science apologist, Richard Dawkins? He writes in his book A Devils Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love that “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.”

“To make matter and energy jump through hoops on command” is a soft way to spell domination. Substitute yourself for “matter and energy” (that is what you are, of course). How would you feel if a scientist pointed a gun at you, or shot electrical currents through your muscles, or stuffed you into a cage, starved you, pumped your body full of chemicals and forced you to jump through hoops at his command?

The culture we live in is based on domination. How else do we account for the fact that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime? One in four girls and one in six boys sexually abused before they turn 18? How else do we account for the fact that 2.6 people are killed by American police every day?

Why, then, would we expect western science – a product of this culture – to be any different?

***

There’s a better way to judge science. It is a question that should form all of our moralities. The question is simple.”Is the real world better off because of science?” I think the answer to that question is a resounding no.

I come to that conclusion because my morality takes the needs of the real, physical world as primary. Water, soil, air, climate, my body, your body, and the food that sustains us are all formed by complex relationships of living beings. These living beings form the communities that make life possible. The needs of these communities must inform every action humans take. Anything else is suicidal.

I understand that science can be useful. Western science gives us modern medicine, for example, but modern medicine is more often than not a leaky band-aid applied to a wound created by science in the first place. Many tell me that western science is going to give us the cure to cancer while they forget that most cancers are produced by environmental toxins that exist because of science. I understand that western science can help us predict the devastating consequences of climate change, but science opened the road to the technologies responsible for climate change in the first place. Western science is responsible for napalm, agent orange, and atomic weapons. Of course, the surest way to prevent the destruction those weapons caused would have been to never open the doors of knowledge that lead to them.

The TMT project serves as a perfect reflection of the insanity of western science. Just like western science gains knowledge through domination, the TMT project is only possible through the domination of Kanaka Maoli. If the original people of Hawai’i were not exterminated by genocidal processes, were not made second-class citizens on their own islands, their culture not beaten to within inches of its like by American denationalization programs, Mauna Kea would be truly protected with the highest reverence.

But, western scientists have arrived, confident in the role Francis Bacon has laid out for them, to stretch Hawai’i on the rack and extract her secrets from her. The cops have come twice, with guns on their hips, to make Mauna Kea protectors vacate the Mauna Kea Access Road like Dawkins’ scientists who make matter and energy jump through hoops on command and arresting anyone who refuses the command.

Again, let’s ask the most important question of all. Is the real world better off with or without the TMT?

One way to answer this is to examine the physical processes needed to construct the TMT. Included in these physical processes are the actual materials used in construction. I am no expert on telescope construction and I’ve found it difficult so far to find detailed lists of the materials that will form the TMT (probably because acquiring these materials are a disaster for the environment.) From what I can tell, though, the TMT will be built with materials like steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals.

You cannot have the TMT without steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals. You cannot have steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals without mountain top removal, open pit mining, and the combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuels. You cannot have mountain top removal, open pit mining, and the combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuels without climate change, mass extinctions, the forced removal of indigenous peoples, and the violent labor conditions present in extraction industries. So, before the materials needed to build the TMT ever even arrive in Hawai’i, they will be covered in the blood of humans and non-humans alike.

Telescopes are a disaster for the real world just like western science has been. Telescopes cannot be anything other than disasters for the real world because they are products of a murderous system of knowledge. It might be really super cool to discover the 832nd star in the 412th known galaxy with a new, massive telescope. This knowledge, however, comes through the domination of life on earth.

Mauna Kea – and I would argue all mountains – might be best understood as a complex community of living creatures living in mutual relationship. The needs of this community trump the desires of science. Mauna Kea itself acts as a giant water filter and houses the largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island. Everyone needs clean drinking water, but there have already been seven documented mercury spills associated with the telescopes on Mauna Kea ) Currently threatened, endemic species call Mauna Kea home. The needs of mamane trees and ahinahina to live trumps the curiosity of astronomers to peep at other worlds.

***

Before I finish, let me anticipate the objections I will receive. Yes, I am quite aware of the comforts brought to some of us by western science. But, when we talk about how great science is for “us,” who are we talking about? Are we talking about the few indigenous societies clinging to their traditional ways of life, clinging to the only human ways of life that were ever truly sustainable? Are we talking about polar bears? Sumatran tigers? Bluefin tuna? We can’t be talking about West African black rhino because they just fell into the deepest dark of total extinction.

I know that science produced the internet, the laptop I’m typing on, and brought the delicious cold brew coffee I’m drinking. People often criticize me asking, “How can you condemn these wonderful tools you are using? You get on planes and travel to Hawai’i, you get in cars to visit places across Turtle Island, aren’t you a” – and they gasp – “a hypocrite?”

My answer is simple. Yes, I might be a hypocrite, but I believe my friend Lierre Keith who said, “Understand: the task of an activist is not to negotiate systems of power with as much personal integrity as possible – its to dismantle those systems.” Western science is a system of power and must be dismantled if we have any chance of surviving the catastrophe facing us. Sitting Bull used American made rifles to defend his people from American cavalrymen. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet who was murdered for resisting Shell Oil in his homeland, wrote in English – the language of his oppressors.

I wish with all my heart that I could live as our ancestors lived – a life free from the deepest anxiety that in a few years everything might be gone. I was raised in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah – a place I just visited – and I wish with all my heart that I could spend my life walking in Indian paintbrush, columbine, daisies, and lupine consumed in the total wonder and beauty of life. I wish with all my heart that I could sit still in simple expression of the love I feel. But, while everyone I love is under attack, it is simply unforgivable not to do everything within my power to protect them. It is simply unforgivable not to use every tool at my disposal to defend them.

History reveals western science as an accomplice to the murder of the real world. Western science is attempting the murder of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea and the real world demand that we stop it.

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Will Falk has been working and living with protesters on Mauna Kea who are attempting to block construction of an 18-story astronomical observatory with an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

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