Of Telescopes and Manifest Destiny

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Mauna Kea as seen from Maui. attribution.

There are ongoing efforts at the desecration of sacred land and disenfranchisement of local interests by the TMT Observatory Corporation in Hawaii. If you weren’t aware already, you can find information about it here. In short, what we have is outside interests attempting to force a research facility on local people who would prefer it not be there.

This is similar to what happened at Standing Rock starting three years ago. In the case of Standing Rock, the infiltrator was Big Oil in the form of a pipeline company seeking to build a pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In that case, corporate and state interests overrode the wishes of the people living there. People who have been there for generations. People who never asked for any state to have authority there, who never asked for any corporations to move oil through their land. In that case, we had a clear and overt villain that nobody likes: Energy Transfer Partners, a reviled company in an industry that is steadily obliterating our planet.

The villain now has a different face. It wears the face of science, of progress. It’s a nonprofit. It comprises diverse scientists from places such as Caltech, the University of California, and institutions from Canada, China, Japan, India, and elsewhere. Those behind it justify the necessity of usurping the wishes of Indigenous people with lofty claims of science, discovery, the good of humankind, knowledge, and progress. But is this villain any different? Is this not simply Manifest Destiny with a Ph.D.?

Wikipedia describes Manifest Destiny thusly:

Manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the 19th century United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:

The special virtues of the American people and their institutions

The mission of the United States to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America

An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty

Sound familiar? Just replace America with science. The virtuousness of science? The mission of science to redeem humanity? Our destiny to reach for the stars? Our essential duty to spread knowledge to all mankind? Of course those are noble goals, but do you know what else would be noble? Leaving Mauna Kea alone. It would be noble to stop attempting to further colonize Hawaii.

Spin surrounding the Mauna Kea protests attempts to pit science against Indigenous land rights. People thousands of miles away from Mauna Kea go as far as saying that Hawaiians should relish the opportunity to have this telescope there. This is no different in practice than pitting the will of God against Indigenous land rights and saying people should be happy to have their land stolen so a church can be built where they can then be indoctrinated, even if you happen to believe astronomy has more value to humankind than churches do. Because the whole point of Indigenous land rights is it doesn’t matter what you believe if Indigenous people don’t want what you’re selling. Manifest destiny was wrong in the 19th century, it was wrong at Standing Rock, and it’s wrong at Mauna Kea. Manifest Destiny is theft. It is the blitzkrieg of an imperial PR department. It is the same morally-bankrupt attitude of might makes right that is a fundamental pillar of white supremacism.

But it gets even more odious the more you think about it. Consider how repellent it is for modern scientists to lecture the descendants of the greatest navigators in human history about the stars. Trust me, Hawaiians know very well the value of studying the sky. Or consider how outrageously entitled it is for champions of Western civilization to insist on using someone else’s sacred land in a way they do not approve of, arguing how it has the perfect conditions in terms of being free from particulate pollution and light pollution, when it was the very same Western civilization from which pollution sprang. Maybe Western civilization should clean up its act so it doesn’t have to invade and occupy someone else’s mountain to see the sky.

I am a science advocate. I have a degree in astrophysics. I am a huge consumer of space porn. We have so much to learn about ourselves and our place in the cosmos by looking up. But before we look up, can we look at each other first? Before we turn our telescopes skyward in the interest of humankind, can we see each other as humans first?

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