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Why the Mauna Kea Protests Are So Challenging to the Mainstream Climate Movement

It’s time the mainstream climate movement acknowledged that the climate crisis is deeply linked to colonialism.

The NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, Keck I, Keck II and Subaru Telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii, pictured in 2012. The Thirty Meter Telescope, if constructed, would be the biggest ever built on the mountain.

Much has been written this summer about the protests at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak, and sacred sites of Native Hawaiians. Starting in July, hundreds of demonstrators and allies had blocked the main road to prevent the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the mountain, drawing international attention and bringing the construction activities to a halt.

The telescope would be the biggest ever built on the mountain, which has already been plastered with 13 other observatories since the 1970s. The project, with an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, would be built with money from Canada, China, India and Japan and “owned and operated by a consortium of US universities and international institutions,” according to Space.

Critics say the project can only be understood in the context of the long history of colonialism in Hawaii, which was illegally annexed by the United States after a coup sponsored by U.S. businessmen in 1893. For decades, the use of the Hawaiian language was punished, Native culture was suppressed and a large military presence was maintained on the islands.

The struggle against the construction of the telescope is not only an anti-colonial but also an ecological fight. Mauna Kea is home to the largest aquifer in Hawaii, which would likely be negatively affected by the development of the telescope. It is a habitat for endangered plants and wildlife, which development would threaten further. The telescope would be maintained by the University of Hawaii, which has a record of poorly managing the land, and causing damage and pollution at Mauna Kea.

Looking at the facts, it would seem straightforward for the mainstream climate movement to condemn the situation and to show solidarity with the demonstrators at Mauna Kea. Yet, many have remained silent on the issue. Perhaps the reason for this is that the Mauna Kea confronts the Western environmentalist with an inconvenient, unpleasant truth: There is a contradiction between environmentalism and the outlook of Western modernity, including its commitment to the myth of universal, value-neutral science.

The struggle at Mauna Kea epitomizes that modern natural science, which has been the major talking point of and driving force behind the Western climate movement, might be as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Modern science undoubtedly emerged in the context of the Enlightenment project of dissecting, measuring and exploiting nature. “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest,” wrote English philosopher Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of the Western Enlightenment.

Just like Bacon’s own biography — Bacon was a key figure in the establishment of British colonies in North America — the rise of modern science also cannot be separated from the history of colonialism. It was driven by the large-scale theft of artifacts from the Global South, the use of slave labor, the erasure of Indigenous ways of knowing and crucial to the success of the European imperial machine.

Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It leaves very real traces in the world — from the desecration of Native land at Mauna Kea to the atomic bomb. A science that is not reflective of questions such as for whom is it gathering knowledge, at what cost is it doing so, and what ways of life it is destroying, is perpetuating the kind of positivist thinking that has significantly contributed to the current ecological crisis.

Philosophers — even in the West — have written about this for years, but so far, the mainstream climate movement seems largely unshakable in its commitment to scientific modernity. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, the brave and determined face of the global youth strike (“unite behind science,”) hasn’t said anything publicly about the Mauna Kea struggle but tweeted about the latest scientific data that was collected from Mauna Loa observatory, the volcano neighboring Mauna Kea. Not a public word, either, from Roger Hallam, co-founder and public face of Extinction Rebellion. To Hallam, empirical science is not only a tool of diagnosis but also a guide to action: “We need agreement on what works on the basis of the social science — just as we insist on following the natural science on the climate crisis.”

Western climate activists would be well-advised to consider the possibility that a scientific outlook that sees nature as external to the human, as the “environment” surrounding humankind that can be measured, calculated and controlled, is fundamentally flawed. Mauna Kea presents an opportunity to carefully reconsider the way in which we think about science. It is a reminder that decolonization must be part of any environmentalist agenda. For survival’s sake!

Indigenous communities are at the front line of the struggle against the unfolding ecological and climate crisis, whether in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at Standing Rock in the United States, or in the struggle against fracking in Australia’s Northern Territory. Indigenous peoples protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, while only accounting for less than 5 percent of the global population. The Western climate movement could learn a lot from the communities who have been able to live sustainably within their lands for tens of thousands of years and have been resisting capitalism and colonialism for centuries.

“If there is something you can learn from Indigenous people, it’s what it’s like to live in a post-apocalyptic society,” said author Nick Estes in a recent interview with Dissent Magazine. “Indigenous people are post-apocalyptic. In some cases, we have undergone several apocalypses. For my community alone, it was the destruction of the buffalo herds, the destruction of our animal relatives on the land, the destruction of our animal nations in the nineteenth century, of our river homelands in the twentieth century.”

In contrast, the Western climate movement finds it hard to grapple even with the idea of an inevitable social collapse, heralding ever-new deadlines until which a catastrophe can still be averted. Probably any philosophical tradition is better at grasping and theorizing the current ecological collapse than the vocabulary of Western modernity, an issue that is addressed by the book An Ecotopian Lexicon.

Of course, decolonization must go beyond the mere appropriation of subaltern analytical vocabulary — it must challenge colonialism and extinction on the ground. That is why the success at Mauna Kea should trigger action and solidarity, not silence and confusion.

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