The Far-sighted Defenders of TMT are Myopic!

Mauna Kea Snow_Black and whiteRecently Henck Rogers (2015) aptly regurgitates many of the main points in favor of continuing the construction of the new 18-story high Thirty Meter Telescope building on the top of Mauna Kea, and simultaneously in favor of the continuing destruction of the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea, although he ignores the latter. His main points are scientific progress and prestige, economic profits and benefits, and educational payoffs and bribes as well as supposedly honoring the ancient Hawaiian navigators. For astronomers who look far into space with their telescopes in order to look as far back in time as billions of years, and for Rogers who appears to be concerned about the current welfare and future of Hawai`i, their mind-set is remarkably myopic and anachronistic. From this year 2015, statehood extends back some 56 years (1959), Capitan Cook arrived 237 years ago (1778), and the beginning of Western science marked by Copernicus (1543) extends back some 472 years. In sharp contrast, contemporary Native Hawaiians are the descendants of generations of ancestors extending back more than a thousand years. Their society may not have been any ecotopia, but its environmental impact was relatively benign, compared to what has transpired since alien colonization and especially since World War II (Sponsel 2001). Their economy was sustainable for about a millennium, whereas the current economy has increasingly shown many clear signs of being unsustainable after just a few decades. As just one example of the latter, consider the increasing traffic congestion and air pollution on Oahu, and then imagine a few decades hence with yet many more people and cars. To be realistic, unlimited growth on a limited base, whether in these islands or on planet Earth, is simply impossible logically and practically. In the case of Mauna Kea, a succession of bigger and better telescopes has been constructed on Mauna Kea, and the TMT is unlikely to be the last proposal.

Any visionary for the future would do well to think back to the historical ecology of the economy, culture, and religion of pre-Cook times. A strong case can be advanced that the traditional spiritual ecology of the Native Hawaiians, including their sacred places, contributed significantly to the sustainability of their society over a thousand years (Sponsel 2001). If present trends continue, then what might these islands be like a thousand years from now, or even just a century from now? If contemporary Hawai`i is to have a sustainable future, then one key may well be to facilitate the revival and enhancement of Native Hawaiian spiritual ecology and sacred places as they see fit. The continuing desecration of Mauna Kea and the other sacred places of Native Hawaiians is an affront to the principles of religious freedom supposedly enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America, and it is surely counter-productive for future sustainability, to say the very least. Mauna Kea, like Kaho`olawe and Hokule`a, might well become a major historic turning point for Native Hawaiians, and even for Hawai`i as a whole, towards a far better sustainable future for these awesome islands which so often evoke a deep sense of the spiritual in residents and visitors.

Astronomers and others who defend and promote the construction of TMT, and many others as well, would do well to afford far more serious thought to such matters. This is not a simplistic appeal to return to some mythical golden age, but for far more serious knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and respect for the original human inhabitants of these islands and their descendants, Native Hawaiians. That includes their spiritual ecology and sacred places like Mauna Kea. The University of Hawai`i should spearhead that pursuit as much, if not more than, astronomy; indeed, that should be far more of the very heart of the university and the state.

References Cited

Rogers, Henk, 2015 (June 21), “Stopping TMT would be singular event that irreparably damages Hawaii’s Future,” Honolulu Star Advertiser p. E2.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 2001, “Is Indigenous Spiritual Ecology a New Fad?: Reflections from the Historical and Spiritual Ecology of Hawai`i,” in Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community, John Grim, ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, pp. 159-174.

Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel

Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE)

Sacred banyon tree and spirit house in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dr. Leslie Sponsel; Sacred banyan tree and spirit house in Bangkok, Thailand.

Leslie E. Sponsel earned the BA in Geology fromIndiana University (1965), and the MA (1973) and PhD (1981) in Biological and Cultural Anthropology from Cornell University. Over the last four decades he has taught at seven universities in four countries, two as a Fulbright Fellow. In 1981 he joined the Anthropology faculty at the University of Hawai’i to develop and direct the Ecological Anthropology Program. His courses include Ecological Anthropology, Environmental Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, Spiritual Ecology, Sacred Places, Anthropology of Buddhism, Ethics in Anthropology, and Anthropology of War and Peace. Although retired since August 2010, he teaches one or two courses annually and devotes the rest of his time to research and publications.

 From 1974 to 1981 Sponsel conducted several trips to the Venezuelan Amazon to study human ecology with the Yanomami and other indigenous societies. Almost yearly since 1986 Sponsel has made research trips to Thailand to study various aspects of Buddhist ecology and environmentalism together with his wife, Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, retired from Chaminade University of Honolulu. In recent years their work in northern Thailand has focused on exploring sacred caves.

 Among Sponsel’s extensive publications are more than two dozen journal articles, three dozen book chapters, 29 entries in seven different scientific encyclopedias, and two edited and two co-edited books. Henceforth he will focus on publishing other books integrating his previous articles and chapters on several different subjects as well as on developing the Research Institute for Spiritual Ecology (RISE) and its website:

Also see faculty homepage:

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