This is why while I was a successful environmental fundraiser, many of their positions made no sense to me, even when I was young and naïve. Many of the positions I was supposed to believe in weren't about the environment, they were about manufacturing hype to raise money. Hawaiʻi's Thirty Meter Telescope is another example where it is not about the environment - 13 observatories and telescopes have been there for over 40 years - and it is also not about the next tactic after the environmental argument failed - religion.
On the environment, with so many projects already there, the evidence is clear it has been great for nature. In order to have good astronomy, you need low light pollution and less atmospheric pollution. Those are all both things. On religion, it only really became framed as a sacred space in 2014. Prior to that, though archaeological evidence shows it was used by religious elites on a few occasions, commoners would were put to death for going above the treeline back then.(1) Still, our mass liberal guilt means that as soon as someone offers up the term 'native sacred space' we're all supposed to be obsequious no matter how ridiculous the claim is.
When the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea was approved in 2009, no one minded. Suddenly in 2015, a local cultural studies academic got his students to stage a walkout. Then he got them to throw up a few shacks, claiming they were religiously significant. What changed between 2009 and 2015? An influx of Democrats that never left. In 2008, during the Obama campaign, Hawaiʻi got a surge of environmentalists and other Democratic operatives raising money and campaigning for their guy. And many of them stayed to become, in the opinion of critics, a new ruling class. Suddenly there were protests against agriculture - in, of all places, the home of the Rainbow Papaya, one of the most important wins in biotechnology - and other forms of science. When construction of the TMT was about to begin, environmental lawyers went to court and mobilized politically sympathetic academics to get humanities students buzzing about their heritage.
The courts saw through it as did impartial residents of the state. They knew the outside activists promoting dissent had never heard of Hilo or could have found Mauna Kea on a map before they were paid to cause dissent against the science. Like "Poisoning Paradise", also set in Hawaiʻi but about agriculture, it is pretty easy to connect the dots between litigants claiming to be just regular folks and lawyers for environmental groups.
Some others have joined in and now the governor called in the National Guard to keep protests from laying in the road for political theater. A few people in New York City's Times Square even held up a sign, and one business in Hawaiʻi canceled its luau for one evening. How penalizing a bunch of tourists nowhere near Mauna Kea is helping preserve native culture is a mystery.
Activists have won this war, even though the TMT will go up. The University of Hawaiʻi says says their own state is too anti-science to bother in the future. The rest of the world agrees.
Maybe that is the life cycle now. Environmentalists ran astronomy out of the mainland U.S., now they have run it out of Hawaiʻi. Perhaps the wealth that science brings enables people to turn on science. If so, in a few decades Chile will be unavailable as well. In any case, astronomy gets farther and farther from American culture.
(1) Being above 40 percent of Earth's atmosphere is good for astronomy but it was no more a sacred space than Mt. Everest was. Many people get altitude sickness even driving up there much less trying to walk.
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