So far, developers of the Thirty Meter Telescope have made their way through the legal morass regulating construction atop Mauna Kea on the strength of a single powerful claim: By peering deeper and more clearly into space, they will get closer to the origins of the Universe and what they find in the process will be of such value to humanity that the damage their project inflicts on the aina, those who revere it and the laws that protect it is inconsequential.

Even now, as the single most powerful politician in the state intervenes on behalf of the anti-TMT movement with its hundreds of vigilante protectors stepping up to do what the system failed to do, its 13,000 petitioners calling for a halt on the project’s construction, its dozens arrested through acts of civil disobedience and its scores-more ready to follow suit, an outnumbered coterie of proponents buffet themselves against the turning tide by clinging to the belief that they represent a higher calling.

Thirty Meter Telescope Mauna Kea top view

An artists’ depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea as seen from above.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

We hear you, they say. We feel your passion. But in the end your just cause pales in comparison to the righteousness of our own. Yours is, after all, a religious perspective and, as we all know, humanity advances through its sciences not its religions. Give it up. We are the future; you are the past. In the grand scheme of things, you matter not.

The power this argument has over the current debate is rather astonishing given that the most important question confounding humanity has nothing to do with what happened in space a billion years ago but what is happening on Earth, right here, right now.  And that bedeviling question, the answering of which would provide the greatest benefit any human endeavor could bestow upon its contemporaneous kind, is simply “what is enough?”

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand that we are all headed for extinction due to an over consumption of resources that results in an over production of toxic substances our biosphere can’t process. That we respond by producing more offspring destined to consume at even higher rates says everything about how little progress we’re making towards a solution. . . that our economy depends on offspring destined to consume at even higher rates is enough to make you jump off a bridge.

The notion that our collective condition will be advanced by expending an obscene amount of resources building and operating a telescope in contradiction to laws protecting the environment and our avowed goal for a sustainable future is dead wrong; truth is, the TMT is antithetical to solutions for the problem that vexes us most.

At the epicenter of this planetary crisis, at no surprise to those who understand its power and significance, stands Mauna Kea, with its fate representing a critical tipping point for a new breed of intelligence … the sort that trumps both science and religion, the sort that can choose something as smart as peace over something as dumb as war, the sort that knows the difference between technology that harms and technology that serves, the sort that knows when we’ve all had enough.

There are already too many telescopes on Mauna Kea, and those calling for a balance between science and religion on the mountain must admit it will not come from building more, while those clinging to the belief that astronomy is a singular route to advancement must admit that they should have given up long ago … that they are the ones clinging to a shameful past that says the future doesn’t matter.

It is no small irony that the great benefit the noble-minded TMT upholders are destined to provide future generations (as they have professed to be their mission all along) will come not by building their telescope but by walking away from it.

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