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Enlightening Hawaii’s Economy
A vibrant Hawaiian culture is worth far more than the astronomy industry ever could be, because it is about so much more than money.

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Now that reaction to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has proven its impacts to Hawaiian culture are so profound it cannot proceed, supporters of the project cling to the hope that its much-touted economic benefits can, somehow, keep it alive. That hope is predicated on a widespread belief that the economic benefits would be substantial, which in turn is predicated on widespread acceptance of claims originating with TMT Corporation and parroted by both local and national media.

Selling the TMT as a huge boon is the latest pitch in an ongoing campaign started in the 1960s when the days of Big Sugar were numbered and certain individuals took it upon themselves to promote astronomy as a salvation from economic collapse.

These pitches have always been necessary because hosting the industry has always required concessions … the bulk of which allowed the industry to run rampant on the summit of Mauna Kea despite existing commitments (in the form of statutory requirements) to protect and conserve this incomparably beautiful landscape. But there have been other concessions with significant impacts as well, such as the voluntary lighting restrictions that have condemned Hawaii Island’s urban areas to a half-century of post-sunset economic depression.

Mauna Kea demonstrator walks up past stopped DLNR vehicles after stones were strewn on the Mauna Kea summit access road. 24 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A Mauna Kea demonstrator walks past stopped Department of Land and Natural Resources vehicles after stones were strewn on the Mauna Kea summit access road.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fifty years later we can say with certainty that astronomy hasn’t saved anything. Instead, it has enriched an elite subculture associated with the university that imports talent and exploits the summit for its own gain while the rest of us stumble around in the dark bathed in a sickly yellow glow.

By the time TMT Corporation came on the scene, it was subject to a new set of expectations due to recent revelations that this economic boon of a local industry was paying a single dollar per year to lease the land for its telescopes while charging millions of dollars per year for observatory time. Clearly the existing narrative wasn’t enough to sustain an even greater level of exploitation, so the TMT developers had to come up with a new approach.

Their first line of defense was to set mouths watering by branding their venture as a $1.5-billion project. Their next move to was throw money around in an attempt to buy off the opposition.

Obviously that second move isn’t panning out for TMT Corporation, but what of the first? Does anyone still believe that shutting down the project amounts to a $1.5-billion loss?

Enter Dr. Paul Brewbaker, a Hawaii-based economist who, at a recent presentation on behalf of the Hilo-Hamakua Development Corporation (HHDC), tried to convince anyone who was listening that failing to build the TMT would cost us $3.6 billion (due to the arbitrary 2X multiplier effect), precipitate the demise of the entire astronomy industry and lead to starvation.


First, the much-touted $1.5-billion valuation (recently ballooned to $1.8-billion) has always included a substantial amount of in-kind contributions in the form of donated research time by partners who would get viewing time in exchange. Of the capital required to build TMT, the bulk would be spent in India, China, Japan, Canada and California … not Hawaii. All told, the islands would see about $400 million spent here.

No small amount of money — until you compare it to the losses that will occur if the state continues to thwart Hawaiian cultural practitioners demanding a permanent halt to the TMT.

At the HHDC presentation, Brewbaker made much ado about astronomy as a knowledge-based industry while utterly ignoring the uniquely rich resource being cultivated by those with a growing knowledge of Hawaiian culture. By ignoring it, he failed to account for its huge potential as an economic driver while failing to acknowledge the damage being done by Gov. David Ige, the UH Board of Regents and even the HHDC as they continue to support the TMT over objections by those who have made it their life’s mission to embody the core values defining the culture.

A vibrant Hawaiian culture is worth far more than any industry could ever be, primarily because it is about so much more than money. It has the power to heal, which leads to significant health care savings; it has the power to create thousands of local jobs through cultural tourism and unique educational experiences; it has the power to solve the affordable housing crisis by redirecting the billions of tourist dollars that get sucked out of our local economy by the likes of Conrad Hilton; and it has the power to feed because, truth be told, you can’t eat data, but you can eat poi.

When the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources abdicates its responsibility to protect Hawaii’s natural resources, it devalues this potential. When the Board of Regents fails to listen to graduates of its own Hawaiian Studies programs, it tells the world the value of a degree in Hawaiian Studies is none. And when unions sell out Hawaii’s sacred places for a few years worth of wages, they rob generations to come.

It’s time for those thwarting this potential to wake up and stand down.

Board of Regents, stop undermining the potential of the Hawaiian culture to heal, enrich and feed. Gov. Ige, respect the protectors. HHDC, join the movement to halt the TMT.