Will Falk: Science vs. the Real World on Mauna Kea

By Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance

Many view the debate surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope’s proposed construction on Mauna Kea and Kanaka Maolis’ opposition to it as fundamentally a question of science versus culture. On the benign end, the word “science” has come to connote something close to cool and objective rationality – nothing more nor less than a collection of knowledge to be used in man’s (isn’t it always “man’s”?) noble aim to transcend nature. More malevolently, however, pitting science against indigenous culture is nothing more than insidious racism. This racism operates on the often unchallenged claim that science is an inherently western way of knowing and therefore superior to indigenous ways of knowing.

In fact, some Mauna Kea protectors wish to avoid this rhetorical ploy so strongly they can be heard saying, “We’re not against science, we’re just against building this telescope on Mauna Kea.” Their words imply that the telescope could be built somewhere else and western science allowed to run its course everywhere but here.

Personally, I am against the construction of telescopes anywhere and I have lots of problems with western science. I am careful to emphasize the adjective “western” in western science because Kanaka Maolis often remind me that they’ve always known many of the things western science claims to have discovered. Remember, as Mauna Kea protector Hualalai Keohula has reminded me, that Kanaka Maoli navigated the world’s largest and greatest ocean in canoes built with wood and stone, aided with nothing more powerful than the naked human eye, centuries before the West realized the world was round. This, it should be said, is the right way, the least destructive way, the non-violent way to practice astronomy.

I speak only for myself, here, but I will go so far to say I wish western science never existed. I know in today’s dominant culture my wish is pure blasphemy. As my friend Derrick Jensen noted in his brilliant work Dreams, science is the new monotheism. The old monotheisms – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – succeeded in removing meaning from the natural world and placed meaning in the hands of a jealous, abstract God dwelling in far-off heavens. Science, then, erased God and obliterated any possibility of meaning with Him. When I make these arguments, I’ve found it to be like Jensen has observed, when you blaspheme God, you are called a disbeliever. When you blaspheme science, you are called an idiot.

Still, on the whole, science has been a disaster for life on Earth. The first problem with science is the first problem with so many products of the murderous culture we live in. The first problem with science is science’s epistemology is rooted in this culture’s epistemology. And, this culture’s epistemology is based on domination. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

One way to understand science is to trace what the leading scientific epistemologists have to say. Remember Sir Francis Bacon from your 6th grade science class? He invented what we call today “The Scientific Method.” He said his “only earthly wish is to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe” by “putting her (nature) on the rack and extracting her secrets.” As if that wasn’t scary enough, Bacon went on to say, “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

Or what about the hugely popular science apologist, Richard Dawkins? He writes in his book A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love that “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.”

“To make matter and energy jump through hoops on command” is a soft way to spell domination. Substitute yourself for “matter and energy” (that is what you are, of course). How would you feel if a scientist pointed a gun at you, or shot electrical currents through your muscles, or stuffed you into a cage, starved you, pumped your body full of chemicals and forced you to jump through hoops at his command?

The culture we live in is based on domination. How else do we account for the fact that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime? One in four girls and one in six boys sexually abused before they turn 18? How else do we account for the fact that 2.6 people are killed by American police every day?

Why, then, would we expect western science – a product of this culture – to be any different?

***

There’s a better way to judge science. It is a question that should form all of our moralities. The question is simple.”Is the real world better off because of science?” I think the answer to that question is a resounding no.

I come to that conclusion because my morality takes the needs of the real, physical world as primary. Water, soil, air, climate, my body, your body, and the food that sustains us are all formed by complex relationships of living beings. These living beings form the communities that make life possible. The needs of these communities must inform every action humans take. Anything else is suicidal.

I understand that science can be useful. Western science gives us modern medicine, for example, but modern medicine is more often than not a leaky band-aid applied to a wound created by science in the first place. Many tell me that western science is going to give us the cure to cancer while they forget that most cancers are produced by environmental toxins that exist because of science. I understand that western science can help us predict the devastating consequences of climate change, but science opened the road to the technologies responsible for climate change in the first place. Western science is responsible for napalm, agent orange, and atomic weapons. Of course, the surest way to prevent the destruction those weapons caused would have been to never open the doors of knowledge that lead to them.

The TMT project serves as a perfect reflection of the insanity of western science. Just like western science gains knowledge through domination, the TMT project is only possible through the domination of Kanaka Maoli. If the original people of Hawai’i were not exterminated by genocidal processes, were not made second-class citizens on their own islands, their culture not beaten to within inches of its life by American denationalization programs, Mauna Kea would be truly protected with the highest reverence.

But, western scientists have arrived, confident in the role Francis Bacon has laid out for them, to stretch Hawai’i on the rack and extract her secrets from her. The cops have come twice, with guns on their hips, to make Mauna Kea protectors vacate the Mauna Kea Access Road like Dawkins’ scientists who make matter and energy jump through hoops on command and arresting anyone who refuses the command.

Again, let’s ask the most important question of all. Is the real world better off with or without the TMT?

One way to answer this is to examine the physical processes needed to construct the TMT. Included in these physical processes are the actual materials used in construction. I am no expert on telescope construction and I’ve found it difficult so far to find detailed lists of the materials that will form the TMT (probably because acquiring these materials are a disaster for the environment.) From what I can tell, though, the TMT will be built with materials like steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals.

You cannot have the TMT without steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals. You cannot have steel, aluminum, and other rare earth metals without mountain top removal, open pit mining, and the combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuels. You cannot have mountain top removal, open pit mining, and the combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuels without climate change, mass extinctions, the forced removal of indigenous peoples, and the violent labor conditions present in extraction industries. So, before the materials needed to build the TMT ever even arrive in Hawai’i, they will be covered in the blood of humans and non-humans alike.

Telescopes are a disaster for the real world just like western science has been. Telescopes cannot be anything other than disasters for the real world because they are products of a murderous system of knowledge. It might be really super cool to discover the 832nd star in the 412th known galaxy with a new, massive telescope. This knowledge, however, comes through the domination of life on earth.

Mauna Kea – and I would argue all mountains – might be best understood as a complex community of living creatures living in mutual relationship. The needs of this community trump the desires of science. Mauna Kea itself acts as a giant water filter and houses the largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island. Everyone needs clean drinking water, but there have already been seven documented mercury spills associated with the telescopes on Mauna Kea. Currently threatened, endemic species call Mauna Kea home. The needs of mamane trees and ahinahina to live trumps the curiosity of astronomers to peep at other worlds.

***

Before I finish, let me anticipate the objections I will receive. Yes, I am quite aware of the comforts brought to some of us by western science. But, when we talk about how great science is for “us,” who are we talking about? Are we talking about the few indigenous societies clinging to their traditional ways of life, clinging to the only human ways of life that were ever truly sustainable? Are we talking about polar bears? Sumatran tigers? Bluefin tuna? We can’t be talking about West African black rhino because they just fell into the deepest dark of total extinction.

I know that science produced the internet, the laptop I’m typing on, and brought the delicious cold brew coffee I’m drinking. People often criticize me asking, “How can you condemn these wonderful tools you are using? You get on planes and travel to Hawai’i, you get in cars to visit places across Turtle Island, aren’t you a” – and they gasp – “a hypocrite?”

My answer is simple. Yes, I might be a hypocrite, but I believe my friend Lierre Keith who said, “Understand: the task of an activist is not to negotiate systems of power with as much personal integrity as possible – its to dismantle those systems.” Western science is a system of power and must be dismantled if we have any chance of surviving the catastrophe facing us. Sitting Bull used American made rifles to defend his people from American cavalrymen. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet who was murdered for resisting Shell Oil in his homeland, wrote in English – the language of his oppressors.

I wish with all my heart that I could live as our ancestors lived – a life free from the deepest anxiety that in a few years everything might be gone. I was raised in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah – a place I just visited – and I wish with all my heart that I could spend my life walking in Indian paintbrush, columbine, daisies, and lupine consumed in the total wonder and beauty of life. I wish with all my heart that I could sit still in simple expression of the love I feel. But, while everyone I love is under attack, it is simply unforgivable not to do everything within my power to protect them. It is simply unforgivable not to use every tool at my disposal to defend them.

History reveals western science as an accomplice to the murder of the real world. Western science is attempting the murder of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea and the real world demand that we stop it.

Will Falk has been working and living with protesters on Mauna Kea who are attempting to block construction of an 18-story astronomical observatory with an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

Find an index of Will Falk’s “Protecting Mauna Kea” essays, plus other resources, at:
Deep Green Resistance Hawai’i: Protect Mauna Kea from the Thirty Meter Telescope

9 thoughts on “Will Falk: Science vs. the Real World on Mauna Kea”

  1. “Are we talking about the few indigenous societies clinging to their traditional ways of life, clinging to the only human ways of life that were ever truly sustainable?”

    You wrote a lot of things I significantly disagree with, but I’m picking this one because it’s something that can be concretely discussed. Your argument — that wise ancient humans somehow avoided taking or using too much — is not supported by the historical record.

    Human beings are significantly implicated in the extinction of megafauna at the end of the last ice age — long before cities, towns, or agriculture had even been invented. The die-off patterns across species closely match the first appearance of human habitation in areas. Climate change is also believed to have played a significant part, but for as long as our species has existed, it has subsisted on the lives of other creatures — and it often took from those creatures to the point of no return. Extensive information here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megafauna#Megafaunal_mass_extinctions

    You lay evils at the feet of science as though science were the cause, the root, the issue. It is not. I do not claim that all cultures progressed towards the same end, or that indigenous cultures deserve to be ill-treated in the past or present-day, but from the very beginning of our collective history, societies chose — *chose* — to progress along a path of technological sophistication and increased mastery over their environments. Some societies took these concepts farther than others. Some reached great heights of achievement and were far more advanced than Western Europe, but stagnated thereafter in terms of scientific research and development.

    Western science didn’t just give us the bomb, or TNT, or cancer-causing toxins. It gave us the food web, the very concept of ecology, and the ability to peer into the depths of medical plants or practices and determine *why* they work, and then to refine those mechanisms to ensure that they can be used for the betterment of people. There are negatives and costs, yes, but there were negatives and costs to living in an indigenous population. Childbirth has historically been the leading cause of death in women, across all populations — until modern, western science dealt that particular bugbear a fatal blow.

    I will readily admit that I am biased — without immediate and extreme medical intervention at the moment of my birth, I wouldn’t have survived an hour. I am not unique in that respect. You’re right — my survival came at a cost. But every child ever born to a mother who didn’t survive the process *also* came at a cost, yet few have seriously argued that we should simply prevent people from having children.

    I do not call you a hypocrite for attacking science while enjoying iced coffee, but I think you’ve vastly underestimated the costs humans once bore as a matter of daily existence.

  2. Joel, the Overkill Hypothesis is just that ― a hypothesis ― and has plenty of critics.

    In general, you seem to believe the propaganda fed to us by civilization regarding other ways of living. It’s very ignorant, if not downright racist, to speak as if other cultures did not understand ecology, or why plants heal, or the food web. (I assume you meant to say that science gave civilized humans an understanding of the food web.)

    Yes, different cultures chose to adopt different sets of technology, and most importantly, different ways of viewing the world. I think Will’s point is very accurate: civilization chose science, a particular way of knowing with a goal of control and domination, and with an assumption that the world consists of objects devoid of inherent meaning. And it’s undeniable that it’s done more harm than good for the living world ― in fact, probably more harm than good for humans in general.

    1. Science is just one question: Why might you be wrong? Once you answer that question, find out if you are indeed wrong.

      Science is knowledge, and knowledge is power, but ignorance is not bliss. The natives of America wiped out the megafauna on that continent 14,000 years ago, as the Europeans did earlier. A scientific approach might have prevented this. It certainly would have given them the choice to stop.

      With out science, humans will continue to do great harm to the environment, you just won’t know about it.

      1. Erik, you contradict yourself. You recognize science as based in knowledge, and seeking to find the holes in that knowledge. But then you state, as if it were a fact “The natives of America wiped out the megafauna on that continent 14,000 years ago, as the Europeans did earlier.” As I linked above, there are big assumptions required to reach that conclusion, and many scientists contest the conclusions.

        More importantly, even if the First Nations did cause extinctions, it’s undeniable that their subsequent actions over the next 10,000+ years left their landbases much healthier than did a few hundred years of occupation by this science-based culture. It’s disingenuous to claim that a scientific approach prevents harm, when all the evidence points to the precise opposite.

  3. “History reveals western science as an accomplice to the murder of the real world. History reveals western science as an accomplice to the murder of the real world. Western science is attempting the murder of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea and the real world demand that we stop it.”

    Is this satire?

    ‘Science’ is nothing more than a system of testing. People using the results of science, people who have power create problems. Why do people use science for such reasons? Personal benefit. Real or perceived. Why are some people powerful? Because humans are really not removed from apes and they prefer to submit to authority, usually authority that makes up rules, and backs the rules with violence.

    Why is the building being built? Rules. Why can’t you stop it? Violence(via police or whatever). There is no science there.

    “I wish with all my heart that I could live as our ancestors lived”

    Yeah, abject poverty and constant threat of life ending violence would fill me with fairies and rainbows too. You know… over here in Australia, we have indigenous people too. IN many places we have enormous tracts of lands for them to live just as their ancestors did. They are not closet prognosticators of a dreamy past, they really just don’t want to live under grass held up by sticks eating ants, slugs and spearing each other. All humans want a ‘easier life’.

    Sitting around dreaming about past that never existed while having the ease to not have to struggle to obtain food and water is not merely hypocrisy. In my book what I read above is more akin to delusion.

    Give up money, your fridge, hot water and cook food you grew or caught on a fire. Then tell us how you have the good life you always dreamt of …

  4. Chris,
    You wrote: “‘Science’ is nothing more than a system of testing.”

    I disagree strongly. In saying this you ignore what the foundational scientific epistemologists have always said about the purpose of science. This is something I wrote about in the essay. You would agree that Sir Francis Bacon, the creator of the scientific method, the “system of testing” that you refer to, is a foundation scientific epistemologist, correct? Well, Bacon said his only earthly wish was to stretch nature over the rack and extract her secrets from her.

    Just a system of testing, huh?

    You wrote: “People using the results of science, people who have power create problems. Why do people use science for such reasons? Personal benefit. Real or perceived. Why are some people powerful? Because humans are really not removed from apes and they prefer to submit to authority, usually authority that makes up rules, and backs the rules with violence.”

    Power is material. And, you are quite correct, science emerged as a means of giving power. How does someone gain power over another person? Through physical advantage.

    Humans do not naturally submit to authority. They naturally submit to the possibility of real, physical violence. Authority/power is maintained through physical force. If you told me to go plow a field or work in a mine, I’d say, “fuck off.” (much in the same way every indigenous people I can think of did) If you put a gun to my head, I’d do it. The gun is your power. Now, how did you get that gun? Well, centuries of science and the metals, plastic, and chemicals used in the gun’s creation (which, again, are accessed through science). Of course, the processes to create them all require violence to the natural world.

    We can take this farther back than guns. How about swords?The Greeks, who many cite as the fore-fathers of modern science, used science to learn how to smelt the copper that allowed them to produce the weapons they used to colonize the Mediterranean. The forests around the copper-smelting centers of Chalke, Chalkis, and Chalkitis were completely clear-cut centuries before Christ.

    You wrote: “Why is the building being built? Rules. Why can’t you stop it? Violence(via police or whatever). There is no science there.”
    Again, how do the police come to have a monopoly on violence in Hawai’i? How do police have guns, tear gas, and the backing of a whole government to use them without science? The only way European settlers arrived in Hawai’i in the first place was through science. In order to develop ships big enough, and cannons strong enough to subdue native peoples you have to develop a system of knowledge that allows you to dominate your land base. Science provides this system of knowledge.

    You wrote: “Yeah, abject poverty and constant threat of life ending violence would fill me with fairies and rainbows too” presumably to describe the ways of life of traditional peoples.

    I’m not sure how you define poverty. If you define poverty as the lack of access to food, water, and shelter, then there are more people living in poverty than ever before. Here on Turtle Island, before the arrival of European settlers (with their science) poverty was largely unknown. I live on the edge of the Great Basin where pinyon-pine forests were so plentiful that one Shoshone gatherer could often gather 100 pounds of pine nuts in one day. 300 pounds could feed an entire family through the regions very harsh winters. I used to live in northern California where early settlers remarked that there were so many more animals than people that you could literally walk up to a rabbit, pick it up, and take it right to the pot for boiling.
    It’s true, indigenous peoples didn’t have ipods or TVs, but would you rather have those with the murder that accompanies mining the rare earth metals and the toxic chemicals that go into them or a world free of that exploitation?

    You wrote: “Sitting around dreaming about past that never existed while having the ease to not have to struggle to obtain food and water is not merely hypocrisy.”
    It’s just wrong that a past where humans lived comfortably off what the land freely gave never existed.
    I’m also not sure what you mean by not having to struggle to obtain food and water. Here in the so-called first world, we have to spend most of our lives working wage jobs that most of us hate, to be given the currency necessary to walk into a store and buy food controlled by someone else? And what about in the colonies where many people work in mines, in sweatshops, or on industrial farms to feed themselves?

    You wrote, “Give up money, your fridge, hot water and cook food you grew or caught on a fire. ”

    Tell me: How is it possible for me to survive giving up money and cooking food I grew or caught in today’s world? I leave out giving up my fridge and hot water because the places I’ve lived where I’ve had neither are the best places I’ve ever been. But, let’s return to my question. The truth is there are very few places left in the world – because of the destruction wrought by science and civilization – that I could grow enough food or catch enough food to feed myself without money.

    This was not inevitable, this is not some natural result of the world. I cannot access land to grow enough food for myself because someone already owns all the land. If I tried to go squat (you told me to give up money so I can’t buy the land) a large enough plot of land to grow enough calories for myself the police would come with their guns to move me off the land. And, hunting? Again, I do not have access to lands where there’s enough fish or game to support myself. Poaching, of course, will also bring the cops and their guns.

    The truth is science, as a whole, has been a disaster for life on this planet. There are some scientists doing good work. But, on the whole, life would be better off if science never existed.

  5. You Green folks seem to be arbitrarily selective in your condemnation of science. In the original article and in comments supporting it, I see a lot of arguments using history, which is very much a science and a modern one at that.

    1. I don’t think it’s arbitrary. Most progressives are actually very critical of history as well, when it’s used to naturalize and support the status quo of white supremacy and male supremacy. Deep Green Resistance adds a focus on human supremacy, which is glaringly supported by the “hard” sciences.

      Note the distinction between applying what we call the scientific method vs the use of science to prop up civilization. The former is applied more or less as common sense by perhaps all cultures, and is one valid way of knowing and learning. (See Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science
      for a fascinating examination of the subject.)

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