What’s at Stake at Mauna Kea?

Diane Aoki
8 min readMar 9, 2020

How where you stand reveals who you are

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

The island that I live on, like all of the Hawaiian Islands, was originally formed from volcanoes. There are five volcanoes here, three considered active and two not. One of these dormant volcanoes is the subject of a major controversy. Mauna Kea, which last erupted 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, is the tallest mountain in the world, if you are counting from the sea floor. Even if you’re not, it’s pretty tall, 4,207.3 miles, about 14,000 feet. Its height as well as other factors such as low humidity and absence of light pollution, make it a desirable location for astronomy.

The latest proposed telescope, called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), is the subject of the most contentious protest to a development in my memory. In the 70s, there were actions to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe, which were ultimately successful. I recall protests in the 80s and 90s over the H3 freeway on O’ahu. In Kona, before I moved back here, local activists acted to protect a strip of pristine coastline that was being pursued for an exclusive beachfront community. There are many stories of activism in Hawaii. Current events do take a front seat in one’s memory and there is something about this controversy that is different, more significant. Protests in support of the “protectors” have taken place in places outside of Hawaii, such as in Las Vegas, California and Guam. I mean, if superstars Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson visit the site in support of the protestors, if Janet Jackson refers to it in a concert in Honolulu, that’s pretty impactful, right?

There is something going on. Something in the air. Something like a tipping point. Something bigger than local politics. Something. What is it?

Photo by Author at Site

This is not the first telescope on Mauna Kea. There are currently thirteen telescopes and a history of resistance throughout. But nothing has ever happened on this scale before. In a New York Times article, the current protest is linked to the 2016 and 2017 actions against the Dakota Pipeline. However, they are very different, as described in this Civil Beat piece. Protesters or Protectors, as they prefer to be called…



Diane Aoki

Playwright, essayist, teacher, artist, songwriter, poet. Creativity Activist.