Resistance to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project on Mauna Kea has re-ignited the Hawaiian de-occupation movement. Since 1893 when John L. Stevens, other non-Hawaiian plantation owners, sons of Christian missionaries, and the US Navy forcefully overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) have resisted the American presence on the Islands.
The TMT project has awoken a sleeping giant. The TMT project would build a massive, 18-story telescope on a pristine section of Mauna Kea’s summit. Mauna Kea is the most sacred place in the world for Kanaka Maoli, houses Hawai’i Island’s largest freshwater aquifer, and supports a number of endangered species including beautiful mamane trees and ahinahina. The TMT project first attempted to begin construction on Mauna Kea on April 2, but Kanaka Maoli successfully blocked the Mauna Kea Access Road leading to the construction site. On June 24, the TMT tried again, but were turned away when the police found large boulders strewn across the road for several miles. So far, 50 people have been arrested resisting the TMT project.
Many are calling the movement on Mauna Kea the largest mobilization of Kanaka Maoli since 37,000 of the surviving 40,000 Kanaka Maoli signed the Ku’e Petitions against annexation to the United States in 1897. A new generation of Kanaka Maoli that have been educated in the country’s first language immersion schools after the legality of the Hawaiian language was restored in 1978 understand their nation’s history, understand the genocide their people have endured, and are demanding that the United States leave.
Right now, most of the arguments for de-occupation rely on appeals to justice. To bolster their claims to sovereignty, Kanaka Maoli point to the fact that their nation as the Kingdom of Hawai’i was the first non-European indigenous nation to be admitted into the Family of Nations. They cite the dozens of treaties the Kingdom signed with Great Britain, France, and the United States in international courts to persuade legal tribunals of the rightness of their cause. They ask the United States – who officially admitted and apologized for the Overthrow in a 1993 Congressional Resolution – to right the wrong and grant Hawai’i independence.
Justice certainly demands de-occupation, but justice is running incredibly late for Kanaka Maoli. Something deeper than justice, something less abstract and more real, something overwhelmingly urgent demands de-occupation. The Hawaiian de-occupation is rooted in the most important imperative of all – life. Life, itself, demands de-occupation.
The future of life on the Hawaiian Islands looks increasingly grim. Hawai’i is commonly referred to as the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” According to the State of Hawai’i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, 100 of Hawai’i’s plant taxa have already gone extinct. 200 plant taxa are considered to have 50 or fewer individuals remaining in the wild. 366 Hawaiian plant taxa are listed as endangered or threatened by the Federal and State government while an additional 48 species are proposed as endangered. To put this in perspective, Hawai’i only comprises less than one percent of the United States’ land mass, but contains 44% of the nation’s endangered and threatened plant species.
If that isn’t scary enough, consider that climate change is predicted to hit the tropics harder than anywhere else on earth. The 2014 National Climate Assessment conducted by the US Global Change Research Program predicts this for Hawai’i: “Warmer oceans are leading to increase in coral bleaching and disease outbreaks…Freshwater supplies will become more limited on many islands. Coastal flooding and erosion will increase…Rising air and ocean temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, changing frequencies and intensities of storms and drought, decreasing base flow in streams, rising sea levels, and changing ocean chemistry will affect ecosystems on land and in the oceans, as well as local communities, livelihoods, and cultures. Low islands are particularly at risk.”
I typically abhor the neutral journalistic voice that so often accompanies reports involving on-going environmental destruction. To write something like “freshwater supplies will become more limited on many islands” in no way comes close to explaining the very real thirst that humans and non-humans will experience as salt water floods into fresh water sources. This objective tone does not describe the crusty tongues and cracked skin, the bloody lips and bleeding organs that dehydration will cause. To take this further, to write something as horrific as “changing ocean chemistry will affect ecosystems on land and in the oceans” in a cool, flat tone is unforgivable for glossing over the fact that “ecosystems” are complex communities of beings with lives as valuable to them as yours is to you living in truly mutual relationship with each other.
Hawai’i, in the deep ecological sense, is best understood as the sum of all the living relationships in the ocean, on the land, and in the air surrounding the Islands. The needs of these complex communities are primary. The needs of these complex communities are what life on the Islands is built on. No clean air, no life. No clean water, no life. No healthy soil, no life. It is as simple as that. To write something like “100 plant taxa have already gone extinct” is really to say 100 whole families of our kin have been destroyed and we will never see them again. When life is based on the vital roles each member of a natural community plays, to destroy our kin is to destroy life. To destroy our kin is to destroy ourselves.
Too many look at the statistics and read the reports I cited about Hawai’i above, and conclude that Hawai’i is dying. Hawai’i is not dying.. Hawai’i is being murdered. For those who love Hawai’i and wish to ensure that Hawai’i survives, we must ask, then, Who is doing the killing?
The most destructive force facing Hawai’i – and the world for that matter – is climate change. We know what and who is responsible for climate change, so, let’s start there. Burning fossil-fuels is the leading cause of climate change. Humans, of course, are the only ones extracting and burning these fossil fuels. This prompts many to say that humans cause climate change (even the Pope says this). That is only partially true, though. It would be more accurate to say industrial humans are causing climate change. The uncontacted tribes in the Amazon are not burning fossil fuels, for example, and Kanaka Maoli were living sustainably on their Islands in a manner they could have lived in forever when Europeans were kicking off the Industrial Revolution that created this disaster in the first place.
There’s an important point, here. The oft-repeated line “human-caused climate change” makes all humans equally culpable and ignores the realities of power that allow some groups of humans to extract fossil-fuels and burn them at staggering rates while other groups of humans and non-humans suffer the worst of the consequences. Understanding the role of power in the destruction of Hawai’i – and the rest of the world – is essential to understanding why the United States must de-occupy Hawai’i.
To understand the development of power around the world, we need to understand some principles from human history. First, contrary to the conservative worldview, human beings are not inherently destructive. Clumsy, perhaps, but not destructive. How do we know this? Modern humans developed about 200,000 years ago. All of humanity lived in balance with their home for roughly 185,000 years before a few cultures began developing agriculture. Agriculture gave rise to civilization and most humans and the natural world have been suffering ever since.
Civilization is disastrous for life on this planet. I prefer Derrick Jensen’s definition for civilization because his definition is defensible both linguistically and historically while accounting for physical reality. Jensen explains in his brilliant work, Endgame, the root word in “civilization” is “civil.” “Civil” derives from “civis” which comes from the Latin “civitatis” meaning “city-state.” From there, Jensen defines civilization as a “culture – that is a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts – that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined – so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on – as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”
Civilized cultures eventually strip their land base of the necessities of life and are confronted with a choice. Either they return to a sustainable way of living (albeit a more impoverished way of life than if they had simply lived sustainably the whole time) or they must turn to other land bases to dominate. Most traditional communities resist civilization when it shows up at their door because most traditional humans understand the folly of civilization. In order to overcome resistance, civilization often resorted to brute force. The history of colonization is the history of this force.
Violent force is often a crude, messy means of manipulation. It is much easier to police a population if you can get them to buy into their own oppression. Along with brute force, civilization developed systems and institutions to psychologically manipulate humans into accepting civilization as the one, true way of life, the inevitable result of human depravity. Civilization is a jealous god and it works everywhere to consolidate its own power. Civilization developed monotheisms, the patriarchy, abstract moral philosophies, and racism to prop it up in the face of its insecurities.
One of the most devastating systems of power devised by civilization – and, perhaps, the one most responsible for the murder of Hawai’i – is capitalism. Civilization gains its power through the domination of the natural world. The civilized sacrifice a long-term, sustainable future for short-term, material benefit. This logic has found it’s most dangerous expression in the institutionalization of a capitalist economy. I am definitely not the first to point out that capitalism requires infinite growth to survive. On a finite planet where there is only so much life to be turned into dead products, this infinite growth is beyond insane. It is suicidal.
America’s occupation of Hawai’i, then, can be understood as a capitalist imperative. Many diagnose America’s imperialist expansion as a result of greed or religious hatred. Those certainly played a role. But, I think it’s more accurate to say that America expanded hungrily west all the way to Hawai’i because capitalism demanded never-ending expansion. America always needs new lands to extract so-called resources from. Capitalism cannot function without materials to be turned into commodities. I’ll turn to Jensen, again, as he explains that capitalism requires living trees to be murdered and turned into so-many square feet of lumber, requires living salmon to be turned into so-many pounds of meat, requires living humans to be turned into so many deaths listed as numbers on the back page of a newspaper. If capitalism could not find new life to kill, it would die.
How is all of this tied to de-occupation? Capitalism is killing Hawai’i and I think it’s time we are clear: The United States government exists to protect this murderous economy from those suffering under capitalism. Isn’t it clear by now that the United States does not protect the rights of citizens, but instead, protects those running the American economy?
When I ask this, I am not simply referring to the first 70 years of American history where the American government protected the right of white men to own slaves. When I ask this, I am not simply referring to the fact that state rape laws in the 19th century treated rape as a property crime – women, after all, were the property of a man. When I ask this, I am not simply referring to a government that provides the arms and funds to systematically murder Turtle Island’s original peoples while dispossessing them of lands these people have been responsible to for time immemorial. When I ask this, I am not simply referring to a more-or-less benign, enlightened democracy that is always learning from its mistakes as it progresses to the most highly developed society imagined.
Understand, the United States of America is not making mistakes. The American domination of the world is intentional. We do not live in a broken system or in a failed democracy. The USA was designed this way and with everyday that passes it becomes more effective in destroying what is left of the world. The USA must be stopped. This as true for Hawai’i as it is the rest of the world and the de-occupation of Hawai’i would help to undermine the American empire.
If you are skeptical, consider the experiences of attorney Thomas Linzey, chief legal counsel and co-founder of The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Linzey has made a career helping communities who wish to protect themselves from environmental destruction at the hands of corporations.
CELDF has been instrumental in the recent movement, for example, where municipalities are passing ordinances banning fracking within their jurisdictions. The problem with these ordinances is that they are unconstitutional and illegal. CELDF helps anyway, because, as Linzey has explained, one of the quickest ways to create radical cadre is to demonstrate to mainstream Americans who truly think we live in a democracy that they actually don’t have the right to regulate what kinds of activities happen in their own back yards. This realization is achieved by representing these communities in local courts and watching their belief in democracy disintegrate as judge after judge shoot their cases down.
Linzey, in fact, has demonstrated that, “Sustainability is illegal under our system of law.” Sustainability is illegal because of the power of four time-honored, fully entrenched legal doctrines that trump local concerns and protect corporate power. Those four doctrines are the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, corporate personhood, pre-emption, and Dillon’s Rule.
According to Linzey, the Commerce Clause grants a privately enforceable right to corporations to engage in interstate commerce. So, for example, if a community wants to pass an ordnance banning telescopes on their sacred mountain, a corporation under Commerce Clause jurisprudence, could successfully argue that the ordnance infringes upon the right of the corporation to engage in interstate commerce. Armed with the Commerce Clause, the rights of a corporation to engage in interstate commerce (to build their telescope) trumps a local communities right to say no to the construction.
Corporate personhood, Linzey explains, grants corporations the right not to have property taken without compensation from a governmental entity. If a corporation has a legal right (gains a state permit to build a telescope), and a local government bans telescope building, the corporation can demand compensation from the local government for financial damages it takes from losing the ability to build its telescope.
The next two doctrines, pre-emption and Dillon’s Rule, go hand-in-hand, says Linzey. Pre-emption says the state can limit the laws passed by municipalities. Dillon’s Rule says that unless the state explicitly authorizes a municipality to pass a specific law, the municipality cannot pass the law. So, if a local government passed a law banning telescopes, a corporation could successfully argue that the local government was never given that capability by the State government and therefore the law has no effect.
These four legal doctrines create what Linzey calls “The Box of Allowable Activism.” Linzey says, “We’re allowed to play in that box as long as we don’t interfere with those legal doctrines which actually define the sides of the box. And, it’s there that we ask the question: Do we think we can have economic or environmental sustainability…by continuing to stay in the box?”
On the ground, we’ve seen how the State of Hawai’i protects the TMT project at the expense of Kanaka Maoli and the natural community living on Mauna Kea. The State of Hawai’i provides the domestic branch of America’s armed occupying forces in Hawai’i (the cops) as armed escorts for the TMT construction equipment.
What exactly is the State of Hawai’i protecting? The TMT project directly threatens life on Mauna Kea. The TMT construction would destroy an eight acre patch on Mauna Kea’s summit. There have already been reported mercury spills associated with telescope construction on the mountain. The largest freshwater aquifer on Hawai’i Island lives under Mauna Kea. Mercury spills could poison this water.
Construction would also involve steel, aluminum, and other metals. You cannot have a massive telescope without steel, aluminum, and other metals. You cannot have steel, aluminum, and other metals without the mountain top removal, open pit mining, the consumption of huge amounts of fossil fuels, and the murderous labor conditions involved in the extraction of these materials. These processes are a disaster for life. In short, you cannot build the TMT without murder.
The State of Hawai’i’s actions only make sense if you realize that as an American governmental entity, the State’s primary purpose is to protect the economy in Hawai’i – no matter what the consequences are for citizens and non-humans. Following this logic, the State is quick to point out that the TMT project will bring jobs to Hawai’i. I am sick of hearing about jobs. You cannot have jobs on a dead planet. What good is a job if the largest aquifer on Hawai’i Island is poisoned? What good is a job if the world is warmed to a point it can no longer support life?
Frankly, for those of us who love the complex communities that life is built on, (which is to love life) it’s too late to concentrate on reforming the American system. We’ve tried praying. We’ve tried writing letters to our Senators. We’ve tried signing petitions. We’ve even tried court case after court case. Runaway climate change has the power to destroy the planet and climate change is even more dire in Hawai’i. Corporations operating through the capitalist system are most responsible for climate change.
Capitalism must crumble. To undermine capitalism we must defeat the physical force propping up capitalism. The largest entity protecting capitalism is the United States of America. Achieving the de-occupation of Hawai’i would be a strong blow to the American colonial empire. Perhaps, it could start the avalanche that removes the United States from stolen native land. Perhaps, it could topple empire.