Classifieds: Biosphere 2
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The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988


In the 1980s, I studied astronomy (actually, physics and mathematics was all it was) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I also did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, compelled by the same love of nature that brought me to astronomy.

So, I found myself in the company of both astronomers and environmentalists on a daily basis. I thought nothing of it, since so many amateur astronomers prefer to see dark, clean skies than strip malls, and often have to camp in the wilderness to escape light pollution. Similarly, environment-conscious hikers and campers always seem intensely aware of the night (and day) skies they get to experience.

But then came the Mount Graham controversy. In its early stages, the debate mostly revolved around a rare species of red squirrel that some feared would go extinct if a large observatory complex was built on top of the mountain. There was a lot to consider, and I tried hard to consider it. Unfortunately, I found no colleagues willing to help.

The environmentalists I met saw visions of chemical and radioactive spills, noisy research, great tracts of asphalt, and throngs of tourists in a pristine wilderness. I tried to explain that telescopes just bend light with mirrors and today require only electricity, not photochemicals. They also like native plants around them to absorb image-blurring heat, and tourists are only marginally tolerated at a serious research facility. Mount Graham already boasted a road system, a Bible camp, and an artificial lake. Nothing of the sort was in the least bit interesting to the environmentalists I discussed it with — this information was greeted as evidence alright, but only of the fact that my heart was not in the right place. The facts seemed to prove only that I didn't care.

I will say that they were somewhat more willing to engage than the astronomy students I tried to talk to — at least when those students were in all-male groups. There was no hope of even suggesting that accomodations might be made for the observatory's impact on animal habitats, or that a better understanding of the ecosystem up there might be interesting, or that mutual education between astronomers and environmentalists might lessen the tensions over the issue. I mostly remember one very brief, bruising conversation in which it was suggested that the group go squirrel hunting.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the Mount Graham debate, mostly because I doubted a real debate was possible. Being somewhat wet behind the ears, I was shocked that my interests could be aligned with people who were so obviously wrong and unwise. It would be many years before I really came to accept that even your ideological brethren can be routinely hostile to the truth and to the common good. I came to accept it as a fact, but I still find it rather unpleasant.