I, Robot


A friend of mine recently returned from a holiday in France. She had a great time travelling around the Dordogne region in southern France, her only complaint being that she couldn't get to see the Lascaux Cave. The real cave has been closed to tourists for a long time, and next door to it has been built a replica for tourists to see. The cave was only discovered in 1940 (when a dog, Robot, crawled into a hole revealed by a fallen tree and was followed by his owner), and the first people to see it were amazed by the art on the walls, painted (it turned out) around 17,000 years ago. There were hundreds of vivid paintings of the animals hunted by the local people at the end of the last Ice Age, all as fresh as if they had been done the day before, and revealing much information about the fauna of the time, long extinct (including mammoths, horses, bison, giant cattle and so on), and about the behaviour and beliefs of the humans who lived there. The site was a treasure trove for archaeologists, but also quickly became a tourist attraction. A treasure trove, I'm guessing, for local businesses, who demanded it be opened as a tourist attraction. The entrance was opened up, water diverted, car parks built, the cave floored with concrete, bright lights installed – and up to 1700 visitors a day tramped through, bringing in, as it turned out, bacteria and fungi on shoes, clothes, and in the humid air they breathed out. After just 15 years the combination of all these factors was beginning to destroy paintings that had survived 17,000 years, and in 1963 visitor numbers were greatly limited, and a system to move air throughout the caves was installed and worked quite well. Then in 2001, in a misguided attempt to improve things, a new air conditioner replaced the old one and since then fungus and bacteria have again begun eating away at the pantings and walls, and a major conservation effort is needed to try to slow down the destruction.

I was reminded of this story last week when I watched a news item about the Bay of Fires in Tasmania. This beautiful spot was named, by Lonely Planet, as the world's top spot for tourists in 2009. It's attractions included its isolation, few visitors, unspoilt white beaches fringed with forests. The guide urges "travellers looking for a slice of paradise to visit Bay of Fires right now, before the crowds take hold". Now you might think, and you would be right, that listing a place like this whose value lies in its isolation, few visitors, and consequently unspoilt environment would be inviting its destruction and you would be right. Presumably next year other unspoilt destinations, in their turn, will be brought to the world's attention.

But in the meantime the Tasmanian government, in a rare example of conservation concern on the island, decided to declare the area a National Park in order to afford it some protection from the Lonely Planet crowds. Immediate outrage from both local businessmen, and an Aboriginal group led by Michael Mansell. The businessmen want development to take advantage of the Lonely Planet listing, which "gives the tourism and hospitality industries a unique opportunity to grow their business" according to a tourist industry leader, and I am picturing roads and paths and trail bikes and restaurants and marinas and adventure playgrounds and big air conditioned hotels. It's not clear what the Aboriginal group wants, but since it doesn't want a National Park, I guess it is also seeking development of some kind. In Cape York, Noel Pearson is similarly outraged by the Queensland government trying to protect some of the last wild rivers on Cape York, because Aboriginal people want to develop them. Strange that Aborigines and developers could both be enemies of conservation.

But whoever is pushing development of undeveloped areas, it really has to stop. Maybe okay 60 years ago (as Lascaux was opened to tourism), when there were still many untouched areas, but now they have dwindled down to a precious few, and the parade of Labor, Liberal and National politicians, marching robotically in step behind the developer drummers, chanting "money money money" and, hypocritically, "jobs jobs jobs", should be redirected to the redevelopment of already ruined places.

I don't know if the Lonely Planet writer had a dog who ran over the sand dunes and discovered a beautiful place ripe for exploitation, but if he did he should have called the dog back and gone on his way. If only that French boy had called his dog back instead of following him in. Perhaps whenever a place is lined up for development a talking statue of Robot the dog should be placed at the entrance as a reminder and a warning. "Woof woof" he would bark when he sensed a developer "woof woof". "Keep out".

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.