Monday, 12 May 2014

A Shrinking Isolation

Martin Gibson - Technical Director

As I was watching a yacht leave the St Katharine Docks today, I wondered what exotic parts of the world it might be off to. It made me think about my colleague Peter George’s blog from a couple of weeks ago about the effect of tourism on the environment. This had spurred a discussion between us about the wonderful areas in which he had worked and that I had once been able to visit on a yacht. It also turned my thoughts to something that my father had said.

My father is a keen sailor. One of his skills is navigation and he used to do this for an ocean racing team many years ago and remains a member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club to this day. Now, my dad knows how to use a sextant. A couple of decades ago, he would sail to isolated anchorages on far away islands. This needed his navigations skills. When he got to his destination, there wouldn’t be many other boats there because navigating to them was difficult.

Roll on twenty years and those once isolated anchorages are now full of boats. This is because GPS and other technologies allow people with only rudimentary navigational skills to get to almost anywhere. A - perhaps unintended - consequence of the wide availability of GPS is that unpopulated areas can become more densely populated. This obviously has its up sides: more people get to experience new areas, the local economy can benefit and the industry supplying the technology also benefits.

On the other hand, are we losing something precious? Is there an inherent value in unspoilt environments which we lose as soon as they become too popular? Would these images have the same value if they were full of people? I don’t think there are simple answers to these questions. While I appreciate isolated areas and the fact that I have sometimes had access to them, I don’t believe that other people shouldn’t have access to them.

In general, increased mobility leads to a higher quality of life. Some of our work is for the Transport Systems Catapult, which is helping people to move around more freely and more sustainably. This involves free choice and accessibility. I suppose that if I was put on the spot, I would say that everyone should have the same opportunity to access isolated environments and that this shouldn’t be decided by wealth. How that is done and how we ensure that such environments aren’t degraded is far trickier. 

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