Saturday, April 17, 2010

Red Centre, day two

On the second day we went back to Uluru to watch the sunrise there and then took a walk around the base of the rock. There is an option to climb the rock although we were unable to due to strong winds. Climbing the rock is an enormously controversial issue. The local aboriginal people, the Anangu, believe the rock is sacred and do not want people climbing it. They also own the rock and the land around it, after it was returned to them by the Australian government several years ago. So why don’t they simply prohibit walking on the rock? From what I can gather, although the details of story differ according to who is telling the story, they either did ban climbing it for while or considered it and did research on what the impact on tourism would be and the result was that banning the climb would impact too severely on tourist numbers. Instead, they permit climbing but request that you do not do so, a kind of moral rather than legal prohibition on climbing. This is also emphasised by many of the tour operators. Both the tour leader and the guy who I booked it through urged non-climbing. However, I probably would have climbed had I been able to. I’m in favour of respecting people’s spiritual beliefs (although why respect false beliefs? I don’t respect Christian beliefs, I think they’re ridiculous) but the fact that they don’t take their own beliefs seriously enough to sacrifice tourist revenue for indicates to me that it is not a strongly held belief. That doesn’t mean that I’m accusing them of being hypocrites. There’s nothing contradictory about holding a belief but sacrificing it for the benefits that could be gained by doing so. But if the spiritual belief can be outweighed by revenue then I can’t see why it isn’t also outweighed by the enjoyment I would’ve got from climbing the rock. I also think its a strange position to hold that the option to climb must be kept open while advocating non-climbing. Surely if the moral pressure not too climb is strong enough to do the work they hope in deterring people then it would also have a similar effect on tourism. That is, a moral prohibition could have the same effect as a legal one, and so revenue would fall similarly. Perhaps there is a way of resolving the apparent contradiction: the moral pressure may work on peoples voluntary desires, so that they will still desire to visit the place even though they cannot climb. That way, the Aboriginals get what they want without losing revenue. But perhaps they need to do some research into what the effects of a moral prohibition would be before doing it.


  1. As I said in the employment blog post there is a difference between respecting people's right to a belief (which we should all do) and respecting those beliefs themselves (which we should only do after evaluating those beliefs to see if they stand up to scrutiny). So it's fine for the Aborigines not to believe in X so long as they don't expect me to alter my own actions because of them. Except in this case they own the rock, so they can impose any condition they want as regards its use.

    I would not feel much in the way of a moral constraint climbing the rock as I don't share their religious beliefs. If there was an ecological concern then I'd be happy to accept that and would decline the climb.

    This may be contrasted with the Great Pyramids in Egypt. When visiting those in 2001 I was quite happy to respect the ban on climbing, since (i) it is a ban, not a moral request, by the owner; (ii) more to the point, it is motivated not by spiritual beliefs but by a desire to preserve the pyramids, and of course I share that concern; and (iii) it is enforced by the tourist police who are armed with AK 47s.

  2. What interests me most is the stance that it is not forbidden to climb though they prefer you don't. As you say, they own it, so if they banned climbing then you have to refrain. But they don't ban it they just ask you not to. I'm not sure I was right when I called this a moral rather than legal prohibition. Maybe its just a request. But what does that mean? One reason to take into account.

    An analogy might help here. Imagine you're a smoker. If someone invites you to his house but says there is no smoking then you have to abide by that. If the person says 'you may smoke but I'd prefer you not to' then it seems impolite to smoke. But that might be because it is really a prohibition rather than request although couched in terms of a request just to be polite. What if the person says 'I'd like to ban smoking in my house but when I do less people come so you may smoke but I prefer you not to'? This seems like the Uluru situation. Then in that case I think the request really is just one reason to take into account and to weigh up against your enjoyment in smoking/ climbing.

    If I wouldn't come to the person's house if i couldn't smoke then it seems I'm permitted to smoke - the person has invited me on the proviso that I may smoke if I want even though he prefers me not. If the company, good times, etc of being in the house are not worth it if I don't smoke then I wouldn't go. But if I'd still go if smoking was banned then it seems taking advantage of the situation to go and smoke.

    So the upshot is that you may climb only if you wouldn't go there if you weren't allowed to climb and you shouldn't climb if you would still go there if there was a ban. I'd still have gone if climbing was banned so I shouldn't climb.