Monday, February 13, 2006

Tourism vs Science

SALT, the South African Large Telescope is under threat from a nearby golf-estate development.

The R200-million telescope which is the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere may have its scientific mission compromised by light pollution from a proposed 500-unit golf estate in Sutherland.

Sutherland was chosen as the site for Africa’s Giant Eye because it’s clear skies and distance from the chemical and ambient light pollution from cities.

Ambient glow from electric lights nearby decreases the effectiveness of the optical equipment. Ambient light is even more detrimental than other forms of pollution, like smoke.

SALT is so sensitive, it could detect the light of a single candle on the moon. The slightest bit of light contamination can render the expensive and valuable equipment essentially worthless.

Astronomers working with SALT discovered the development plans for the golf estate almost by accident, and were shocked to learn that developers were using the telescope as a selling point for their units: claiming that buyers could rent out their chalets to visiting international researchers bringing dollars and euros into the country.

In violation of Environmental Impact Assessment laws, the developers, the Sutherland Golf Trust, failed to involve the observatory in their assessment of the environmental impact.

This demonstrates the absolute worst of the capitalist system: money-grubbing bandits attempting to exploit our resources so as to make a quick buck – consequences be damned.

We must welcome those who would like to enjoy the splendour of our natural, and now scientific, resources. But at what cost? Can we afford to allow our country to be turned into a theme-park for richer-than-god eurotrash types? Despite the allure of the dollar signs, we must resist that temptation.

The plans for development are still pending approval by the provincial authorities. Let us hope they are able to see the illogic at work here.