Monday, July 5, 2010

Salute the Adventurer

The rescue of round the world sailor, Abby Sutherland, has been making the headlines recently, attracting the usual debate concerning whether we would should pay for her rescue or not. Some time ago, Yann Elies, competing in the Vendee Globe round-the-world race was also the subject of some uncharitable commentators highlighting the monetary cost, and before that there was Tony Bullimore and others. However, many fail to see that there are costs should these people be discouraged from their adventures, costs to society as a whole.

Those, particularly in Australia, that criticise the cost of such activities should bear in mind that many would not be living where they are today unless someone with an adventurous sprit had not boarded a boat and sailed into the unknown. While a comfortable and sedate experience is what many people long for, the human race would stagnate without those who try to push the boundaries in all sorts of fields and endeavours. There are indigenous races that may rue, and with some justification, this adventurous sprit, and one cannot begrudge them this opinion, but exploration and competition appear to run in the blood of much of the human race.

Those that wish for the quiet life have every right to seek that experience, but they should not begrudge assistance to those who seek more active and physically challenging experiences. Just as some follow the suburban dream and conventional career paths, others dream of scientific discovery, sporting achievement, sailing the ocean, climbing mountains, or perhaps even going into space. These people often provide inspiration for others and so contribute something that can’t be measured in dollars.

And what about the cost? Why do we accept that the world should be run by accountants? Does the financial cost of something always have to be the deciding factor? And is the cost that is often quoted real? Where navy ships are concerned, are the navy sailors not paid irrespective of whether they are at sea? Perhaps they get paid more at sea, but how much more? Is the fuel not going to be used at some point or another in the year- if not this voyage, then another? So what is the real cost of a rescue that wouldn’t otherwise be expended? I would hazard a guess that it is much less than the figures that are often quoted.

So what is the cost discouraging these adventurous people? Will we start to get generations who are inward looking and caught in a spiral of ever-decreasing inventiveness? I’m serious; we see the same in research – people discouraged from pure research because it has no immediate commercial or practical application. That is very short-sighted because this very research is often the foundation of many new ideas that have great benefits to humanity. Just recently a plant species has proven to be useful in combating cancer, highlighting the benefits of funding basic botanical research. The same is true for adventurers, they inspire people to do things, and they show what can be done with determination and application. Sure, some come a cropper, falling through the ice in the arctic, getting knocked over in the Southern Ocean, or getting into trouble climbing mountains and needing rescuing, but I hold no grudges that my taxes go toward their rescue. I am a lot more worried that my money goes into subsidising tax breaks for investors, politicians expenses, the private education system, and many, many more things that systematically siphon money away from more needy areas and cost far more than the one-off rescue of an adventurer.

The cost of discouraging adventure and risk is a bland and timid society. We are already letting the economy run our lives, rather than using the economy as a tool for helping society. We are not here to serve the economy, the economy is there to serve us, and I think we can lose sight of this sometimes. I won’t go into the GFC, but making money for money’s sake has not proven to be a great idea, it has cost us trillions of dollars. Don’t worry about a few million dollars spent on rescuing adventurers, when we condoned financial practices that have sent countries broke and major institutions to the wall. Where is the sense of perspective here? Why is this even an issue?

I applaud those who still find ways in which to be adventurous and challenge the elements. They remind us that humans are a curious and dynamic animal that seek out new experiences. We need to keep climbing mountains, sailing the oceans, exploring deep caves, the sea floor, the deserts, and the universe. The alternative is that we become a risk-averse race that crawls along, afraid to take chances and nervous of challenges, always worrying about cost.

Why should everyone be chained to their job? Why criticise those who choose to push the limits? In the long-run, their spirit of adventure benefits all of us, shows that the world can still be a wild and wonderful place, and reminds many of us of the origin of the cities and countries where we live today. People got on boats, or camels, or horses, and went out into the wide blue yonder to see what was there. I am grateful to them for that and sleep soundly in my bed each night knowing that there are adventurers out there who dare to dream.