News in Europe for the past week have been monopolised by one single topic, the Icelandic volcano eruption on Thursday, and the ash cloud that has covered most of Europe during the past days bringing all air travel to a grinding halt. Although jokes have been made about Iceland owing the UK and Europe «CASH, not ASH!», this natural event has also been a strong reminder of a number of important things:
First, it has showed us how vulnerable our modern world is (even if we always forget about it) to natural events – volcanoes, earthquaques, tsunamis, etc. something to bear in mind if we are ever to take serious, and do something about, the impending climate change and its consequences.
Second, it has proved how dependent we are on planes (again, even though we forget it all the time), and how their disruption – even if only lasting for about 5 or 6 days and only directly affecting Europe – can have important consequences. A large number of people have suffered the consequences – FC Barcelona had to travel to Milan by bus (may this have had an effect on them losing?), and John Cleese forked out 3,300 pounds ($5,100) on a cab ride from Oslo to Brussels – and a great number of events have been cancelled as a result. This breakdown of normal activity has made us conscious of how much around us depends on an air travel that allows us to travel fast, but that is anything but natural. This disruption has even led some writers and philosophers to became nostalgic and condemn some of the things we have lost by jumping on the jet-age.
On the New York Times for example, Seth Stevenson praises the wonders of slow travel and writes:
So we are condemned to keep riding on airplanes. Which is not really traveling. Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination. By contrast, a surface journey allows you to look out on those spaces — at eye level and on a human scale, not peering down through breaks in the clouds from 35,000 feet above — from the observation car of a rolling train or the deck of a gently bobbing ship. Surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and even enchanting in a way that air travel never will be
On a similarly reflective, but a bit more positive note, the philosopher Alain de Boton writes for the BBC, about «A world without planes» and how all this air travel disruption may help us value again the magic of planes:
Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel, we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys.
How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth….
Despite all the chaos and inconvenience of our disrupted flight schedules, we should feel grateful to the unruly Icelandic volcano – for allowing us briefly to imagine what a flight-less future would envy and pity us for.
A third important point, beyond these extremely interesting reflections on humans’ relationship to (air) travel, the ash cloud has also had important economic consequences, which have extended far beyond the European borders. People have pointed out that the slow down of normal economic activity could hamper economic recovery in Europe – although the Financial Times has said that «long-term economic impact will be minimal». But economic consequences – like travel disruption in this globalised, 21st century world do not stop at national, or even continentel borders. African economies – and especially Africa’s fresh produce exporters – have been severely affected. Again, we do not often stop to think how many of the goods we can buy on our local supermarket are imported from overseas (admitedly I became most aware of this when I was living in the UK, for had it not been like this, my winter diet would have consisted of swedes and turnips). So, when flights cannot land in Europe, many of the goods produced for export in African countries and destined to this market, have nowhere to go. For example Owen Barder tweeted on Sunday:
Ethiopian rose exporters losing about €200k a day because of European no-fly.
Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
On Monday, Jeffrey Gettleman wrote this in the New York Times about the vegetable industry in Kenya:
“It’s a terrible nightmare,” said Stephen Mbithi, the chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. He rattled off some figures: Two million pounds of fresh produce is normally shipped out of Kenya every night. Eighty-two percent of that goes to Europe, and more than a third goes solely to Britain, whose airports have been among those shut down by the volcano’s eruption. Five thousand Kenyan field hands have been laid off in the past few days, and others may be jobless soon. The only way to alleviate this would be to restore the air bridge to Europe, which would necessitate the equivalent of 10 Boeing 747s of cargo space — per night.
“There is no diversionary market,” Mr. Mbithi said. “Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”
A similar piece was published by the BBC, only this time it focussed on Zambia’s flower and food export industry:
Zambia’s flower and vegetable industry is losing about $150,000 (£98,000) a day because of the volcanic ash over Europe that has grounded flights.
Flowers and vegetables destined for Europe have been discarded.
The BBC’s Matuna Chanda in Lusaka says if the flight ban continues, it could have disastrous consequences for farm workers in Zambia…
Other African industries, such as Uganda’s fish and flower export businesses, have also been affected by the grounding of planes for a sixth day.
The Icelandic volcano thus, has reminded us that, whether we like it or not, our world is far more interconnected that we often realise; and that these connections are often fragile. It is only when we get a strong wake-up call like this one, that many of the implications of how we live come to the fore. The volcano eruption, as John Keith Hart writes on his blog is one such event that highlights «many fundamental questions about our society and its relationship to the material environment». Keith Hart also raises what I believe can be an important point:
Surely this crisis will feed into public awareness of the issues raised by global warming and the vulnerability of our societies to the potentially adverse natural consequences of our interdependent actions. It is what Mauss would have called a «total social fact» illuminating evrything at once and in ways that do not improve our sense of security in status quo.
What the consequences of this «total social fact», may be however, remain to be seen.