Archive for April 21st, 2010

Normally a plane flies over my home every five minutes through the day.
I have often sat out in the garden in sunshine and marvelled at how accustomed I had become to what you’d expect would be a major disruption; having to break off conversation, for instance, as another roar descends.
Now that the planes have stopped the peace is creepy.
Others – many of my Facebook friends among them- are remarking on how pleasant it is to have this silence. Well, yes. I go on holiday for silence like this. I pay good money for it, but I live in a city and I expect a city to sound like a city. And if it doesn’t, then something in me reacts instinctively, a bit like the cowboy in a hundred films who notices that the war drums have stopped; far more ominous than the drums themselves.
There is no point pretending that our world hasn’t changed. OK, the threat of volcanic ash drifting down from Iceland is obviously one we should have anticipated. What else has Iceland got, apart from volcanoes?
But a perfectly inevitable disruption has arrived and reminded us how complacent we have been. The change is that we can not be so complacent again.
I have been planning to fly to Barcelona at the weekend. The weather forecast says I might be able to get away. Can it assure me that I will get back; that the winds over Ireland or Spain or the skies in between won’t have closed the route again while I’m gone?
For now we anxiously await the reopening of our airports, but how stable will air traffic seem even when flights are cleared for take-off?
On this little archipelago off the west coast of Europe we have been obsessed with the winds. If we didn’t have weather forecasts with every news programme telling us what way the winds are blowing and whether they are carrying rain, snow or clearing the way for ridges of High Pressure (Yo!) we would feel isolated and deprived. Now we need Angie and Celia to keep us informed about ash flow.
It is intrinsic to our lives as islanders that we take the first buffetings from arctic storms and that we also receive balmy southern breezes that bring whiffs of the Azores to us. Our collective mood draws on the weather, as the weather draws on the wind. Now we are reminded of our dependency on the wind and our freedom to travel abroad seems once again as reliant on its force and direction as in the days of sailing ships.
We can not feel secure any more in booking flights abroad and must always consider the danger that we will be stranded; certainly as long as this volcano blows, but in the long term too, considering that there will be other volcanoes.
The question we are confronted with is whether our modern technologically based life style can be maintained on a fickle and unstable planet.
We had been anticipating that the great reverses of our growth and development might come from climate change or awesome calamity, an asteroid strike or a super Volcano like Toba in Sumatra, which deforested India and started an ice age. And we have no assurance that something like it won’t happen again.
But we enjoy the comfortable delusion that we don’t really suffer natural disasters in Ireland. The tectonic plates grind each other only thousands of miles from us.
We have the evidence all around us of volcanic seizures reshaping the landscape, but we all know that’s not going to happen again, don’t we?
Who’s afraid of Slemish or Knocklayde?
But now we do know that a fundamental or our lifestyle, air travel, can be stopped by a minor volcano, far away, and we are suddenly much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.
For the moment we must plan our practical adaptations. The wind may scatter the ash back north and release us, but air travel has suffered already. The fall out will be financial. Travel must now become more expensive to cover the losses. Some companies will fold.
And the public will remember which companies looked after them and kept them informed and which didn’t.
I find that I can not cancel my flight to Barcelona; but can only transfer the payment to another flight some other time. That’s Easyjet and online booking for you. The stranded and those who have had to change their plans will want to be sure in future that they are dealing with people not computers, and a company that can adapt immediately to problems like these.
Coming after a winter of delays and on top of the ludicrious policing of the liquids in our hand luggage, people must be starting to wonder if travel by air is, after all, worth it at any price.
It may be as expensive to holiday in Ireland but at least you have a better chance of getting home afterwards.
In the long term we have to adapt philosophically and incorporate our new understanding of our vulnerability into our world view.
Humanity has spread over the earth like an infestation, with incredible rapidity, and that recent growth has relied on technology of a kind that can be disrupted by minor and routine natural events; indeed, if we think in terms of Nature’s routines, we have to include climatic and seismic disruptions that we could not survive.
We can not defeat Nature, so perhaps we just have to be more stoical, like our grandparents were. Some days you just have to accept that you are going nowhere.

Read Full Post »