By slowing business down, just for a moment, the volcano has allowed us to imagine how we might live differently

As the ashcloud settles, at least for the moment, it’s worth reflecting quickly on some of the things we’ve learnt in the last ten days. There’s huge amounts of commentary all over the internet, so I’ll pick up three points which seem less well covered:

  • The aviation industry is all but doomed – it’s only a matter of time
  • Moments of disruption allow us to imagine change
  • And if it’s nature against humankind, nature will win.

The aviation industry is all but doomed

There was a moment just before the flight ban was lifted where it was reported that British Airways had only twelve days before it ran out of cash. It’s an indication of how fragile the aviation business model is: highly vulnerable to almost any shock, whether terrorism, spiking oil prices, or volcanic eruption. (And think what even a semi-serious global pandemic would do to the idea of rapid international travel). More generally, long-term trends are against it. Nor is there any credible way of transitioning aviation to a low carbon or no-carbon future. It’s simply not a business that’s going to survive much longer on its present scale.

So the airlines’ anger about the scale of the flying ban, and the caution about lifting it, is easy to understand as the howl of beasts staring at their own abyss. But it’s less easy to understand from other perspectives. In particular, the question of risk and its management is worth visiting. The airlines, inevitably, thought that European Air Traffic Control had been over-cautious. Willie Walsh of BA, inevitably, was seen, eventually, on a ‘test flight’ which managed not to fall out of the sky.

But this argument doesn’t bear a moment’s consideration, despite calls for an inquiry. 1300 flights a day go in and out of Heathrow. If the technical assessments of risk from volcano ash was that there was only a 0.1% chance of a crash, that’s one or two airliners crashing. That’s the sort of calamity that politicians never recover from (think how the Lockerbie bombing still resonates around British politics, twenty years on, or, conversely, the celebration of near misses such as ‘the miracle on the Hudson‘).

And risk is one of the great disputed areas of modern world, as a result of its complexity. In one of his several extended posts, David Steven of Global Democracy observed that, “When dealing with risk, governments are almost always going to emerge at least somewhat discredited.” Steven quoted Anthony Giddens’ 1999 Reith lecture:

In most situations of manufactured risk, even whether there are risks at all is likely to be disputed. We cannot know beforehand when we are actually scaremongering and when we are not.

And before I move on, if there are to be public loans to airlines to tide over their cash-flow problems, let’s hope that governments extract a decent price in exchange (as they so signally failed to do with the banks). As a minimum, one would expect to see airlines agreeing to retire some of their excess capacity. And perhaps agreeing to join the tax regimes which the rest of us are subject to.

Allowing people to imagine change

Utopians, and anarchists, sometimes write about the power of the disruptive moment to enable us to see how the world could be run and managed differently. They uproot our expectations of what is ‘normal’, and make us realise that normality is only one social construct among many alternatives. Even if they are fleeting, they create enough space to realise – to believe – that other worlds are possible.

Alain de Botton caught this well in his story from “a future world without aircraft”.

It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbour. And yet there would be benefits tied up in this languor. Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.

Stuart Jeffries, similarly, enjoyed the pleasures of Kew Gardens without the constant drone of Heathrow’s approach lanes.

Airships, blimps and boats appeared in a blog at the New York Times, along with one contribution which managed to reiterate the scale of our aviation dependency without quite demonstrating the need for it (BMW parts bound for South Carolina don’t have to “arrive daily by air”). Low-tech Magazine explored what it would take to make large liners an affordable mode of trans-Atlantic transport, and concluded they could fit in a lot more passengers than they do at present without being uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, over at Doors of Perception, John Thackara revived the argument which suggests that long-term the only means of long-distance transport which has a chance of squeezing into a sufficiently small carbon footprint is the coach.

And smartly, Open Democracy re-published an essay by the geographer Doreen Massey about space and distance in the globalised world, which went to the heart of some of the political assumptions embedded in cheap globalised flight.

In the [neo-liberal] world distance is always a burden… there is no question of the pleasures of movement or travel. And the aim is to “unearth” us, from any form of embeddedness, indeed from the planet itself. The associated rhetoric of “level playing-fields” and flat earth … eradicates the historical depth of any cultures or histories that are not theirs.

If it’s nature against humankind, nature will win

During the volcano moment, @paulcoelho – yes, that Paul Coelho – was widely re-tweeted (and by me) as saying, ‘Save the planet? Planet must be saying, “Save yourself idiots, I will be fine”‘. It was a useful reminder of the elemental nature of volcanoes; as one geologist explained, this is the tectonic plates on which Europe and the Americas sit pulling themselves apart from each other. Indeed, fine pictures published on caught a flavour of the sheer power of this apparently second-division volcano.

It still took a while for travellers to catch on. Initially, the mood was one of surprise and frustration. In the Financial Times Gideon Rachman was honest enough to admit his change of heart.

After a while it began to occur to me that my gathering gloom might have less to do with missing my family and several appointments, than with the unfamiliar sensation of being thwarted. Wealth and privilege has made babies of us all. Of course I should be able to get anywhere in the world in 24 hours! There is always a flight out. … Yet the volcano seemed strangely indifferent to the fact that I have a large credit limit on my Visa card.

And this is about scales of change. In The Clock of the Long Now Stewart Brand has a useful model, adapted from Freeman Dyson, of the ‘six pace layers’ of change, running from media and fashion (the quickest) through commerce and on down to nature (the slowest). Significant rapid change can come when layers conflict. The panarchy model tells us that faster systems innovate, and slower systems regulate. One simple version of the volcano story is of the huge, slow-moving natural system slowing down commerce, at least for a few days.

But nature can sometimes speed things up. We’re still waiting to see if the larger volcanoes on the faultline, Katla and Laki, will also erupt; in the past Katla has erupted after Eyjafjallajökull, although the data set is not huge; we have only three documented instances in a thousand years. In 1783, the eruption of Laki led to widespread crop failures, and possibly to the French revolution. As Hardin Tibbs pointed out, we could still find ourselves worrying about food rather than flying.

The photograph at the top is via Mixx Buzzers, and is used with thanks.