Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Eyjafjallajökull is a bit of a mouthful. So is globalisation.

Can't pronounce Eyjafjallajökull?
Fret not my friend for you are not alone. None of us can. But you don't need to be able to pronounce it. Everyone is talking about 'it'. Any mention of 'ash' or your auntie being stranded and you are immediately and perfectly intelligible without twisting your tongue. The effects of the volcano are so pervasive that you don't need to be able to name the culprit to get your point across.

Airplanes have been grounded for days.
People are stranded for an ever-lengthening string of days in places they had visited for a long weekend or for a couple of meetings. Because that's how we have come to expect things to be. Hopping from place to place is not a miracle of science. It's a mundane fact of life for the globalised era. Only now, thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, people, mail and goods are going nowhere fast.

Goods are taking the scenic route, by ship, while the 'Armada' is setting sail to rescue stranded Brittons on the continent.
'Operation Volcano' is, according to the Daily Mail, 'a rerun of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation'.
Easy on the drama guys.
Or, come to think of it, pile it on because this is as dramatic as drama gets.
Yes it's a bummer that holidays were missed, return dates pushed back, shipments of this and that and the odd parcel have been delayed. But it would not be excessive to suggest that this incident, these last few days have been an alarm bell for the fragility of our entire civilisation model.

Maybe Eyjafjallajökull is Icelanding for 'how could you not have seen this coming?'.
First with global banking. Now with globalisation.
First cash and now ash. Thanks lads. Much obliged.

Can't pronounce Eyjafjallajökull? How about 'globalisation', can you manage that?
We have long lived with the assumption that the world is getting smaller. That you could pop over to New York for a weekend, take a day trip to Paris, nip over to Dublin for a meeting.
And now we are grounded. Literally.
63,000 flights canceled since Thursday – and counting.
1 million people stranded.
Not to mention the millions of trips that did not take place at all and flights that never got booked.
The cost to the airlines is astronomical.
The overall cost of the crisis is even higher.

And the real crisis is yet to be thought through.
Because while we are waiting for the ash to clear and trying to figure out how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, our entire civilisation model is on hold and none of us have voiced what we should all be thinking.

Everything from international sporting events to business, from leisure to high-value goods deliveries and mail, relies on thousands of airplanes criss-crossing the ether every day. It's not simply a matter of convenience. Our entire civilisation is based on the assumption that people and goods can move freely and speedily. That is the premise of globalisation. Without that, the entire system hollows out.

Don't celebrate the end of the global era quite yet. For now, no systemic change is thought about For now, we just wait. But we don't know how long this will last or how long we can physically be kept waiting for. Or when we may need to start waiting again.
When the volcano last erupted in 1821 it remained active for 13 months. There's a sobering thought.
You may not be able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull but you can surely say 'oh dear'.

So what does this mean in real terms?
It means you may have to go without mangetout and mangoes for a while. Forgive me if I don't weep for you.
You may have to go without supplies for engineering and IT hardware needs. Or wait until a boat or lorry brings them over. Delays will cost money. But they will be absorbed in the end.
Arms supplies may be affected. As may, possibly, the drugs trade. Not so sad now.
But it will also mean shortages in pharmaceutical supplies. Unless a plan for road and sea supply routes is implemented soon, before the shortages come near.

Carbon emissions will go down. Although there is talk of severe melt-down (no pun intended) around Eyjafjallajökull which is not good news. But then again it's part of the bad news we already know. And then there is the sister volcano that may still erupt and if that goes, we have no way of knowing what that will mean, for us, in real terms.

But what about the bad news that we haven't yet thought about?
For now we are all waiting for the volcano to stop and life to resume.
We expect this disruption to last however long it lasts – although we hope it won't last as long as last time – and then things will go back to normal. Mail, goods, drugs and people will cross continents with speed and reliability.

But until then?
Until then we are left staring at the face of a civilisation that was kicked in the gut and is panting on the floor. For all our triumph over nature, our commercial giants and the leaps of science, there was no real plan B in place. And there isn't one still.
Our over-reliance on planes is mental as well as practical. Our planes are grounded and we wait. Because we cannot fathom that other ways of doing things are as valid. Or essential.

The newsflash is simple: you can't say Eyjafjallajökull but surely you can say 'nature' and remind yourself we don't actually run it. Even though we often pretend we do.
Our entire civilisational paradigm is based on a massive assumption: that we can fly. Freely. Frequently. At a moment's notice.
And while we can't, maybe we could have a think about what our over-reliance on the airline industry means. What our over-reliance on shipping goods and people across oceans and continents super-fast actually means and how we can live and live well when, for whatever reason, that can't go ahead as planned.

Now, while we wait, we are just waiting. We are not doing any thinking.
We never do any thinking.

But what if Eyjafjallajökull is Icelandic for 'suckers, the system has a massive weakness, how did you fail to spot it this time?'
Oh hold on. It wasn't just this time. It was also last time.

So maybe Eyjafjallajökull is icelandic for 'our arrogance is our worst enemy'.
The money markets. The global nexus. Our 'small world'.
Maybe Eyjafjallajökull actually stands for 'we will never learn'.
Even when we are forced to wait and all we can do is think, we still don't.
Meanwhile nature is doing its thing, despite our plans.
Inconsiderate thing that it is.


  1. I definitely cannot pronounce Eyjafjallajökull (dare I say, can barely spell it!) but it interesting that this volcano caused so much chaos, not only to those living near it, but affected people across the globe. It really does make you wanna stop for a minute to give it a thought.
    Very interesting post :)

  2. This thing forces us to realise that whether we like it or not we live on a rock that travels through space. This rock is alive and will erupt and spend its energy at times; otherwise it will gather its force and when finally it manages to break through it'll shoot us all to kingdom-come!

    Get use to it people and think that we are not the force of nature but a small and irrelevant piece. Nature doesn't care whether we live or die. Goes without saying that it doesn't care whether we fly or not!

  3. Hello!
    I really loved the part when you said "First cash and now ash". It's the bitter truth and i can honestly say that i am guilty because i really hadn't thought of any effects!
    I heard it on the news. They so much spoke about the dust. But no one went deeper than that.
    I feel somehow happy for me...because i was never the kind of person that popped in an another continent for the weekend.
    But i also feel sorry for innocent people who will have to face more problems plus the economic crisis.
    Ok. I know they'll manage. We'll all manage. However you are right in terms of modesty. We may pay for our arrogance and what struck me the most is that this wouldn't be unfair.
    Moreover and above all i can say that after reading your post the feeling that overwhelmed me is the one of awe.
    It's amazing that the sneeze of a volcano can cause the end of a way of thinking...and if it coughs maybe as you say the end of an era!
    keep posting...

  4. @ Tinkerbell: thank you my dear.
    Yes, it's true. It reminds us we are inter-connected in ways we can't control that trump the ones we can control every day of the week and twice on eruption day...

    @ DaisyCrazy: that is so true. Plus: 'we live on a rock that travels through space' should be a song lyric!

    @ Thomai: it does put things into perspective doesn't it? A 'sneeze' as you put it and our invincible civilisation is on its knees. But will we learn from it? Do we ever learn?

  5. as always you said it as it is! :):)