April 18, 2010

With the previous collapse of the banking system, the ongoing lawsuits over British money lost in Icelandic savings accounts, and the current eruption of Eyjafjöll (Eyjafjallajökull is the name of the glacier, not the volcano), Europe might be excused for starting to wonder if all good things come from Iceland.

It is a useful lesson in learning just how much in the way of convenience and travel we have started to take for granted. Kenya's fresh vegetable and flower industry is losing $3 million USD a day because of shipments its producers cannot make to Europe. Farmers in Iceland cannot graze their livestock in open fields, but cannot import hay. Farmers in Italy cannot ship their water buffalo mozzerella, and have no other use for its milk. From luxury to necessity, we have come to rely on our globalised networks. When they fail us, even in such a small part of the world: so strong is the worldwide domino effect that everything shudders to a halt.

All this, quite apart from the millions of passengers who suddenly found themselves stranded, many without enough money and with expiring visas; let alone the hundreds of millions of dollars lost by the collective airlines every day they continue to be grounded. (Maybe teleconferencing will finally get its real boost from these disruptions?)

So much of what is being disrupted now would have been done differently ten, twenty, thirty years ago. But even last week, with air travel so unrealistically cheap and so convenient: who thought twice about hopping across a country or two to meet friends for the weekend, or halfway around the world for a wedding?

The lesson had to come abruptly, without any warning, and be absolute. We would pay attention to nothing less. Lifeboat drills may be mandatory, but most ships' passengers don't attend them: even to the point that conecting transportation is often planned to bring in passengers after the drill is already over. We pay no attention to drills for events we never believe will happen.

Eyjafjöll may continue erupting for another week, or months, or as much as a year. The ash may continue to be the high-silica content most dangerous to jet engines, or become mostly steam, or increase its fluoride content until it poses an entirely different danger to surrounding lands. The jet stream may move the ash plume away from the N. America-Europe great circle route: in which case be certain that the airlines are going to seize the chance to fly as soon as physically possible (and perhaps sooner than is altogether safe). The ash may be swept into the stratosphere (and potentially lower our global temperature by half a degree or so), or it may become a lower-lying cloud and pose respiratory issues. Katla may erupt as well, as it has after every previous Eyjafjöll eruption: and then there will be different concerns.

This much is certain: we are going to learn to cope with events we cannot control. In some things, we may even have to learn to sacrifice convenience.

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