Earthly Powers
April 23, 2010, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

A headline we decided against...

There are a couple of pieces on volcanoes, the environment and the bigger picture in The Economist this week. Here’s some of the reporting:

Over the weekend both airlines and research agencies made test flights. Air France-KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa and others carried out over 40 flights. Subsequent engine inspection apparently revealed no unacceptable damage. On April 21st the CAA established a new rule, deeming regions thought to have less than 2,000 micrograms of dust per cubic metre safe for flight. That threshold, the CAA says, was provided on the basis of data from equipment-manufacturers; Rolls-Royce, the leading European maker of jet engines for airliners, has made no comment on this. The new safety level is about 100 times higher than the background level of dust at ground level. It is also considerably higher than anything seen by research aircraft over Britain since the eruption started; those flights have encountered no patches of sky with an ash density of more than 400 micrograms per cubic metre, 20 times the background level.

If the exercise two years ago did not capture the range of problems that an Icelandic volcano might cause, it did show that the general situation was entirely foreseeable. A ridge of submerged mountains runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; Iceland is the result of a “hotspot” in which material rises from deep within the Earth, pushing part of this ridge up into the air. Both hotspots and mid-ocean ridges are volcanic, so Iceland is doubly so. It boasts a fearsome array of volcanoes, 33 of which have erupted once or more since the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago.

And here’s a taste of the leader:

One of the things that went missing in the shadow of that volcanic dust was a sense of human power. And as with the quiet skies, this absence found a welcome in many hearts. The idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.

Such pleasure in the face of overpowering nature, as seen from a place of safety, was at the heart of the idea of “the sublime” as expressed by the great conservative Edmund Burke 250 years ago, and its aesthetic and spiritual allure remains strong. The sublime offers solace and inspiration, but it makes a poor guide to policy. For humans are not completely powerless in the face of nature: rather the reverse…

When people talk about the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature, part of what they are saying is that they don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do, and to what they might have at risk. The business of looking after a planet requires being bothered in advance—and not just about little matters like volcanoes.


1 Comment so far
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In addition to everything else, this volcano is a reminder that cheap and easy air travel is not a situation that humanity has enjoyed for long. Indeed, there are at least a couple of reasons for thinking we might live to see the end of it.

Namely, when we finally start getting serious about climate change mitigation, and when declining fossil fuel availability and energy return on investment makes it prohibitively costly.

Comment by Milan

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