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Can We Talk?

One Modest Belch, Endless Green Moralizing

Ancient mankind saw volcanic eruptions as punishment from the gods. Now we know better – no thanks to the media and European leaders

Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Apr. 23, 2010 5:00AM EDT Last updated on
Friday, Apr. 23, 2010 5:09AM EDT

Hundreds of years ago, before the 19th-century birth of the science of volcanology, mankind saw volcanic eruptions as warnings or punishments from the gods. The gods were literally blowing their tops, spewing forth fire and rocks and ash to express disgust or disappointment with mortals’ habit of messing things up.

Now, remarkably, this backward idea that volcanoes are semi-sentient forces giving fiery lectures to mankind is making a comeback with the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland. The spread of ash across Europe, leading to the grounding of flights and the closure of airports, is being interpreted – even celebrated – as evidence of nature’s “fury,” in contrast to weak, pathetic mankind.

In Britain, some of the supposedly most liberal and rationalist media outlets have found it hard to contain their glee. For The Observer, the eruption has provided “a reminder of our status in relation to our planet over which we have arrogantly seized stewardship. We imagine ourselves its master and yet with one modest belch it hems us into our little island, sweeping instantly from the skies the aeroplane, which we consider to be an example of the irrepressible genius of our species.”

This idea that the volcano has exposed how stupid mankind is to believe he can control nature with his “arrogance” and “genius” is becoming widespread among the opinion-forming classes. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid that has published dramatic photos of the volcanic eruption and invited readers to behold “the terrifying cauldron of lava and lightning that has brought chaos to our airports,” celebrated the fact that even a relatively “modest rumbling” in the underworld is “enough to throw a gigantic spanner into the works of modern life.”

A Guardian writer thinks the ash has provided humanity with a vision of the low-carbon, flight-free, clear-sky future we must allegedly move toward. “Greens should celebrate this timely reminder of what the world might look like when the oil runs out,” he said. Radio and TV shows have featured endless interviews with people saying how delighted they are to be able to look into the sky without seeing or hearing a plane. A British Broadcasting Corp. economics correspondent says the volcano has given us a “glimpse of a post-carbon morning.”

Ancient communities that imagined volcanic eruptions as warnings from the gods would then try to reorganize society and morality accordingly. Today’s supposedly intelligent thinkers see volcanic eruptions as warnings about our sinful carbon-emitting, and they use imagery of lava, ash and deserted airports to terrify people into accepting the green argument for overhauling (that is, winding down) modernity.

The Edmonton Journal ran an article headlined “Volcano exposes mankind’s limits,” arguing that Eyjafjallajokull’s belch has exposed the “striking incapacity of human beings, however smugly sophisticated, to either predict such phenomena or do much about them.” Once again, a media report transforms swiftly into a morality tale, in which the volcano is cast as the boss and mankind plays a bit-part role as an insignificant force in need of re-education.

The truth about the volcano’s impact on Europe is far more mundane and political than these modern volcano worshippers would have us believe. I hate to complicate their assertions that “one modest belch” has brought modern society to a standstill, but it is now becoming clear that the politics of risk-aversion played a greater role than Eyjafjallajokull in grounding all those flights.

More and more experts and aviation industry representatives are arguing that the historically long and punitive flight ban is the product of overcaution – a familiar problem in the European Union, where every issue from genetically modified crops to plastic in children’s toys has become notorious for applying the precautionary principle rather than carrying out rational risk assessments and showing serious leadership. Test flights by British Airways and Lufthansa have encountered no problems. I’m sorry to burst the eco-misanthropes’ bubble, but it wasn’t so much an awesome natural force that brought Europe’s skies to a standstill as it was political cowardice, which is something we can predict, control and master.

Many have used this eruption to argue that modern society is uniquely vulnerable to natural catastrophe. A BBC journalist said the volcanic chaos shows that “societies reliant on high technology and high development collapse really fast in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.” According to George Monbiot of The Guardian, although we imagined that “the miracle of modern flight protected us from gravity, atmosphere, culture and geography,” this volcanic eruption has shown that “we have not escaped from the physical world after all.”

This is not only a perversely topsy-turvy and historically illiterate argument – it is societies lacking high development that suffer the most from natural disasters – it also reveals what lies behind the volcano-worshippers’ outlook in general: a discomfort with modernity, with internationalism, with human interconnectedness. For them, the volcano should make us get back in touch with, in Mr. Monbiot’s words, “gravity, atmosphere, culture and geography.” That is, to remain grounded, to stick with our own cultures, to stop traversing the globe. To be imprisoned by the limits imposed by nature.

What we effectively have here is an updated version of the story of Vulcan and Prometheus. Vulcan, the god of volcanoes, punishes Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals. In the telling, Prometheus is normally seen as the hero, the cunning Titan who wanted to give a bit of godliness to mankind. Today, however, Vulcan (Eyjafjallajokull) is held up as the conqueror of Prometheus (mankind) as green-leaning thinkers rush to celebrate.

In truth, this volcano has not tamed us – it has merely thrown up a practical problem, which, if we put our minds to it, we are more than capable of resolving.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of London-based

April 23rd, 2010 Posted by | Environment | no comments

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