Monday, April 19, 2010

Lessons From A Volcano

This incredible image, taken by photographer Ragnar th. Sigurdsson, shows some of the lightning storms within the eruption. Go to his website and see some of his other amazing images and read The New York Times interview with him from Iceland.

It is there on our TVs, internet, facebook pages and if you or your money are unlucky enough to be lost in the travel chaos, it's all around you. So far, above Europe the ash cloud cannot really be seen, but it's effects are everywhere. 200 Billion dollars is lost already by airlines, but the knock-on effects throughout the business, entertainment and political spheres are rocketing around the world faster than...well faster than a parked jet airplane.

Here in South Africa on the front page of the nationwide newspaper Business Report are dire predictions about the possible effects to the World Cup of Soccer, held here in just over six weeks time -unless the cloud dissipates. The headline reads "Volcanic Ash Spreads Cloud Over World Cup".

The London Book Fair, where 46 South African authors were to fly and present their latest works will only see 13 of them. Flowers and fruit exporters to the EU, reliant upon regularly scheduled air freight, have seen millions of dollars in losses at a time when the economy is just emerging from The Great Recession.

Insurance companies are working overtime trying to gauge the effects of the aircraft grounding and whether something like this is covered in their policies. In the South African press this morning, Lloyds of London insurance spokesman Bart Nash said that "It's too early to tell what type of insurance contracts the Icelandic Volcano may trigger, however we are currently assesing any exposure we may have". The crisis is rocking every industry in the world.

So we are dealing with a large-scale environmental event, something that is immediately affecting the air, our commerce, and our very delicately balanced modern system of trade. Suddenly, some of the most wealthy and developed countries in the world lost their air travel overnight, and there is little to suggest that everything will quickly be fine again in the next day or two.

Like the big freeze in the UK at the beginning of this year, this crisis once again shows how at the mercy of the Earth our civilisation really is. There are talks of potential food shortages in parts of Europe, the collapse of the aviation fuel industry, and other, darker clouds on the horizon. So this is it, we must accept that in a world of instant messaging and air travel, our societies are so interconnected in every way that even a modest event like this one can have extreme consequences.

Now in the world of Global Warming, Climate Change and the many different extreme scenarios that may or may not be visited upon us, it would be wise for leaders and individuals to wake up to how delicate a high-wire we are on. If a really serious storm closed Europe, like it did around 11,000 years ago, and dropped dozens of meters of snow, which happened on a regular basis, any idea of "adaptation" would be laughed at. By today's reckoning, millions would die of hunger, economies would shut down, air travel would be crippled. Our world economy may crumble.

When we look and peer into the future, trying to see how our human activities may lead to an unbalancing of the systems that make our world a comfortable place to live, this volcano becomes a great tool to understand how these future environmental changes may affect us. Because our modern system of worldwide commerce is so susceptible to even small disruptions, we now know more about what effects a man-made environmental calamity might cause. It isn't pretty.

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