Joe Public v the volcano

Many of those who have a fear of flying are haunted by a particular thought: that is, how many parts of such a complicated machine as a modern plane have to function smoothly in order for it to stay in the air? One small lever breaks somewhere, and the plane may spiral downwards . . . When you start to think how many things could go wrong, you cannot help but panic.

The people of Europe have experienced something similar in the past few weeks. That a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland – a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on earth – can bring to a standstill the air traffic over almost an entire continent is a reminder of how humankind, for all its power to transform nature, remains just another living species on the planet.

The serious socio-economic impact of such a minor outburst is a result of our technological development (in this case, air travel); a century ago, such an eruption would have passed almost unnoticed. Technological development has made us more independent from nature and, at the same time, on a different level, more dependent on nature’s whims. Decades ago, when a man first stepped on the surface of the moon, his now-legendary words were “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind”. With the eruption in Iceland, it was more “a small step back for nature, but a giant step back for humankind”.

Our growing freedom from and control over nature – indeed our survival – rely on a series of stable natural parameters that we tend to take for granted: in temperature, for example, the composition of the air, water and energy supply, and so on. We can “do what we want” only so long as we remain marginal enough. The limits to our freedom become palpable with ecological disturbances, as our ability to transform nature destabilises the basic geological conditions of life on earth.

That humankind is becoming a geological agent on earth indicates the beginning of a geological era that some scientists have named the “Anthropocene”: the time of man. Certainly, there are good reasons to surmise that the main cause of the unexpected strength of the devastating earthquake in China in 2008 (if not the earthquake itself) was the construction of the enormous Zipingpu Dam in the region. This created large new artificial reservoirs, and the additional pressure on the surface seems to have influenced the balance of the underground cliffs, thus contributing to the earthquake.

There is, however, something deceptively reassuring in this readiness to assume responsibility for the threats to our environment.

[Extract. Appeared in New Statesman, on April 29th, 2010. (full text).]

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