Volcano cloud: glimpse of a post-carbon morning?
I don't claim to understand birdsong but there is a distinct subext of "where have those big noisy things gone?" to the tweets in my back garden this morning. In fact the tweets are all the clearer for the fact that the sky is silent.
I live on the Heathrow eastern approach path and have now woken up two days running to a total sky silence. Soon the smoothie-makers and power-drills will get going, but - as with the fuel protests - we're having another inadvertent glimpse of what a post-carbon future might look like, or in this case sound like.
Tens of thousands are stranded. At the whim of nature this could turn into a serious economic event, with airlines already projected to lose tens of millions of pounds, air freight disrupted and global mobility impaired. British shoppers may soon get to find out what non-Keynan green beans taste like; in fact we may be forced back to seasonal veg. The supermarkets may even be forced to find some British lamb to put on the shelves.
A couple of days ago I tweeted this thought in jest but it is worth thinking about: the original Krakatoa eruption of 1883 killed tens of thousands in the blast and tens of thousands more with the tsunami. Then its dust cloud spread into the global atmosphere: it lowered the temperature of the earth by more than 1 degree, turning the sky red, making Edvard Munch paint The Scream. Crops were disrupted. But air traffic was OK because, er, there wasn't any. Has anybody modelled what a Krakatoa-scale eruption would do to modern air transport?
I've seen first hand in New Orleans how fragile a hi-tech society is faced with a natural catastrophe. I don't think even now we've understood the true lessons of Katrina: that societies reliant on high technology and high development collapse really fast in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.
One reason for this is the "just in time" and optimisation culture we've created to use capacity to its maximum. So, for example, NHS hospitals are kept at a near permanently full level, with bed allocation meetings assuming blitz-like intensity on even a normal day. Likewise inventories are run down to an absolute minimum, with a high percentage of inventory in so called "fast moving consumer goods" actually on the road rather than on the shelves at any one time.
If the volcano cloud dissipates in a few days time this will have been just a glimpse into an alternative reality of quiet skies, clear birdsong and frozen carrots. But if it persists we are in trouble. Most major airlines are struggling economically; the cut-price ones will find it all too easy to lay off staff; the food and flower economy of East Africa will feel the pain early; as will tourist industries all over the northern hemisphere.
Big events trip us, psychologically, into awareness. The fuel protests unleashed a complex re-appraisal of our love affair with the car. Katrina made us understand how rapidly modern society disintegrates. This ash cloud is, already, making us appreciate how reliant we are on air freight and air travel.