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Volcano cloud: glimpse of a post-carbon morning?

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Paul Mason | 09:27 UK time, Saturday, 17 April 2010

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.


  • Comment number 1.


    Why not look around for other knife-edges Paul? One good solar flare will cook all the power grids and fry the satellites. Think: major cities without power . . .

    Just as knife-edge money was foreseeable, to those with knowledge AND THE RIGHT MENTALITY, so is knife-edge life-in-general.

    There is a fighter plane that can't fly without a computer. Even the motor car, now, has no 'limp-home facility'.

    We are not just 'The Ape Confused by Language' - we are a VERY DUMB ape, and totally lacking in prudence or pragmatism.

  • Comment number 2.

    We are not going to suddenly all club together for the future without ideological change, as 'yesterday' as that sounds; without that we'll all stay in slow boiling mode, thanks. Croak - till croaked.

    And who can make ideological change? Only the media. ESPECIALLY because of its tendency to kill off any attempts at people-led change. (Sorry, Greek protests dont count)

    But the media's (BBC) pathetic response over the last couple of days shows how poor performance is in that regard, and how remote a possibility that currently is.

    For change, people need the current ideology out of wraps and spelt out.

    Look UK people - you have accepted a giving away of all your service assets that you own(ed), to corporations. It is a pattern

    Look UK people - you have allowed people like Peter Mandelson to act like they are his to give away and accepted his lies that 'choice' is good for you, and everything going to foreign corps is inevitable. It is a pattern.

    Look UK people - you have allowed business to bring in cheap labour, and structural changes to make it easy and legal for them, to the point where you havent got a workers leg to stand on. It is a pattern.

    Look UK people - your children's future has been given away and you are allowing it to happen.

    If people got this clear, shared reading of what is going on, instead of the daily drivel of what this or that politicains had for breakfast, we could consider alternatives - together.


  • Comment number 3.

    ''Big events trip us, psychologically, into awareness''

    I think some of us (#1 for example) are aware already and shouting about it.

    But you are right, we may as well shut up because nobody will listen until it actually happens?

    The financial crisis being only one example of that, there were people shouting and presenting coherent logical hard to argue against warnings about what was bound to happen, but journalism generally ignored it because it was not 'popular' enough or 'sensational' enough in the sense of it affecting real lives and some powerful people were doing very nicely out of it thank you very much...

    I guess shouting about it just makes us feel better as human beings and we may manage to wake up one or two others along the way.

    Great article by the way, well done.

    On a slightly different tack I cant help wondering if this ash cloud thing is an example of us being undone by our own narcisistic recent obsession with 'elf n safety'.

    As far as i know the often quoted reference to the jet whose engines cut out pretty much flew right over the top of the volcano.

    As an engineer and pragmatist i cant help wondering whether a simple '700 mile' exclusion zone (say) around the volcano would be enough to ensure sufficient volumetric dilution of the ash concentration in the atmosphere sufficient to maintain safe operation.

    I am sure similar measures have been taken before with large eruptions, i dont recall this severity of reaction before following an eruption.

    It smells like an over reaction to me.. but hey the experts must know what they are talking about .... remind me what the experts were saying before the financial crisis again?

    You are right, we opreate on a knife edge few percieve in terms of the fragility of the systems we are totally reliant on for things as basic as food distribution, it would be very ironic if our own ridiculous obsession with elf n safety causes us to topple off it in some way.

    What if the eruption continues un-abated? At what point do we say it is more important to fly ( with a 700 mile exclusion zone say) than to run a small increased risk of engine failure?

    Are we even capable of making those practical decisions anymore?

  • Comment number 4.

    Those mange tout and other green beans are no good for you anyhow - most vegetables lose any goodness they have in hours let alone in the several days between picked in Africa and air-freighted to the UK.

    Remember all those adverts in the 1970s about freezing the peas within hours of picking them to keep in their goodness - well, there is a lot of truth in that and it is not just frozen veg that has more 'goodness' for you. It is the same with tinned fruit - studies have shown that you get higher levels of vitamins in the majority of tinned fruit than in their equivalent 'fresh' variety.

    Of course, if you are fortunate to be able to pick your own fruit and veg and eat them within a few hours then, yes, fresh is best but if it is coming from Africa or South America then you are simply paying for the snobbery - something us Brits are seemingly addicted to.

    In truth there is no volcanic eruption in Iceland. The closing of the airspace is merely a feint to ensure that there are no witnesses flying around in aircraft to see what is truly going on. The lizard people who control the global financial system are busy leaving the planet in their rocket ships - the giant squids are going home and taking all their gold and bendy straws with them.

    It must be true I read it on the World Wide Wibble... Um, here I think.

    Right, off to the shops for some good old-fashioned spam and baked beans.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have been babbling about the forces of nature since I was 7. I predicted at the time of global warming due to increasing carbon dioxide. The suggestions what to do about it range from Heath Robinson to plain barmy. There seems to be a lot of seismic activity and volcanic activity going on. Perhaps the extra weigh of the oceans due to ice melting is having an effect. Hopefully the next volcanic eruption will occur right where it is needed. Under the Houses of Parliament!

  • Comment number 6.

    "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."

    Yet our betters would love to inflict this monumental leap *backwards* by force and indefinitely rather than because of a volcano.

  • Comment number 7.


    Might it be this simple? Planes will fly half-empty if scared passengers don't board. Better to invoke H n S, and fly none. That way they all share the hit.

    Planes fly over, under and round severe weather, don't they? I read the US military are doing just that but to avoid the ash.

    I am unable to find at what 'level of authority' the flying ban is applied. Would it be open to 'criminal negligence' like RoRo sailings with the doors open?

    I bet Ryan has a plan!

  • Comment number 8.

    re airline closedown,

    My son is stranded in San Paulo, they are being very well cared for by their airline, given hotel acc., and food.

    The only problem they are having is that they are *in Transit" and of course are not free to leave the hotel compound.

    If this situation continues much longer, could they get Visas,

    Mary Gilfillan

  • Comment number 9.

    Paul if you want to bore me with a history lesson...which you haven't as I find all the historical data absolutely fascinating. The Krakatoa in 1883 was interesting as the explosion was heard in London but the one closest to us had such an effect on our European history and development. A hundred years before in 1783 this same volcano erupted and brought about a famine throughout Europe and some historians say the the French revolution kicked off as a direct consequence of the ash. The peasants revolted against the Royalty and aristocrats, they were in a foul mood already so this cloud thing put the top hat on it and out came the tumbrills and the rest is history and it must have been a worrying time for our lot, our betters, I mean...and all because of a cloud of ash it puts getting caught up in airport queues into perspective doesn't it? Take your pick...European revolution or trying to get on Eurostar at Calais.....

  • Comment number 10.

    Great post Paul.
    We really do have lots to be concerned about - everything we've done in the chase for money. I don't think any government in this country will act on it. Not until it is here and Jared Diamond will have a new chapter for his Collapse book. Some of the local authorities and councils might make more land available for community farms, but I doubt enough of them will. We'll await the post-industrialisaion phase and Detroit will once again be a world leader.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hubby thinks this dust will be great for farmers and manufacturers in the UK - they'll have leverage for a while.

  • Comment number 12.

    Paul, if you live on the eastern approach you get woken up when the wind is in the west. The wind (bringing the ash is in the east) so hence no aeroplanes, ash or no ash.

  • Comment number 13.

    Is this going to be a food shortage like 1917 all over again, or even 1940?

    Highly unlikely as the flights can be rerouted into an unaffected airport and then the cargo trucked or railed in. Although the French rail strike does create some technical issues with that plan.

    The Pope got to Malta on a plane from Rome which is only two days away from the UK by truck. It will allow the truckers the opportunity of making a few bob which would be much appreciated. Maybe Darling can cut the tax on diesel so more trucks can get out there.

    Our trouble is that everything is so short term these days.

    I think I'll buy some tinned fruit and vegetables tomorrow.

  • Comment number 14.

    I have done a bit of background reading now, this whole episode will come down to 'over analysis'. There is no real tangible issue outside of a few 100miles from the volcano, they have set the bar way too low in response to the over zealous risk averse and compensation culture that predominates.

    Now they are stuck with 'no fly' criteria which could paralyse europe if Mt etna so much as coughs, it is laughable really to not take suitable cognisance of the concentration of ash, just the extent of the plume.

    But they are stuck with the criteria now unless of course somebody backs down from their technical position very quickly and in so doing get sued by a lot of upset airlines.

    Regulation gone mad.. again.

    On a deeper philosophical level this is driven by the current economic model in a bizare way. The pressure to generate ' income generative economic activity as oppose to 'worthwhile activity' affects everyone, from the research team asked to look into as clouds and flying to home information packs.

    Why give a straight forward answer that takes a pencil and 15 minutes to work out when you can embark on a massive research programme which takes months to complete, employs hundreds and comes up with some very complicated criteria by commitee but which have little affinity with the real world.

    No plane has ever crashed in the history of aviation from flying into an ash plume. The closest was when a plane flew right into the heart of one, this eruption is not even that big!! it is just the first since the 'new criteria' came in.

    Give me a couple of days and i could re-write the 'no fly due to volcanic ash' criteria for them, but for now I am quite enjoying the clear skies, it makes me laugh now every time I look up as it reminds me of the absurd folly that has become 21st century european man.

    You have to laugh, it is too ridiculous to do anything else.

  • Comment number 15.

    #15 additional

    I just heard Gordon Brown all statesmanlike ' The priority must be the safety of air passangers'

    I wonder how many people will die on the roads due to the increased traffic and rushing around when compared to the statistic of 'zero' deaths from flying into ash plumes in the whole history of aviation?

    Put that in your statesman like pipe and smoke it Mr brown.

    Not flying is more dangerous to travellers than flying I suspect.

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha .... what a bunch of zombies we have for leaders when it comes to adopting basic free thinking unleveraged principles to make decisions.

  • Comment number 16.

    Will Hutton's article in today's Observer re Goldman Sachs is an interesting read: -

    I found someone else online describe it in more simple terms;

    'Put simply, here's how the SEC claims it all went down: Imagine you are the biggest car company in the country. Goldman in this example, and a client, Paulson, comes to you and asks you to design a car that will crash.

    So you make that bad car "CDO," then sell it to people without telling them you cut the brake lines! Then when the car "CDO" hits a wall, you rake in the dough from the insurance you bought on the bad car before the crash. And you get paid twice! Once when you sell the car, and then again when it crashes and cash in your insurance policy!

    Of course in Goldman's case, they bought the insurance from AIG, which didn't have the cash to back up its bets. Hence, thanks to the $180 billion taxpayer rescue, those bets paid Goldman Sachs back at 100-cents on the dollar.'

    Maybe if the media explained it in these terms then the global Public would get angry?

    Maybe that is why it is not being explained in such a simplified way?

  • Comment number 17.

    "Men make their own history, but they do not do it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves." Marx

    Humanity is not free.
    We are unable to choose our destiny under capitalism.
    The profit motive determines our society.
    Everything is structured to returning a profit to those who own capital.
    Even with ecological destruction & mass extinction things just carry on.

    It is the confusion between value & wealth that deludes us.

    Under capitalism all that matters is exchange value & it's maximisation.
    Whereas real wealth is use-value which cannot be quantified into a single measure; it is essentially qualitative, e.g. biodiversity.

    It's similar to why utilitarianism is a flawed philosophy.

    The only was for use-value to dominate is for capital to be socially controlled - i.e. socialism.

    Only then will humanity be free.

  • Comment number 18.


    Humanity will never be free, that is an impossibility.

    Only individuals can be 'free'. The more individuals you suitably guide such that they are able to be'free' the closer you will get to humanity being 'free', but you will never entirely get there.

    About the ash cloud, I hate to say it but I will anyway '' i told you so'' !

    The self serving beurocrats and self styled 'experts' in their eternal quest to feel important and keep themselves busy have unwittingly unleashed an economic and social monster this time.

    There must be lots of geeks in Brussels regularly changing their underpants at the moment as we all gaze up a clear, empty blue skys and the human toll on the roads mounts (there must be lots of very tired drivers in Europe), not to mention the general stress and misery the disruption causes.

    But at least we are 'safe' .. right..


    The only reason I laugh is because i prefer laughing to crying, it is a straight choice between the two when considering where I am emotionally at the moment with this ridiculous episode in human folly as expressed (in this particular instance) by our collective reaction to a volcanic ash cloud.

    I think I will mix myself a margharita, look up at the stars for a bit and contemplate my anticipated winnings on the various bets I had placed several weeks ago on the election. It looks like even some of my more outrageous ones may have achance of comming in now.

    Good night all.

  • Comment number 19.

    Big events trip us, psychologically, into awareness.

    And just how aware are we that we are depending on government, big government from cabinet meetings, air regulation, police, visa staff, insurance laws and diplomats to help us out. Doesn't bode well for Cameron, Gove et al who believe in so much people power who seem to have forgotten there are very good reasons why we have government at all.

    It will be government who send the coaches, the navy to bring people back home, not a bunch of people who, should they take coaches, boats, planes etc be acting as thieves, looters or vigilantes! Think about it voters!

  • Comment number 20.

    19. At 03:08am on 19 Apr 2010, copperDolomite wrote:
    It will be government who send the coaches


    In light of recent events, any 'getting on with the job, eventually' action by the Great Ditherer will be played out, and hence seen, in some quarters as 'statesmanlike' .

    Job done. Bar the counting.

  • Comment number 21.


    Well some nice incredulity from Will Hutton. "What the reason these banks have been able to make lots of profit has actually been through fraud!"

    I have to admit that I get a far better digest of REAL financial and economic exploits from Max Keiser these days. Most of the UK media has quite a lot of catching up to do!

    Back to Goldman, Glenn Beck's spider web shows how deep the tentacles run:

  • Comment number 22.

    Out near Stony Stratford we do not hear many planes, at least not loudly. Mostly it is the odd 'copter flying in or out of Silverstone.

    However, yesterday, as I looked up at a completely cloudless sky, I was struck by the complete lack of vapour trails. I can't think when I last saw such a sky!

  • Comment number 23.

    Volcano cloud: glimpse of a post-finance fuelled economy?

    Looking forward to viewing the following tonight:

    The Bill Moyers interview with William K Black (last April) pretty much stipulated the Goldman Subprime FRAUD that has only just now reached mainstream / legal attention.

    Now Simon Johnson (ex IMF insider turned renegade) is exposing the totality of the unhealthy influence of the banking sector as whole. Think of this as a US equivalent of Andrew Haldane's Banking on the State.

  • Comment number 24.

    The only connection I can see with Goldman Sachs is ash arising from burning documents that could incriminate the guilty! However on the subject of the post Paul is right it is a glimpse of some future - but just a glimpse.

    What will it take to get a 'game changer' for organising for the post carbon economy. Not the odd glimpse by way of Katrina or the eruption of a volcano but a major climate based catastrophe killing millions of westerners ie a global trauma of carbon capitalism. Less than this is business as usual with a few more rubbish bins to put out!

  • Comment number 25.

    This may help inform, or confuse further...

    Either way, par the course.

    What we need is a true science buff in Government, like John 'Is it a Fish, is it a plane?' Bercow.

    Was he on the Dig Economy Act of CRU committees by any chance?

  • Comment number 26.

    Was there just a faint hint of lavender in the sunset yesterday evening? Did I detect the merest metallic taste of Sulphur Dioxide in the air? Meanwhile friends and family face exhorbitant charges from transport operators if they are "lucky" enough to find a way home.

    There is a kind of "On The Beach" feeling at the moment.

    But don't fear, our Great Leader, together with the COBRA emergency committee, has found a solution. Three warships in the Channel, to rescue stranded Britons and bring them back to Blighty. Now, excuse my cynicism, but isn't this all too little, too late and little more than a glorified photocall for a grinning Gordon to be the first to greet the returning heroes? Ah, yes, and in case they have forgotten, there's an election coming up. Hold the front page.

    Seventy years ago, to his eternal credit, a private individual Nicholas Winton organised a number of Kindertansport trains to bring several thousand Jewish children to the safety of our shores.

    Of course the Europe of today is quite different. Instead of national borders we have the Schengen Zone, national railways have given way to Open Access. We still have stifling bureaucracy, but where one man once succeeded, can our best and brightest public servants not find a way? The railways were built for mass transportation and our citizens are stranded.

    A chance for our "political elite" to show that they can act swiftly and decisively in a crisis?

    No, I didn't think so either.

  • Comment number 27.

    Eyjafjallajokull has done what scientist David Keith presented at TED as a temporary solution to global warming - a solution that carries a moral hazard warning with the relatively cheap (in terms of GDP) act of firing ash in to the atmosphere instead of changing C02 producing practices if things get too hot.

    Current events seem to prove that even this last ditch action would not be possible with our reliance on air transport; and a general inability to act collectively without what it now provides.

    There's no app for that.


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