Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull or “How a Volcano Continues to Intimidate and Bully Us”

A few weeks ago I witnessed one of life’s greatest lessons in action; it’s the random, nonsensical-sounding events that can have the biggest impact on what was expected to be a certain course of action in our lives. Of all the things that you worry about on a day to day basis, a volcanic eruption is probably towards the lower end of the list of probable concerns. This is why when that unpronounceable, obscurely named volcano in Iceland erupted in late March and set off a chain reaction of chaos across Europe, I took a second glance at my life and the things that preoccupy my mind. In a time of political, economic, and security uncertainty, it was a moderately rated active volcano on an island made most famous for Björk and hot springs that had the most direct impact on my life. In fact, if you had looked at my diary that week, it probably would have resembled a contemporary Departures Board at Heathrow Airport as follows:

Dad’s Visit to London: CANCELLED
Keenan and Dad’s Golf Trip to St. Andrews: CANCELLED
Holiday Time: CANCELLED
Work Travel: CANCELLED
Decent Weekend Alternatives to Above Plans: SEVERE DELAYS

After completely disrupting all of my work, travel, and personal plans for an entire week in April, that prehistoric mound of rock and ash can’t let well enough alone and has caused airspace to shut in the UK once again for the better part of today. Memories of colleagues stranded in New York City, London, and the continent are flooding back. Stories of people taking taxis from Brussels to London, freighters from Dubai to Spain, and harrowing 18 hour bus rides across the continent are still a bit too close to home for some people who are not ready for a second go at this. The most fascinating bit is that at the heart of this phenomenon the desperation and helplessness of man against the powerful forces of nature is exposed in its entirety.

If nothing else, I can’t help but to think that this volcano has provided a small anthropological glimpse into the tendency for man to recognize his feebleness and to submit to it, pleading to the volcano to stop spewing ash and molten glass so that we can go on holiday and conduct business, reminiscent of our ancestors who used to pray to the rain and sun gods for favorable farming conditions. Perhaps Eyjafjallajökull is a merciless Nordic mountain god exacting his vengeance on Europe for opposition to Iceland’s fast-track admission into the European Union after its own financial meltdown? More likely than not, it is just a reminder that despite our progress in science and society throughout history, humankind is still at the whim of nature and there are forces out there which are beyond our control. Unlike the devastating man-made oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, brought to you by BP, there is no short-term solution to the volcanic eruption and we cannot simply plug the volcano’s leak. Ironically however, it is the oil spill’s long-term effects which concern me more. Perhaps ultimately, in light of the real problems in the world and despite my tirades here, the damage posed by Eyjafjallajökull is just really annoying at worst.

The cliché, “expect the unexpected” could never be more relevant than it is now. Last week the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition government and ended the uncertainty that was caused by a hung parliament in the UK. The Eurozone finally agreed to a three-year bailout package for Greece which is meant to mitigate the risk of a massive debt default, an economic disaster which would have threatened the very existence of the euro. After a week of man-made volatility and uncertainty, man-made solutions have been applied to man-made political and economic problems. We are still struggling with a man-made environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the outcome of which is truly worrisome. This volcano teaches us, almost two months after its initial eruption, that there is indeed a limit to the resourcefulness and authority of humankind. If Eyjafjallajökull tells me I am not going to fly, I am not going to fly. As Mother Earth continues to spew her guts and disrupt an entire continent, we should all be left a little bit more grounded. 

1 comment:

  1. Keenan - this is such a well articulated reflection peice. I feel your sentiments about "Natural" vs "Man-made" disasters out there.