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What Have We Learnt From The Volcano?

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May 5, 2010 News & Oddities, Travel News No Comments

What, if anything, has the volcano eruption taught us? Read about research gaps, risk assessments that didn’t happen, and a need to get more comfortable with alternatives. We revisit the spectacular eruption that crippled flight traffic around the world for days, asking: Is there a lesson here?  

Watching the travel chaos unfold throughout Europe, and hearing the aviation industry complain about the governments’ handling of the crisis, has been a strange experience to say the least. We are stunned at the apparent research gap concerning the effects of volcanic ash on aircraft, which, we are told, is due to the fact that the long-distance risks posed by volcanoes are not insurable. If this is not an incentive for the aviation industry to conduct proper risk assessments, and to plan for the day when one of our planet’s many volcanoes will blow a little bit of ash into the air, we don’t know what would be.

According to an analysis in the Economist, this is lesson number one. So, what is number two? While we certainly recommend that you read this brilliant piece yourself, we quote the Economist’s lesson number two here, which not only surprised us with unusual reasoning, but also with poetic language:

But the week of absences also offers a less obvious lesson. One of the things that went missing in the shadow of that volcanic dust was a sense of human power. And as with the quiet skies, this absence found a welcome in many hearts. The idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.

Strangely, we agree. The “Unpronounceable” – a name happily adopted by commentators on the article – and the effects of its small eruption, can prompt us to think about our reliance on certain technologies, and show us that we need to get more comfortable with alternatives, ambiguity and – yes – video conferencing. Think outside of the box. Do things differently from time to time. Stay flexible.

But do we always have alternatives? While passengers stranded during the “Unpronounceable’s” small eruption could at least get home by train, bus, car, boat, the overarching technological entity of the century, the Internet, has no alternative, and yet, we rely on it utterly and completely.

In this sense, I understand the Economists’ notion of “thrill” felt at the idea that “humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano”: For all our modern technology and knowledge we are living on the edge. A commentator on the Economist’s article put it nicely:

Nature’s power is perhaps best demonstrated through its patience, rather than its force. No matter how great our effort, we as individuals and as a whole are but a moment’s entertainment for our gracious host. Yes, I will carry an umbrella when it rains, but whether I get hit by an asteroid tomorrow or fall asleep in my hundreds, my capability seems merely an accomodation.

If this isn’t causing you an adrenalin rush, I am not sure what could. Lesson number two? Adapt what you can, and accept what you cannot.

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