Globalised Civilisation Grounded
I’ve been a little out of the loop lately, but the one story that hasn’t failed to reach my ears and eyes is this beautiful and infuriating volcanic eruption taking in Iceland. It is perhaps, above all, a reminder that the Earth beneath our feet is less docile than we seem to take for granted. Suddenly, this wonderful civilisation we’ve built, full of convenience and stability, is being rendered unworkable by a small and relatively common incidence of nature.
I say small and relatively common with reference to the number of volcanic eruptions of this scale in the Solar System. This is by no means a large volcanic eruption when placed next to those of other planets and moons. Nor is it the largest eruption Iceland has ever experienced (just a few centuries ago, one wiped out 10,000 Icelanders and 20,000 Brits).
But its this flimsiness that perhaps be the focus of our thoughts; the utter futility of building a civilisation based on the ability to get anywhere, anytime, when in fact some of the busiest airspace around the planet is now completely empty. If this keeps going for a few weeks, many many companies are going to have to learn how to use Skype for daily business where previously any excuse to fly would be accepted.
I suspect there might be a hasty interest in reinstating a few ferry routes. Such is the potential for this crisis to maintain itself, some of the now-defunct routes like Newcastle-Norway could be viable again. I suspect Eurostar will make back much of the money it lost during the winter shut-down – perhaps enough that it can consider expanding the now-aging fleet of first-generation trains, reinstating those sold to SNCF or finding new trains. And across Europe, I suspect TGV, ICE and other high-speed services will be packed and over-flowing. All in all, this is a stark reminder that our rail services are incapable of withstanding the strain caused by the emptying of the skies.
Hopefully the result will be that thousands of tickets are cashed in permanently rather than simply moved back, however I understand that every day of disruption will take roughly a week to ‘correct’. Interesting will be the airlines themselves; the industry is so close to broke that bailouts are almost inevitable, and bankruptcy highly likely. Is this a good thing?
Well, in a very crude evaluation, yes. In a slightly more rounded analysis, it is good for the planet, good for forcing people to lower their expectations of what the planet will give us, or permit us to do, but terrible for the many low-income workers employed by the airlines who may very soon be out of work. Climate Solution? Yes. Just Transition? No, not at all.
But hopefully it will make people think twice about flying, looking for alternatives and finding a new way to get overseas when they need to. Our addiction to travel, in which we consume it far more than should ever be necessary, should definitely be sent to rehab. Looks like it’s going to take a volcano to do it for us.
And now I write the bit of the blog post which features total pipe-dreaming…
Of course, none of this is to say that having a transatlantic rail tunnel would make anything better. One of the key differences between a trans-channel tunnel and a trans-ocean tunnel is the tectonic divide that needs to be spanned. To add an extra layer of irony, the route would almost certainly require passage over-land along Iceland’s Southern Coast, making a call at Reykjavik, and passing a little closer to the activity than might be wanted.
Sorry, I really couldn’t not talk about this most hair-brain of ideas. I love the thought of it, but it will probably remain a daydream. It requires no less than 3 x 300miles of tunnel and 1 x 400 mile tunnel, and this assumes both a fresh set of overland tracks from the far north of Canada’s Atlantic coast going South for over 500 miles to even reach the US border or anywhere useful in Canada (Montreal, in other words), and a means of getting around, over or through Greenland, possibly covering several hundred miles of detour round a coastline. Then there’s the Faroe Question: does the line need to come up at the Faroe Isles – my own assessment is that a further tunnel from Bergen to Faroe would be useful, so why not make the place a junction?
And so the almost-Steam-Punk fascination with getting between places in new and exciting ways continues…