Planes: who needs them?

By , 16 April 2010 6:34 pm

I think many people in Britain, particularly if they were half asleep, did a double-take at hearing the news on Thursday morning. UK airspace completely closed? Due to what? An Icelandic volcano? Surely some mistake! There must have been more than a few who checked to see whether there had been some timewarp and we were back to April 1st. Yet indeed it was true and 36 hours later there are still no planes flying over the UK. I spotted a low-flying Cessna today but that’s about it.

I confess I’ve actually rather enjoyed it, although I do feel sympathy with those who are stuck at the airport waiting to leave. (I have less sympathy with those who are trapped on desert islands and tropical beaches because they cannot return.) Let me suggest three good things about this bizarre and remarkable incident.

The first is that it has given my geological profession some real street cred. There are geologists appearing on the television who I don’t think have ever been in front of a camera. You can almost sense their astonishment that someone from the media is asking them a question about volcanoes or Icelandic geology.

The second thing is the particular challenge for the media in pronouncing the name of the volcano. Do they dare to try to say Eyjafjallajökull? Wikipedia helpfully tells us that this is pronounced ˈɛɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥’ ( which I’m sure makes things much clearer, especially as WordPress/HTML doesn’t seem to render it properly) but then just to confuse you provides a sound clip which appears to bear absolutely no resemblance to the letters and is clearly no more than a drunken Icelander with a speech defect attempting to portray the sound a glacier makes when a volcano erupts underneath it. So I now realise the contrary to their reputation, Welsh place names are actually very user-friendly indeed.

The third good thing is that the sky is free of the vapour trails. And as the weather is pleasantly dry and cloud free you can stare skywards into the perfect blue sky unmarked by the celestial graffiti of the human race. The sky belongs to the birds. It is actually quite thought-provoking. We have come to take for granted our right to fly through the air and leave vapour trails behind. Yet as you stare upwards at the unmarked blue you do feel that there has been an element of arrogance about our conquest of the air. It is surely significant that in so many languages the word for heaven and the sky is the same. And being unsoiled by aircraft, the sky does indeed look in every sense much more heavenly.

The whole thing raises the question as to whether or not we really do need so many aircraft. We pay a very heavy price for air travel. It would be fascinating to create a balance sheet of good and bad and see whether we had really benefited from cheap air travel. It has certainly set me thinking. If air flight was ruled out on a permanent basis we would have to upgrade ferries and railways. We would have to grow more crops ourselves and we might have to put up with the fact that for the considerable portions of the year some kinds of fruit and vegetable might actually be unavailable. We might have to holiday closer to home. Foreign trips would not be taken lightly. We might actually have to make things in the UK rather than simply buy them in cheaply from China where they can be produced by what is little more than slave labour. And of course we would reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and lower the complex but undoubtedly major climatic effects of putting so much dust, pollutants and moisture high in the atmosphere. We might even actually slow down. You know I think I could live with those things. Indeed I am almost tempted to propose a toast to our Icelandic volcano. It’s just a pity I can’t pronounce it.

3 Responses to “Planes: who needs them?”

  1. Daniel says:

    A world without (or with far fewer) planes would be interesting indeed. In many ways, culture has become as globalized as the economy, facilitated by the ease of travel and communication between many parts of the world. I’ve heard it said that the major cities of the world have more in common with each other than with their own hinterlands.
    Now if air travel became restricted, presumably communication around the world would not be hindered but there would be less face-to-face contact between cultures. Fewer exchange students, tourists, business travellers, touring artists, international conferences–that sort of thing. It would be interesting to see if the globalization of culture continued in that case, or if a reduction in international contact and commerce would make people more insular.

  2. Matthew says:

    Cars as well seem to add a lot of complication to life – and it’s doubtful it will ever go away. With auto and air travel, we can go great distances to get what we want, and bypass our local neighbors or establishments without a second thought. And then we claim we don’t have time to have meaningful interactions anymore, as our mechanical life style seeks to consume our every waking moment. I just wish there was some way that people could figure out how to have a community again, instead of over facebook. I think of the times when people would walk into their local town, chat with people at the grocery store, and visit each other on their front porches. Cars, and air travel too, while making our world smaller, seems to drive us farther apart than we’ve ever been before.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bill Damick. Bill Damick said: For a different take on the Iceland Volcano: http://www.chriswalley.net/2010/04/16/planes-who-needs-them/ […]

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