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Brendan O’Neill: Bow Down Before This Mighty Volcano!

Like an ancient cult of nature-worshippers, some are celebrating the way the volcano has thwarted modern life.

Could there be any better illustration of the opinion-forming classes’ aloofness from the public and alienation from modernity than their embrace of the volcanic ash spreading from Iceland across Europe? The ash might have left hundreds of thousands of people stranded in airports, unable to attend birthdays, weddings, funerals, business meetings or simply to go on holiday, yet according to green-leaning commentators there’s a ‘silver lining’ to these grey plumes of earthly debris. Which is that by emptying the skies of CO2-farting jets, they have slowed life down, made everything oh-so-quiet, allowed us to listen to the birds singing, and basically forced humanity to come crashing back to Earth like the idiotic Icaruses we are.

It took a few days, but after the initial shock of a volcanic eruption 900 miles away having such a dramatic impact in Britain and other parts of Western Europe, various observers started venturing the idea that maybe this was a Good Thing. ‘Even a modest rumbling in the underworld is enough to throw a gigantic spanner into the works of modern life’, said oneoverexcited commentator. For others the ash was a timely reminder of the awesomeness of nature in contrast to arrogant-but-actually-pathetic mankind. ‘Hate Iceland? No, their volcano reminds us that nature is the boss’, said one headline, above an article mocking the idea that mankind is ‘sophisticated and clever enough to master nature’.

An editorial in the Guardian cheered the fact that ‘the heavens were restored to a heavenly condition’ by the post-volcano grounding of flights – that is, there were no ‘wispy vapour trails’ in Britain’s skies. The editorial then said, with more than a hint of regret, that ‘for all the damage done to our climate [by manmade flight], there is no chance at all of mankind submitting to becoming a flightless animal once more. But how about for one day a week?’, it asked, arguing that the quieter, calmer, flight-free skies brought about by the volcanic spewing offered a glimpse of a greener, happier world. A world where BBC correspondent Fergus Walsh, who lives near the flight path to Heathrow, could finally hear ‘blackbirds, robins, wood pigeons, even song thrushes’. And what is mankind’s ability to take to the skies compared with a BBC journalist’s right to hear birds tweeting and squawking?

This idea that temporarily flight-free Britain offers a tantalising snapshot of a possible future low-carbon world is spreading. ‘Greens should celebrate this timely reminder of what the world might look like when the oil runs out’, said one writer. A BBC economics correspondent said the volcanic fallout has provided a ‘glimpse of a post-carbon morning’. He reckons the impact of the ash on life in Britain – where no people, food or things can currently be flown in or out – echoes the main ‘lesson’ of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans: ‘that societies reliant on high technology and high development collapse really fast in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.’

This is a bizarre and perverse idea. In reality, history, and recent events such as the earthquake in Haiti, shows us beyond all reasonable doubt that it is those societies withouthigh technology and high development that suffer the most when there’s a natural catastrophe.

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