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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Gaia

Is Mother Nature punishing mankind with the Icelandic volcano?

Brendan O'Neill
April 21, 2010

Hundreds of years ago, before the birth of the science of volcanology in the 19th century, mankind looked upon volcanic eruptions as warnings or punishments from the gods. The gods were literally blowing their tops, spewing forth fire and rocks and ash to express their disgust or disappointment with we mere mortals and our habit of messing things up.

Now, remarkably, this backward outlook, this idea that volcanoes are somehow semi-sentient forces giving fiery lectures to mankind, is making a comeback thanks to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. The fact that ash from the volcano is spreading across Europe, leading to the grounding of flights and the closure of airports, is being interpreted—even celebrated—as evidence of Nature’s awesome power and “fury” in contrast to weak, pathetic mankind.

In Britain, some of the supposedly most liberal and rationalist media outlets have found it hard to contain their glee at Mother Nature’s volcanic vengeance. For The Observer, the eruption “provides a reminder of our status in relation to our planet over which we have arrogantly seized stewardship. We imagine ourselves its master and yet with one modest belch it hems us into our little island, sweeping instantly from the skies the aeroplane, which we consider to be an example of the irrepressible genius of our species.”

This idea that the volcano has exposed how stupid mankind is to believe he can control nature with his “arrogance” and “genius” is becoming widespread amongst the opinion-forming classes. The British tabloid the Daily Mail, which has published dramatic photos of the volcanic eruption and invited readers to behold “the terrifying cauldron of lava and lightning that has brought chaos to our airports,” celebrated the fact that even a relatively “modest rumbling” in the underworld is “enough to throw a gigantic spanner into the works of modern life.” The volcano “reminds us that nature is the boss,” said one Scottish writer, and also shows how deluded mankind must be to believe he is “sophisticated and clever enough to master nature.”

A Guardian writer thinks the volcanic ash has unwittingly provided humanity with a real-world vision of the low-carbon, flight-free, clear-sky future that we must allegedly move towards. “Greens should celebrate this timely reminder of what the world might look like when the oil runs out,” he said. Radio and TV shows have featured endless interviews with people saying how delighted they are to be able to look into the sky without seeing or hearing a plane. An economics correspondent for the BBC also says the volcano has given us a “glimpse of a post-carbon morning.”

Where ancient communities imagined that volcanic eruptions were warnings from the gods to change their sinful behaviour, and would then try to reorganise society and morality accordingly, today’s supposedly intelligent thinkers see volcanic eruptions as warnings about our sinful carbon emitting, and they use imagery of lava, ash, and deserted airports to terrify people into accepting the green argument for overhauling (that is, winding down) modernity.

In Canada, the Edmonton Journal ran an article headlined “Volcano exposes mankind’s limits,” arguing that Eyjafjallajökull’s “belch” has exposed the “striking incapacity of human beings, however smugly sophisticated, to either predict such phenomena or do much about them.” Once again, a so-called media report transforms swiftly into a morality tale, in which the volcano is cast as the boss and mankind plays a bit-part role as a ridiculous, insignificant force in need of some lava-filled re-education: “Much of humankind shares the conceit that we are somehow merely distant genetic relatives of our ancestors, virtually a new species living in another dimension given technological advances, able to transcend the elements,” the Edmonton Journal declared—but the volcanic ash reveals that this is a “foolish and even dangerous presumption.”

The truth about the volcano’s impact on Europe is far more mundane—and political—than these modern volcano-worshippers would have us believe. I hate to complicate their assertions that “one modest belch” by Mother Nature has brought mankind’s allegedly “genius” modern society to a standstill, but it is now becoming clear that the politics of risk-aversion played a greater role than Eyjafjallajökull in grounding flights over the past week.

More and more experts and aviation industry representatives are arguing that the historically long and punitive flight ban is the product of “over-caution” on the part of Europe’s leaders—a familiar problem in the European Union, which on every issue from genetically modified crops to plastic in children’s toys has become notorious for applying the precautionary principle (don’t act if there is an unknown risk) rather than carrying out rational risk assessments and showing serious leadership. Test flights by British Airways and Lufthansa have encountered no problems with the volcanic ash. I’m sorry to burst the eco-misanthropes’ bubble, but it wasn’t so much an awesome natural force that brought Europe’s skies to a standstill, as it was political cowardice—which is something we can predict, control, master, and change.

Many have used the volcanic eruption to argue that modern society is uniquely vulnerable to natural catastrophe. A BBC journalist said the volcanic chaos shows that “societies reliant on high technology and high development collapse really fast in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.” According to the Guardian’s George Monbiot, where we imagined that “the miracle of modern flight [had] protected us from gravity, atmosphere, culture and geography,” this volcanic eruption has shown that “we have not escaped from the physical world after all.”

This is not only a perversely topsy-turvy and historically illiterate argument (history, right through to the recent Haiti earthquake, shows us that it is societies that lack high development which suffer the most when there is a natural disaster); it also reveals what lies behind the volcano-worshippers’ outlook in general: a discomfort with modernity, with internationalism, with border-busting human interconnectedness. For them, the volcano should make us get back in touch with, in Monbiot’s words, “gravity, atmosphere, culture and geography”—that is, to remain grounded, to stick with our own cultures, and to stop traversing the globe. To be imprisoned, in other words, by the limits imposed by nature.

What we effectively have here is an updated version of the Vulcan vs. Prometheus story. Vulcan, the god of volcanoes, punished Prometheus, the Titan, for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals. In the telling of that story, Prometheus is normally seen as the hero, the cocky, bold, and cunning Titan who wanted to give a bit of godliness to mankind. Today, however, Vulcan (in this case Eyjafjallajokill) is held up as the conqueror of Prometheus (arrogant, aeroplane-flying mankind), as green-leaning thinkers rush to celebrate the volcanic taming of mankind.

In truth, this volcano has not tamed us—it has merely thrown up a practical problem, which, if we put our minds to it, we are more than capable of resolving.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London. This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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