Monday, 19 April 2010

Ashes to ashes

What are we to make of the cessation of air travel in the UK, and across northern Europe? Is this the end of the world?

Well hardly, although no doubt some will point to portents of doom that anticipated exactly this occurrence. Having said that, it is causing immense hardship and difficulty for some. It is costing the airlines millions of pounds each day. It is separating families and loved ones. Some will miss important events, such as weddings or funerals. It means that we can neither import nor export - which will have a huge impact on farmers in the third world trying to sell us their flowers and mange-tout.

I confess to little sympathy for holiday-makers. I think that is principally because so many of my holidays have been based around the journey not the destination, and I love land-travel so much more than going by air, therefore the extra travelling should be viewed as adventure. And (before you ask) I have travelled long distances with children as well: we took the train from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam - a two day journey - when they were aged 1.5 and 4. Then again, I recognise that was planned, and we weren't doing it surrounded by thousands of other panicked travellers. It was all gentle and relaxed, with little in the way of deadline to worry us.

Nevertheless, I have more sympathy for cargo transporters and people trapped because of work travel. Their frustrations at not carrying on with a normal day's business must be maddening. And I feel sorry for organisations who don't have their employees, thus losing trade or (in the case of teachers) education.

It is all made worse by the fact that no-one knows how long the volcano will erupt for: it could be days, weeks or even years. This uncertainty makes it impossible to plan ahead. If we knew that it would finish a week on Tuesday, we'd simply extend holidays until then and close the airports in the meantime. As it is, we are trapped in a sea of panic and confusion: do we make long or short-term plans to deal with the problem? Compost all the imported roses, or sack all the workers?

But what can the authorities do? Is it right to fly when there is a risk of damage? And the damage may not be immediately obvious: perhaps the plane could fly for the next week, or month, and then - suddenly - when the air is clear - it's engines will fail and it will fall out of the sky. Or if we flew now, and then the London to Glasgow plane failed and crashed over central Manchester - how would we feel? Can we risk this?

When there are alternatives over land, albeit slow and arduous ones, surely we have to adapt our lifestyles to accommodate them. We have lived in a luxurious world for so long, where we can have whatever we want almost whenever we want. Maybe we now have to eat British, homegrown food, rather than bananas from the Caribbean. Maybe we have to holiday in the UK for a period instead of abroad. Maybe we have to make better use of video-conferencing to clinch business deals or attend family celebrations.

Maybe this is giving us a quick lesson about what will happen when we run out of oil. Then we won't have cars, trains or boats either. Do you think we'll ever survive?

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