I was supposed to fly to Europe this weekend. Instead, an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name blew its top, heaved a mass of ash above the continent, and made commercial flight too risky to try. Airline traffic between the US and Europe has ground to a stop. The aviation industry, according to the WaPo, is losing $200 million a day.
I have traveled around the world for decades. I’ve encountered bad weather, bad planes, crazy countries. Never before have I been stopped by a volcano.
N. N. Taleb would call it the ultimate black swan event. A surprise catastrophe, too rare an occurrence to fit into our habitual framework of cause and effect.
Black swan events expose human ignorance. We think we know, until it becomes clear we don’t. Or rather, it becomes clear our knowledge is parochial, limited in time and space. The world works with an entirely different measure than the human scale.
We know so little about this particular volcano event, it’s been fun to watch the constant appeal to “experts” who must somehow explain the inexplicable. They sound even shakier than usual. I read one from the UK Met weather people (can’t retrace the link) who said the ash cloud would remain as long as the volcano continued to erupt. No kidding. Different experts have predicted no end in sight for the eruption, a quick end, and a massive secondary explosion.
Human nature demands explanations for disasters. In the old days, I’m sure we would have turned to churchmen, who would have found something to say about our sins. That at least is a coherent account: no more accurate than that of our experts, but far more therapeutic.
The eruption in Iceland puts more than our knowledge in perspective. It also shatters our bizarre contemporary faith in our power to fix the universe – the belief, shouted from the rooftops and repeated ad nauseam, that picking up litter or riding a bike or spending $100 trillion can “save the earth.”
It’s false pride to think we can save nature. We can’t even save ourselves, when nature chooses to wreak havoc on our lives.
Flight cancellations are a trivial event. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 killed somewhere between 36,000 and 120,000 islanders (experts were a lot more honest about how little they knew back then), and cooled the surface of the earth by 1.2 degrees centigrade. The even more powerful Santorini explosion, which gave rise to the myth of Atlantis, destroyed a chunk of the Aegean and wiped out the civilization of Crete.
We really exist on sufferance. During the apocalyptic blizzard of last winter, I recall looking out my window and feeling something akin to religious awe. Here was a force and a fury much more powerful than this vaunted city of Washington – here was the earth, taunting its saviors, paralyzing for a week the government of the mightiest nation on its surface.
An experience like that offers a fresh perspective on things.
I don’t mean to downplay human achievement – just the opposite. My point is that the difficulties overcome by our species have been much greater than we appear to understand today. Modern science and medicine, democracy, rule of law, religious and racial tolerance – all these triumphs have taken place within an eternally precarious situation, against a violent and unstable natural world, never far from an unforeseen catastrophe.
The history of our kind is an amazing tale of survival and progress in defiance of the odds. That is the perspective of the blizzard and of the volcano with the unpronounceable name. We are not godlets. It wasn’t given to us to fix or save the earth, only to endure in it, to struggle in its grip, and with luck to advance on our own ignorance.