The British navy has been mobilised today to bring home thousands of tourists trapped overseas by clouds of volcanic ash. Flights will hopefully resume again tomorrow, after six days of grounded planes all across Europe. Schools are in disorder as teachers and pupils alike are unable to get home. The airlines have been losing £130 million a day, and are understandably screaming about it, blaming the government for being overcautious. But what’s the bigger problem here – that the government doesn’t have a contingency plan to deal with volcanoes, or that air travel is too cheap, and far too many of us fly?
The effects are international too, with holidays disrupted and air freight schedules backed up. Kenyan farmers are losing £1.3 million a day and are being forced to dump exports destined for Britain. Tonnes of broccoli, runner beans and fresh flowers will be harvested and composted if European airspace is not opened again in the next couple of days. Thousands of staff have been asked not to come into work. UK shops meanwhile, are rapidly selling out of exotic fruit. But what’s the real issue here – that a volcano has erupted in Iceland, or that we fly our broccoli in from Kenya?
Last winter, and again this year, the snow showed Britain’s vulnerability and dependence on the car. We couldn’t get to work or to school, ambulances got stuck, shops ran low. Eyjafjallajokull, bane of newsreaders everywhere, has shown our dependence on air travel.
Standing in the garden this weekend, a mile from Luton airport but with nothing but birdsong on the wind and not a contrail to be seen, I couldn’t help but think that this is what the skies of the future will be like. Lord knows I’ve taken my share of flights, but air travel is fundamentally unsustainable – both for its CO2 emissions and its oil use. We simply won’t be able to fly in the future. “By definition, what is unsustainable cannot go on indefinitely” says Anthony Kleanthous in his article about aviation today. The only question left to us is whether we book now while we still can, or start getting used to holidaying more locally while the choice is still ours. I’ve chosen the latter.
I can’t blame anyone who still flies, and there’s no satisfaction in the last few days of disruption either. We’ve got family members stranded and miserable somewhere between here and Sicily. But I am reminded of E F Schumacher’s observation that technology should fit “the actual size of man.” And “man is small”, he adds.
I think Alain de Botton sums up the way I feel about it rather well, in this piece about the future of aviation: “In a future world without aeroplanes,” he begins, “children would gather at the feet of old men, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea.”