Bow down before this mighty volcano!

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

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Thank you Iceland, now I can hear a thrush.’

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 one overexcited 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 without high technology and high development that suffer the most when there’s a natural catastrophe. The disarray in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 wasn’t the result of a surfeit of modernity in America, but of a deficit of moral purpose and institutional coherence in Washington, DC, which had the effect of leaving New Orleans to its own devices for some time after the disaster. When the American authorities did finally get their act together, the interconnectedness of the US, its technological nous, made the rescue-and-recovery operations run far more smoothly than they would have somewhere like Mozambique or Haiti. Some commentators seem to have become so enamoured by the power of the Icelandic volcanic ash to thwart mankind’s plans that they are wilfully ignoring the basic lesson of human history: that the more developed a society it is, the better able it is to withstand nature’s whims.

The Observer was positively ecstatic about the impact of the volcanic ash on modern life, going into full sixth-form creative-writing mode to express its worship of the Icelandic volcano’s power. ‘For most of us’, it said (most of us – really?), ‘the plume of ash and smoke rising from beneath the Earth’s crust… is cause only for awe’. Sounding like members of some weird ancient nature cult, the Observer’s leader writers argued that ‘the eruption provides a reminder of our status in relation to our planet and 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.’

In short, says Britain’s allegedly leading liberal/rationalist newspaper, the volcanic eruption ought to remind us of our utter smallness, our fundamental pointlessness, and our hubris in imagining that we could conquer the skies and traverse the globe at will. The Observer says the ash shows that ‘it is sometimes liberating to be powerless before nature’. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of delayed or stranded passengers, who have experienced the post-ash chaos as restrictive and depressing rather than awe-inspiring or liberating.

The chattering classes’ love-in with the Icelandic volcano is bizarre, but revealing. Firstly they are wrong to argue that the flight chaos in Western Europe is all down to ‘nature’s whims’, to ‘one modest belch’ from the ‘underworld’. In fact I would wager that the contemporary politics of the precautionary principle – where the powers-that-be seek to avoid taking any action that might have unpredictable, unplottable consequences – has played an important role in the decision to ground all flights in Britain for an historically long period of time. Yes, volcanic ash is potentially very bad for aeroplanes’ engines, but some industry and expert voices are now starting to ask if the flight restrictions haven’t been slightly over the top. For all the volcano-worship, for all the Nature’s Revenge porn, for all the claims that ‘Mother Earth’s fury’ brought life in the skies to a standstill, in fact the politics of risk-aversion helped out too (see This shutdown is about more than volcanic ash, by Frank Furedi).

And secondly, the excitable idea that one volcanic belch has reminded us how small we are reveals what lies behind the contemporary green outlook: a misanthropic view of mankind as a cocky and destructive species which needs to be firmly put back in its place. It is striking that even a natural event which cannot in anyway be described as ‘manmade’ has unleashed so much nature-dominates-man commentary. This shows that, for all contemporary commentators’ claims that they are only interested in communicating the ‘scientific facts’ about what will happen if we continue distorting and warping the natural world with CO2, in fact they are instinctively drawn to any natural occurrence that can be held up as evidence of Mother Nature’s power over deluded mankind.

What we effectively have is a new, modern version of ancient man’s fear and humility before volcanoes. As one study of volcanology argues, in ancient times people thought ‘volcanic eruptions were the work of angry gods, determined to punish us for deeds that displeased them’. The birth of the science of volcanology, from the nineteenth century onwards, helped us to understand that volcanic eruptions were in fact natural phenomena with no moral meaning or sentience. Only now they are being given meaning once more, with some suggesting that maybe ‘Mother Earth is having her revenge on mankind for disrupting the balance of the world’. In short? The gods are displeased and they are punishing us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

This shutdown is about more than volcanic ash, by Frank Furedi

Bow down before this mighty volcano!, by Brendan O’Neill

Stuck in the airport that the world forgot, by Nathalie Rothschild

Read more at spiked issue Risk.


To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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