Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 4/23/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Sharon & Herb Bartling of San Antonio, Texas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The Icelandic volcano with the "unpronounceable" name is delivering one of Nature's recurring messages: humans are not in charge.

It is the same lesson that we receive when blizzards shut down all activities in a major city for a few days, when a hurricane follows a predictable path to slam ashore with its devastation of wind and floods, and when earthquakes twist and topple the structures that undergird our civilization. When the powerful forces of this planet are released, there is little that people can do about it.

I've heard from a few friends that they share my special delight and fascination as we follow the news about Eyjafjallajokull's eruption. Usually, dramatic natural events come with a heavy load of death and destruction. The wonder at nature's power is paired with grief. This time, though, the gritty clouds of ash spreading over Europe have provided a beautifully focused message with little emotional baggage.

When international diplomacy uses economic sanctions to teach a lesson to a misbehaving nation, there's usually an attempt to target the economic impact so that the innocent are spared, and the brunt of the costs hit some vital and sensitive industry. Last week's volcano did that beautifully.

There have been no deaths -- human and perhaps even of livestock -- from the eruption. For the most part, life has gone on as usual across Europe as the ash cloud drifts far overhead. The one impact, which seemed tailored to catch media interest for days on end, is that airplanes could not fly. One segment of the global transportation system shut down for five days, and the fragility of humanity's amazing technology became very evident.

A week of disruption has a surgical precision in providing insights. If the eruptions in Iceland continue for months, and even intensify, it may not be so much fun to watch.

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"Humans are not in charge" is the generic lesson. There are several other things that we can realize by watching the events, research and commentaries of the last week.

  1. In a twist on the "people are not in control" message, there are some reputable comments that human-induced global warming may lead to an increase in volcanoes and earthquakes around the world. As glaciers melt, a huge weight of ice and water is removed from land masses. The underlying rock can rise, and that can trigger the movement of magma deep below. We're not in control, but we're certainly having an impact, even on the geology of the planet.

  2. Eyjafjallajokull and the shutdown of European air travel provides a vivid illustration about the scale of humanity's climate effects. That volcano belches out lots of carbon dioxide, estimated at 150,000 tons per day. But a 60% reduction in European air travel last week cut CO2 emissions by 344,109 tons per day -- more than twice as much as contained in the huge cloud of dust and smoke. That means that a normal level of airline traffic through Europe produces the same sort of carbon dioxide emissions as three or four erupting volcanoes. And those "normal" emissions from flying go on day after day, year after year, and are also going on in other parts of the planet.

  3. We have certainly seen evidence of the webs of globalization in our interconnected world. A mid-sized volcano lets loose in Iceland, ash clouds spread above the northern part of Europe, and the rippling effects are felt across the planet. Travelers in Singapore are disrupted when London's Heathrow shuts down. Most of the news reports that I've seen have been on that "human interest" level of financial stress and inconvenience among those who are stranded. But the real lessons about globalization are more substantial.

    There has been a serious economic impact in Kenya when routine air traffic stops in Europe. That East African nation has an export economy of flowers and boutique vegetables -- products that are highly perishable, and of little use to the Kenyan people. The flow of radishes and roses to England and France was cut off, tons of produce has rotted, thousands of jobs were eliminated, and the country's balance of trade was disrupted. Food supplies and national economies are all dependant on jetliners that shuttle goods around the world.

  4. The interconnection of commerce, culture and climate has become real. I made a comment to friends last weekend that what we were seeing in Europe may be just a taste of how the world will soon change. The dramatic scale of action that is needed to minimize global heating should mean that the travel and trade that we now take for granted will be seen as luxuries. If we are responsible in dealing with climate change, then we will no longer see fresh produce rushed around the world. The short business trips and quick vacations to far-away lands that now seem routine will be a thing of the past. The quiet skies over Europe may be the new "normal" within a few decades.

    Two British commentators related to the "Transition" movement have written about the lessons to be learned this week. Rob Hopkins and Rosie Boycott point to the mix of practical, strategic and personal benefits that come along with localization. They remind us that the best response to Eyjafjallajokull is not a quick return to business as usual, but is rather a realization of the fragility of our global culture and a shift toward a more sustainable world.

We have been witnesses to a remarkable event. Lava rising through a glacier in Iceland has offered insights that are both universal and immediate. May we take these lessons seriously, and start to envision the promise of a near-future world where an erupting volcano evokes wonder without also paralyzing human commerce.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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