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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The volcano that collapsed all


I don't normally write on news that are on the main pages of all media, but the unpredictable consequences of the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajokull really deserve at least a few lines.


First of all, I admit I am guilty of copy-pasting the name of the volcano. Really it will take me more than just a few days to learn to spell that Icelandic word and therefore I have decided to call it simply Eyja, which I hope doesn't offend it.

And anyhow, it was just a matter of time before it was nicknamed somehow, yes or yes?


Impressive image of Eyja borrowed from Al Jazeera

Anyhow, Eyja's polluting power is such that in just a few days of eruption, otherwise not too destructive, it has created such an unprecedented chaos in modern globalized Europe that wealthy men are begging in Warsaw for a ride back home and airlines are rumored to be preparing to fire personnel. Meanwhile the roses from Kenya or the kiwis from Chile can't reach their European markets and the ash cloud has already reached East Asia causing widespread disruption there as well.

But this is probably only the beginning. Vulcanologists can't predict the duration of the eruption but, in any case, so far has only got stronger and stronger. It could be just two days more... or it could be two years. Nobody knows.

The closest precedent is that of Laki volcano, also in Iceland, in 1783, which lasted for eight months and historians link to crop failure and being one of the triggers of the French Revolution.

There are indeed no precedents for such a widespread closure of air space. The closest case experts can think of is the brief closure of US air space after 9/11. But even that is not comparable: now there's no way to predict how will be the situation just a few days ahead... though the most likely is that it will remain the same or even worsen.

And it is affecting the economy: businessmen can't fly to meetings and fairs (even presidents and prime ministers had to suspend their journeys), some imported food will soon become scarce in your local supermarket and some of the most profitable sectors, such as pharmaceutics, rely on air transport heavily. According to The Guardian, even if only 1% of the volume of British foreign trade is done by airplane, it is nothing less than 30% of its exporting value!

Add up all the many disruptions and their cumulative chain effects in the context of an already very severe economic crisis... and let your imagination fly - because there are no precedents, really.

Of course Eyja could stop tomorrow... but that's not very likely to happen.

12 comments:

joe90 kane said...

The closest precedent is that of Laki volcano, also in Iceland, in 1783, which lasted for eight months and historians link to crop failure and being one of the triggers of the French Revolution.
- that is a brilliant observation.

all the best

Maju said...

I think I took it from The Guardian's article, just that this time I placed my sources in the text, rather than apart.

Thanks anyhow.

manju said...

Let me list:
1. Black death: Killed scores of aristocrats and broke their monopoly on literacy/knowledge. Necessity made literacy to spread thro' common people.

2. Lisbon earthquake: Heralded Renaissance.

3. Laki Volcano: Heralded working class Western European society.

Nature has been very kind to you!

Maju said...

LOL. Or "we" have done "our" best with what Nature threw on us.

However I must admit that the Gulf Stream comes quite handy. :)

Anyhow, I did not know about number one having that effect. My impression is rather that the Black Death caused the medieval equivalent to "full employment" (more lands than hands tow work them), getting aristocrats to compete each other more fiercely for what manpower was left, what eased the burden of serfdom and effectively ended with most slavery, as people could chose what patron to work for and in what conditions to some extent.

Let's say that "labor market" got "liberalized" in favor of workers, as finally patrons had to compete with each other and not just rule like lazy despots.

Also aristocrats never really had any monopoly on knowledge: their business was war not science, and were more often than not illiterate, at least before the Troubadour movement. In fact in the middle ages there was little knowledge but religious mythological copy-pasting and some less important interest in technological matters such as weapons and agriculture. Most of this limited knowledge was on the hands of the clergy, who were almost the only ones who could read (some just barely so) and hence monopolized the bureaucracy, which was virtually the same as the Catholic Church.

What really brought knowledge to the West was plundering Byzantium and then salvaging the remnants when the Turks took over. Also Jewish networks to some extent as Jews were often literate and very cosmopolitan and brought some knowledge from the Islamic Zone.

But what was really decisive in the rise of Western Europe, was the dialectic caused by the sustained Turkish pressure, the strategical position towards the ocean of most of Europe and, very specially, the lack of any single great power. It was competition with the Turks AND among Europeans themselves what really pushed the various powers to look beyond in search of gold and spices that otherwise would only arrive by the hand of the Muslims.

Would any single country had decided to ignore this opportunity, as China did after Heng Zhe, others would have taken it. In the Chinese case there was just no "other country", so guess that the very collapse of the Roman Empire was what caused it all ultimately.

I've always wondered if globalization would have gone faster if Hannibal would have won the 2nd Punic War. After all, Phoenicians, unlike Romans, were a very seagoing people, more interested in exploration and trade than Empire building as such.

That would have really changed history altogether: Germans would have conquered all Gaul, Etruscan language might have survived, Christianity would have not been born, nor surely Islam either. And America might have been "discovered" in the 4th or 5th century (just a guess).

If you like to write history-fiction it's an excellent alternate starting point. :)

manju said...

Came across the first point at some blog comment. I think discussion was how monopoly of education (Sanskrit) by the brahmins stagnated Indian society. Then somebody tossed that point in the discussion. I haven't read it in any literature.

Other two, of course, your own :-).

Maju said...

Well, I would agree that religious monopoly of education certainly tends to stagnate science and society because it's not really science so much what the clergy is interested in spreading but a doctrine, a faith, an absolute "truth"... in other words: pseudoscience.

It was Renaissance, caused by plurality of states and the reflux from Byzantium (and to some extent Islamic World), which began to destroy obscurantism but this was a long process that I would not say really ever finished. The bourgeois and worker revolutions (and related reforms) seem to have been decisive in destroying the old aristocratic "caste and religion" system but the system was already being eroded by general social changes such as mass armies with gunpowder weapons (which did not anymore rely on knights), improved communications (which eroded the power of the local lords in favor of the central state), incipient industrialization, etc.

It was after all a matter of pragmatism, I think. If you were too stagnated: you just could not win. As I have said before the competition between the various polities was crucial and in this sense, the fall of Rome was something good in the long run, a was religious sectarism to some extent.

Even monolithic and hyper-traditionalist Catholics eventually realized that. The main order of the post-reformation Catholic Church, the Jesuits, was both very militaristic and disciplined (quasi-fascist) and very rationalist and science-oriented.

However in the last decades the power of the Jesuits has been eroded by even more reactionary sects, specially the Opus Dei, which are a Catholic version of US fanatic Evangelism and used to be considered a destructive brainwashing cult. The last two popes are from this faction, which nowadays controls all power resorts. Would religion now be as important as in the past, this situation would surely cause a new schism, but what really happens is that people just leave the Church and become agnostics/atheists/other personal philosophies.

Excepting naturally those who are conservative enough to remain. This actually places the Church (and I'd say all or most religious sects) in opposition to the secular majority, which does not belong to any sect or belong to some but keep an independent, not dogmatic, viewpoint anyhow.

I'd say this dialectic has been going on for long, first within the religious dogma and later more and more outside it, within a Humanist secularist, often anti-clerical, viewpoint gradually becoming hegemonic in the last two centuries, hopefully to last.

Marnie said...

Not to trivialize this issue, but what will those poor business people do without all those frequent flyer miles made on "must go" trips to Europe?

Marnie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marnie said...

Regarding the "Black Death", I've also read an analysis that argues that the dramatic drop in population resulted in greater availability of land as well as a greater bargaining power for the labouring poor.

It's interesting to read about a time in which landlessness, domination by the ruling class and excessive taxation did not dominate Europe. (see Wealth and Poverty in the Teachings of the Church Fathers, by James Thorton.)

As to the idea that competitive pressure from the Ottomans brought development, I've not so sure. I think it was a mixed bag. Surely, the cost of defence against the Ottomans was a costly and depleting process.

Interesting thought about Hannibal.

I think we forget how much conserted pressure exsisted against progress in Europe, until about 1400AD.

Has anybody read "The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus"?

It details the detribution of the Copernican "De revolutionibus", the book that first postulates the motion of the planets. What an extraordinary read. Much more than the some of the more popular works that document the silencing of Gallileo, this book details how thinkers, often within the Catholic Church, started to unravel the fabric of scientific silence.

Returning to the topic of the plague, Black Death, it should be noticed that the Middle ages were not the first time that it appeared. In fact, the European population seems to have been under almost constant pressure from the Plague starting at approximately the time of Justinian.

In terms of history, I believe that the impact of various epidemics, which curiously often were carried from Africa, up the Nile, and then across the Mediterranean, has been underestimated.

Marnie said...

"I'd say this dialectic has been going on for long, first within the religious dogma and later more and more outside it, within a Humanist secularist"

yes, a long time.

i think that the central authority that the Catholic Church has held in Western Europe over the last 1500 years or so is an aberration, on the grand scale of the things, within European history.

Maju said...

"Not to trivialize this issue, but what will those poor business people do without all those frequent flyer miles made on "must go" trips to Europe?"

"Poor business people" is an oxymoron, right?

I really can't say but the case is that it's being rather disruptive. If I'm correct, at the time of writing this the volcano is not spitting ash anymore and that spells good news but the situation is still very complicated and uncertain, and some industries that relied (wrong!) in Toyotist "just-in-time" transcontinental air trade had to stop or slow down production.

"Regarding the "Black Death", I've also read an analysis that argues that the dramatic drop in population resulted in greater availability of land as well as a greater bargaining power for the labouring poor".

That's correct as fas as I can say.

"As to the idea that competitive pressure from the Ottomans brought development, I've not so sure. I think it was a mixed bag. Surely, the cost of defence against the Ottomans was a costly and depleting process".

What I say is that it stirred "research", which in the time was largely navigation and exploration. Altogether this process was bad for Italy, specially for Venice, but it was very productive for West Europe. In the end Venetians were seen allied with the Turks against Portugal... and losing.

It was not just the Turks anyhow but in general the competition among powers, each striving to get the upper hand or at least a solid good position, for which technical abilities such as perfected engineering or astronomy were most valuable. Dogmatic attitudes did threaten to trample these advances but those powers who eventually fell to dogmatism and thoughtless corrupt elitism had to cede their positions to others.

This was clearly the case of Spain after Counterreformation and the establishment of Inquisition. If Spain, which in some moment was clearly a leading power, would have been more open-minded and less arrogant, it might have kept its lead for longer. But it did not: blinded by its own short-term success and trapped in proto-fascist corrupt elitism and intolerance, it lost pace and went in just one century from first global power to mere old glory.

Maju said...

"Has anybody read "The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus"?"

Not me but for what you say it appears an interesting read.

"Returning to the topic of the plague, Black Death, it should be noticed that the Middle ages were not the first time that it appeared".

The plague was relatively common (intermitent) but the Black Death was very intense. However I perceive that some people exaggerate its effect. It was a widespread human disaster but most places recovered in just a few decades and some areas were not affected almost at all (Poland, parts of the Basque Country).

"I believe that the impact of various epidemics, which curiously often were carried from Africa, up the Nile, and then across the Mediterranean, has been underestimated".

I think it's the opposite. They are often overestimated. Also the plague typically came from Central Asia, where it used to be endemic, not from Africa. And that was the case with the Black Death, which was imported by a Genoan ship from Kaffa, in Mongol-controlled Crimea.

"i think that the central authority that the Catholic Church has held in Western Europe over the last 1500 years or so is an aberration"...

Yes but it must be said that, before Renaissance and Counterreformation, the Church was largely controlled by the secular authorities at a more local level.

The Christian Coup in the mid-late Roman Empire and its consequences on Rome itself is a very interesting historical episode, that links semi-directly (oddly enough) with Zionist power today. After all Christianity is nothing but a messianic version of proselytist Judaism (and Judaism was generally proselytist in that time). The role of Jews in the history of West Eurasia cannot fully be understood without the success of Jewish sects such as Christianity and Islam among gentiles.

Another issue related to the raise of Christianity is the move of the Roman capital to the East (Constantinople) and the eventual division of the Empire in two, what necessarily caused the collapse of the Western Empire in due time, once the wealth (generated in the Eastern Mediterranean mostly) stopped arriving to Italy and, hence, providing resources for the administration of Western Europe and defense of the Western borders.