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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

It’s the little things...

27 April, 2010 - 00:00

The recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokull has clearly shown Europeans how vulnerable human civilization is to the whims of nature. Ash has spewed over half of the continent, leaving tens of thousands stranded in airports around the continent. As of Tuesday April 20, an estimated 64,000 flights have been cancelled. Although some flights have been restored the continued eruptions of the Icelandic volcano have caused doubts about things returning to normal anytime soon.

Spring has not yet arrived and already Europe is suffering from nature’s wrath for a second time. While neither the freakish winter nor the current volcanic ash have claimed many lives, their impact on the economy has been profound. Early estimates of the losses caused by the severe weather amounted to 700 million pounds for the UK alone (since then they have been slightly reduced).

In turn, the aviation industry has claimed that it has lost 200 million dollars a day due to the current interruption in flights. The last time something similar happened was in 2001, when the American airlines, already suffering from financial problems, lost billions due to interruptions in traffic and reduced demand. A $15 billion bailout provided by the American government did not prevent US Airways and United Airlines from declaring bankruptcy the following year.

Nor have the effects been limited to the aviation industry and its customers. The sudden impossibility of air travel has had widespread repercussions. African farmers from Ghana have lost huge stocks of pineapples and pawpaw. 10 million Kenyan roses, headed for European markets, were ruined. At the same time weddings in New York are carried out without Dutch flowers. Several Nissan automotive companies are closed down, waiting for fire pressure sensors to arrive from Ireland. Evacuations of wounded US personal from Afgha­nistan and Iraq now take eight hours longer, while at the same organ transport in Europe has to be distributed by land-based vehicles...

The advent of such natural cataclysms gives one a sense of proportion and inspires reflection of the fragility of society. A civilization is a complex construction which can appear solid whilst at the same time being utterly dependent on seemingly trivial objects or processes. And the further we walk down the path of progress, the more helpless we become without our creations. One can only ima­gine the consequences of the loss of electrical devices, which could happen in the case of an electro-magnetic pulse set off by a nuclear explosion.

Civilization has always been inse­parably linked with infrastructure. The Romans built roads so solid that they continue to be used even now (England’s network was so developed that they didn’t build any new highways until the 18th century!), allowing it to become the biggest and most advanced empire of its time. The Incas accomplished the same feat in one of the world’s most mountainous areas. Britain used a combination of ships and good institutions to manage the world’s biggest empire to date.

Yet for all the importance of such networks, which constitute the backbone of society, civilizations have been brought down (or considerably weakened), by much more trivial issues. Much of the religious persecution and pointless wars of medieval Europe were the result of an ergot, a fungi growing on rye, which produces a bread mold that causes people to have hallucinations and become insane (or possessed by the devil, whichever is more convincing). The mental health of leaders constitutes yet another weak point – both Lenin’s and Hitler’s actions have been explained by modern medical specialists as being the result of syphilis.

Arguably the biggest feller of civilizations, however, has been the abuse of limited natural resources. In most cases, these resources have been wood and water. Cutting down woodlands was what brought down the civilization of Easter Island and doomed the European Greenlanders. It nearly destroyed the Icelandic and Japanese societies. An unsustainable use of water resources condemned the Mayan empire...

It is easy to become paranoid thinking about all the potential dangers that lurk in the most unexpected areas. There are so many that it is impossible to avoid them all. This does not mean that one should not be thrifty and wise with what one has. Yet at the same time it is equally, and perhaps even more important to enjoy life and be thankful for the earth’s riches and bounties. At the end of the day, it’s all about the little things...

By Jakub Parusinski, The Day

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