Alex Steer

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Volcanoes and the slow world

742 words | ~4 min

Catching up on a bit of reading, I've noticed a lot of futurists considering the perceptual impact of the grounding of flights due to the Icelandic volcano eruption. My Futures Company colleague Andrew Curry summarises the kinds of reperception that are taking place, and Gideon Rachman (in the FT) smartly observes that the frustration normally felt by the poor or disenfranchised has briefly been extended to everyone by the impossibility of getting off the ground.

But there's an odd strain of nostalgia running through much of the output from this volcanic sub-genre. Even as writers imagine possible futures, some of these futures seem to resemble versions of the inaccessible past. They are, to pinch from William Empson, versions of pastoral.

We catch glimpses of these pastoral worlds of slow movement in for example, Doreen Massey's essay, 'Is the world getting larger or smaller?', republished by Open Democracy (and linked to by Andrew). She argues, fairly persuasively, about the effect that the creation of rapid travel 'hubs' has had on communities that fall in the spaces between and so remain away from the main currents of globalised life - though this is by no means a new phenomenon, even if the hubs are now nodes in a vastly larger network. I'm not sure if I agree that in a fast world 'there is no question of the pleasures of movement or travel': rather, I suspect the feasibility of rapid movement has enabled the emergence of less pleasure-orientated categories of travel - like business travel, for instance - that were previously confined either to small distances or to small constituencies of people, such as merchants. Was mercantile travel ever a pleasure?

To deny that travel is a pleasure to be savoured now implies that once it was, and that there is, in the words of Christopher Reid's 'Second Genesis':

a pang too, at the back / Of the mind: a loss... a lack...

Nowhere is that more strongly felt than in Alain de Botton's essay 'A world without planes', published on the BBC Radio 4 website (of course). The essay imagines not so much a future world without aircraft as a long-past world, a tribal culture at which 'children would gather at the feet of old men' - a world for which aeroplanes and all of modernity were part of their inaccessible past. De Botton's planeless world feels as though it exists in the aftermath of some terrible war, devoid of a generation of rushing young men. In a world without planes, he writes, 'we would admire them like small boys do, and adults no longer dare'. The world without planes is at once an old world (located in the future) and a childish one (located in the past), living a second childhood. If De Botton means at all to imply that the world he has created is senile, he does so subtly; if not, he ignores the sad, gentle mockery that the term 'second childhood' has always carried with it, and its fatalism. His prose unwinds with a languor that fits the slow world he invokes.

To my partial reader's eye, this slowness can never be a welcome return to 'a wisdom that [our] medieval pilgrim ancestors had once known very well'. This is the meander, not of a world that is slow, but of a world that has been slowed. (In aviation terms, we already live in a slowed world, with the demise of Concorde. Of all people, Jeremy Clarkson writes surprisingly powerfully on this.) I tend to disagree forcefully with futurists who advocate return to the predecessor states of ecologically unsustainable systems. Carbon-intensive electricity generation is unsustainable, but it is worth fighting to develop better systems before we get the candles out of the cupboard. I cannot support the ultra-local food movement because if applied everywhere its impact on marginal populations (not to mention marginal costs) would lead to mass starvation. A world without planes is a world in which aid takes months to reach disaster zones, in which displaced relatives cannot return to family emergencies, in which we content ourselves with less. And that's not good enough.

# Alex Steer (16/05/2010)