It’s always hard to imagine a world fundamentally different to the one we encounter everyday. Even when the balance shifts deeply between established political forces, it feels like there might be a new DJ playing different songs but that you’re still at the same party. The days press in on us with familiar routines, demands and a storm force gale of unchanging multimedia information.
Unless, that is, something happens to really break the routine. Wait long enough and something always will. It wasn’t a gaffe, or a TV debate, but a blast that allowed us all to imagine a truly different world during this election campaign, one in which we are reconnnected to the environment.
In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano, covered in ice, with a hard-to-pronounce name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded. Nobody heard it across northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent.
Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.
One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings.
Philosophers, poets and stranded travellers filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, of course it was. No one was prepared for it. But suddenly the skies were peaceful. People found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and shared cars. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Most strikingly, as flying was something we thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill.
The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.
Kew Gardens in south London is famous for two things. One is its stunning botanical collection, the other is that it lies on the approach to Heathrow airport. Normally, visitors have their appreciation of nature interrupted by low-flying aircraft every few seconds. If you had visited Kew during the brief ceasefire in the skies in April, you would have seen crowds of people staring in quiet wonderment at what was missing from the air above their heads. Like many others, behind the bluster of the threatened airline industry, I suspect they had the creeping sensation, that thanks to a random geological event on a faraway island, we had all stumbled upon a different and better world.
Of course, this is not what our political masters had planned. Quite the contrary. Typical of rich countries, the British government is planning for the number of air passengers using its airports to treble from around 200 million to 500 million by 2030. And, if aviation is allowed to grow, by 2050 it will account for between half and all of the UK’s acceptable carbon emissions, even if the growth slows down. Yet, those few days in April revealed that even in the most dramatic circumstances, of the complete, sudden, unexpected closure of airspace over northern Europe, we could adapt.
Scandalously, the environment, our underlying physical life support system, has been considered worth barely a mention during the election campaign. But, interestingly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have said they oppose a new runway at Heathrow. With that, and holding recent memories, as the poet put it, of the clear skies’ “silent summons”, perhaps we’ll remember that change is not only possible, it actually happens. Whoever gets elected, they will have about 79 months and counting, to make a real difference on climate change.