It was right to put safety above profits

James Turley argues that there is more to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano than disruption to tourists

The disruption caused by the gigantic ash column over Iceland is another monument to the idiocy of capitalism. With the skies of western Europe a no-fly zone for a week, a not so remarkable natural event has provoked a very human sort of chaos.

British newspaper headlines were for days dominated by the plight of stranded holidaymakers, pushing even the election campaign off the front pages. Yet volcanoes erupt frequently enough, famously so in Iceland, and sometimes with really severe consequences in terms of destruction and loss of life. But aviation, weather and safety experts warned that the huge plume of volcanic ash bellowing out from the polysyllabic mountain of Eyjafjallajökull and covering much of western European airspace would reduce pilot’s visibility and damage their aircraft. There are many potentially adverse consequences - the external plating can be eroded, fuel lines can get clogged up, and in the extremely hot temperatures of a jet turbine the ash can fuse into a hard and glassy substance which reduces engine power. The worst-case scenario is nothing short of a 10,000-metre plummet to almost certain death.

Not surprisingly then, closing airspace affected by a volcanic eruption is a requirement under international safety regulations formulated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation when a red alert is issued. ICAO  insists that there is “no definition of a safe concentration” of volcanic dust when it comes to  aircraft. True, most planes would surely have made it through the Eyjafjallajökull dust without disaster striking, but it is believed that, within the larger ash cloud, there will be pockets of particularly dense concentrations of particles that could cause severe damage.

As the no-fly ban ticked by one day after the other, airline bosses sought to throw doubt on the warnings and the need for the shutdown. British Airways sent a lone aircraft from London to Cardiff in order to ‘prove’ that is was safe (proving nothing, of course). And the Tory media joined in the campaign. The London Evening Standard accused the chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority of “blundering” over the flight ban and held him responsible for costing the British economy £1 billion. Transport minister Lord Adonis was put on the defensive by the Tories, and the government did everything it could to appear to be doing something decisive …. aircraft carriers, fleets of busses in Spain and all. However, after six days the ban on flying was officially lifted, as meteorologists announced that the Eyjafjallajökull dust had considerably thinned, by 80%, making it safe to reopen airports for business. The sting in the tail being, of course, that the airline bosses are now demanding compensation from the taxpayer ... having failed to take out sufficient insurance cover to compensate for their losses.

So what to make of the Eyjafjallajökull crisis? The first unignorable fact highlighted by all this was the sheer complexity of modern society. Air travel in western Europe, for a start, is not simply a matter of convenience for holidaymakers - the disruption had all manner of knock-on effects in the economy and social life at large, from missed hours at work or school to cancelled meetings and appointments. Talks over the Greek International Monetary Fund bailout were disrupted and foreign delegations had to abandon plans to attend the state funeral of erstwhile Polish president Lech Kaczynski.

Perishable goods, typically flown from their point of origin to markets far afield, were stuck on the ground - and, as is their way, perished. An article in The Guardian on Kenya (April 20) pointed out that exports of flowers and other plants to Europe account for $3 million a day’s worth of trade - every day that flights into Europe are cancelled, Kenyan farmers and capitalists literally lose that amount of money. In lean economic times in the global periphery, this means livelihoods are at stake.

Underlying this is the second incontestable fact - though the objective tendency is for the world to become more integrated, the greater the overall social complexity, the more the infrastructure that supports it is apparently rendered unresponsive. The airline industry alone was left making a loss estimated at £130 million a day, because it makes greater sense from the capitalist point of view to invest in more planes and more flights than to adopt anything like a contingency plan for when catastrophic disruption to air travel does arise - such as when a volcanic eruption coincides with an unusual weather pattern.

Regarding the transport of goods, it is obviously true that any commodity whose use-value is strictly time-limited - Kenyan flowers, for example - are transported by plane if they are to go more than a certain distance, or they are not going to be transported at all. No mode of production will change that. All the same, is Europe really the most sensible destination for African flowers - or Africa really the most likely source of flowers for European customers? There is no underlying geographical reason why this trade route exists - only the contingent machinations of the capitalist world market has made it so. A fortiori, there is no reason why a few lost export crops - luxury goods at that - should necessarily result in the sharpening of rural poverty in a country. Yet the vicissitudes of international trade under capitalism make it so. For goods more important to human existence than ornamental flora, it should go without saying that they should be transportable using different means - and, indeed, nobody in Britain is starving, as only 2% of our food imports are flown in. Some production lines in Europe are at a halt, however, for want of raw materials, their owners’ short-termism backfiring just as has the airlines’.

All this results from the submission of vital conditions of production - the sustenance of a global infrastructure capable of bringing people and things alike to where they are needed - to the deepening anarchy of a system in secular decline. From the perspective of the individual firm the main thing is reducing costs and maximising profits in the short term. Hence the overdevelopment of certain means of transport, such as aircraft and roads, and the underdevelopment of railways, inland waterways, ocean shipping and airships. For example, the government wants to a third runway at Heathrow to go ahead, as if the endless expansion of air travel was inevitable, beneficial and sustainable. However, the logic of capitalism demands exactly this course. From the perspective of society as a whole the results can be entirely irrational. Leave aside the danger of runway global warming, there is the tendency to push a particular line of development to breaking point. A banana may have arrived in Sainsbury’s from a freight plane or a refrigerated ship - but which is chosen is determined entirely by profit maximisation. And in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism this produces a funnelling effect, as everyone seeks to reduce costs to the minimum. With that comes the danger of breakdown occurring with even the slightest unexpected disruption.

Changing this requires planning on a grand social scale. It requires the ability to act consciously in response to social and natural impulses. Capitalism makes much of its innovation and dynamism, a consequence of its inability to sit still - but the ‘pure’ economic logic of capitalism imprisons what dynamism it does have in the individual firm, and has consequently given rise to ‘disaster management’ bureaucracies, such as the American Federal Emergency Management Agency, to step in when market failure truly is not an option. A capitalist firm can fly thousands of tourists to the far ends of the Earth in a day, but to evacuate a flooded city, it turns every time to the state. State bureaucracies, meanwhile, are hardly the most alert and responsive organisations imaginable.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano should remind humans that they are at the mercy of nature. We are part of and dependent upon nature. This eruption, which has not caused any disastrous lava flows or even much disruption within Iceland itself, is by no means a social catastrophe. However, should we reach a climate warming tipping point, by contrast, entire ecosystems will be upended; instead of dealing with stranded air passengers, we will face the possibility of the extinction of the human species itself.

If capitalism is unable to get people around without clogging the air with planes, then it is liable to come up short when faced with the apocalypse. We need not be at the mercy of nature, though it is always ready to throw us a curveball. Under class society, however, we truly are, and coming to a more healthy relationship with the world around us depends on our ability to supersede capitalism.