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An Eruption of Unresilience

Resilience is generally understood as the degree to which a complex system is flexible enough to respond and adapt to an externally-imposed force or change and thus persist over time while

Michael Dudley | April 19, 2010, 11am PDT
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Resilience is generally understood as the degree to which a complex system is flexible enough to respond and adapt to an externally-imposed force or change and thus persist over time while retaining its structure and functions. Conversely, a vulnerable system would be one in which conditions are inflexible, key resources comprise a monoculture, there is little learning capacity, and choices for addressing crises are constrained.

We are seeing these concepts being played out in real time in the present transportation crisis ensuing from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull (pron. ay-yah-FYAH-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano in Iceland.

With air traffic grounded across most of Europe, hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded at business or holiday destinations, and the halt in movement is threatening to drag down Europe's economic recovery. The airlines are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a day and foodstuffs normally flown into England are running scarce.

In response to the crisis, people have been turning in unprecedented numbers to alternative forms of international travel, including trains and cruise ships. According to the Associated Press:

"In major European cities, travel chaos reigned. Extra trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long that the rail company handed out free coffee. Train operator Eurostar said it was carrying almost 50,000 passengers between London, Paris and Brussels. Thalys, a high-speed venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, was allowing passengers to buy tickets even if trains were fully booked.Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich."

Fortunately, Europe has a relatively advanced high-speed train network in several nations; were this eruption affecting North America, where rail service has been denuded dramatically over decades and new investments in high speed rail are only now being planned, the conditions would be more chaotic by several magnitudes.

While we have heard a great deal over the years about the need to diversify our transportation systems to reduce greenhouse gases and to prepare for peak oil, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption demonstrates that our present transportation monoculture is simply not sufficiently resilient even under normal conditions, for it is incapable of responding adequately to unexpected stressors. The lack of diversity and redundancy in our transportation infrastructure thereby threatens the stability of every other system that interacts with it, including food, business, tourism and the countless human needs dependent on it.  

The eruption should be yet another wake-up call to governments that an over reliance on any one transportation system is reckless and short-sighted. Opponents of investments in high-speed rail need only consider how grievous this situation could become if, as in the past, this volcano continues to erupt for a year or longer. The capacity for nations -- and the global economy -- to respond to long-term disruptions to air travel must be taken into account.

For their part, supporters of rail can also look at the eruption for something else: an alternative vision for urban and intercontinental life. With air traffic absent from the sky – and the harried business schedules it makes necessary – many people are finding that the eruption has yielded a silver lining. Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail finds that London has fallen "strangely, peacefully quiet" as the constant roar of jets has ceased, while others are rediscovering the wonders of leisure time, renewed freidnships and unhurried urban sight-seeing. In the absence of exotic imported food, grocery chains are once again turning to British suppliers, demonstrating the need for viable regional agriculture. 

The eruption in Iceland shows us both the fault lines in our present structures, and a glimpse of what needs to be done. A world in which air travel is less frequent and more expensive, and where rail service is more affordable, desireable and convenient, would be a slower, quieter place. There would certainly be disadvantages, and adjustments to be made. But it would be a dramatically more resilient world, one capable of adjusting more readily to the unexpected or – if necessary – the catastrophic.    

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