The Tuesday Essay: Brought down to earth

The closure of Europe's airports has brought the continent to a standstill. But there are lessons to be learned – both social and economic – from this remarkable event, says Hamish McRae

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How fragile our modern society has become. One natural event, albeit a most unusual one, has not just disrupted European life by shutting down most of its air transport. It has in effect shut off Europe from the world. As a result there is the inevitable churn of news, speculation and comment about the immediate events. What on earth is happening? Have we done as well as we should, and if not, why not? What are the practical ways in which we can plod back to some sort of normality?

But there should be something more. These events should make us ponder about the very nature of how we have organised the way we live now. Europe will eventually be back in business but it will not, I feel, be business as usual. Or at least it ought not to be, for once the airlines have struggled back to their usual service we should try and learn how to run the rest of our economy, and indeed our society, more wisely.

The central huge lesson of the past few days is clear. It is that if you want to move people around long distances it has to be by air. Sure, the sea lanes are still open and the giant container ships continue to bring in goods and raw materials, and take away our exports. It is possible, though laborious, to get around Europe by land and ferry, though the latter are under great pressure. But Europe is huge, as I have been discovering right now.

This column is being written at the home of some friends in Helsinki because the most promising way of getting back from a conference in Tallinn on Friday seemed to be to take a ferry over the Gulf of Finland and set off back to Britain from here. The plan is, if things don't clear today, to take an overnight ferry to Stockholm, drive a rented car down through Sweden, Denmark and Germany and get on to the Harwich ferry in Holland. So it should be perfectly possible get from near the Russian border to London by land and sea, even given the present pressures and even without the services of the Royal Navy. It is just going to take a while.

That changes things. Without cheap and swift air travel you can't have stag weekends in Estonia, you can't have a family holiday in Majorca, and you can't have a pan-European business conference in Germany. The activities that most of us regard as commonplace simply won't happen. Leave aside holidays. Any kind of global business event or political conference is out. Imagine what would have happened had the ash cloud blanketed Europe at the time of the Copenhagen environmental summit last November. Even the world's great leaders would have been stuck, though maybe we would not have felt too sorry for their predicament and maybe the national authorities would have been a bit quicker off the mark.

It would become a different world. Here in Europe it would be one in which the peripheral regions would suffer because they would be cut off from the core. People couldn't or wouldn't get to them and they would find it much tougher to sell to the world. It would not just be bad for Estonia; it would be bad for Scotland. More broadly, Europe's relationship with the United States would be more distant. China would find it harder to sell its goods to the US and look to Asia instead. Maybe the great economic force of globalisation is so entrenched that it would survive but the next trend would be towards a more regional world and a less global one.

It would become a less democratic world in the sense that travel would go back to being the privilege of the rich and leisured few, as it was a hundred years or more ago. We tend to forget that cheap air travel is profoundly egalitarian: it allows masses of people to experience something precious, the freedom to see other societies and experience other cultures. It is egalitarian in the best possible sense: it levels people up, not down.

That lesson seems to me to be more important that the more immediate impact on the economy, which understandably is attracting so much attention now. Most previous experience of natural disasters is that given competent administration, economies can rebuild themselves quite swiftly. It can be misery, even tragedy, for people caught up in them and let's never forget that. It has certainly been miserable for a vast number of people right now, for not every stranded traveller has lovely local friends who can scoop them up. But economies do bounce back. Business events are rescheduled and holidays re-booked. Of course there are losses and those will be huge. It is not just that an airline seat that is unsold is a seat lost forever. The wider disruption leads to a real loss in living standards spread thinly over the entire economy.

***

It is not sensible at this stage to try and make hard estimates as to what the chaos does to European growth. But we will eventually be able to add up the produce that has been lost and business opportunities that have disappeared. Our just-in-time global production line is acutely sensitive to any disruption, with the chaos spreading out to Africa and East Asia. It is not just Europeans who suffer. Some may feel that it is a touch frivolous of us to fly out-of-season vegetables or flowers in from Kenya but the livelihoods of a lot of people there depend on that trade.

It is important, on the other hand, to recognise that not everything is negative. Indeed insofar as the chaos makes the business community design more robust systems of production and distribution, then what emerges will be not just more efficient but also more suited to our real needs and desires. To take a simple example, the computer search systems for European land transport are much worse than for air travel. It ought to be as simple to book a train or a bus from Stockholm to Brussels as it is to book a flight and it very much isn't.

This is not just a matter for the travel and tourism industry. This is a spur for every company in Europe to rethink how it does things. Do firms need to have so many face-to-face meetings? Maybe not, and perhaps they should figure out how to use the ones they do need to have in a more disciplined way. Could businesses use more local production? Surely the answer will often be yes. Is air freight the optimal way of moving stuff around? Surely the answer will often be no. What environmental benefits can be wrought from disaster? There must be ways in which the fact that air transport has been down for a few days will push firms to achieve efficiencies with other forms of transport. The Second World War poster asked: "Is your journey really necessary?" Maybe not now.

Then there is the response of the world of officialdom. It is too early to get into the blame game, though that won't discourage people from doing so. But I do suspect that when, a month or more from now, the British and other national and pan-European authorities start to assess how well they coped with the emergency, they will find that they should learn some pretty tough lessons. The awful thought is that the European and national authorities may at some stage in the future have to cope with something much worse than a volcano blowing up. So it would be wise for them to be honest with themselves as to how their response might be improved. The obvious issue is whether we have become too rules-based and not enough common sense-based in our reactions to a disaster.

If this experience has taught us that Europe is huge and such a huge area needs better co-ordinated transport infrastructure, that is a start. But it ought only to be a start. The immediate issue is how to use the physical infrastructure we have already got more effectively. Is there, for example, unnecessary bureaucracy at EU border points? Then there should be the identification of physical bottlenecks in road and rail networks, places where quite small investments can speed up the whole system. The air network will be back, maybe quite soon, but it would be a dreadful lost opportunity not to use this experience to make radical improvements to the surface alternative.

Finally there is the human dimension. This I suspect will be the most lasting impact of this crisis on all of us. We have all, directly or indirectly, experienced a world where we cannot travel swiftly. We are having a glimpse of a world long past, a world more akin to that of our grandparents and great-grandparents than our own. Yes, we have mobile phones, the internet and Skype. But one of the things we have learnt absolutely over the past few days is that being able to communicate is not the same as being able to travel.

***

Many of us assume, almost without thinking about it, that electronics is destroying distance. In one sense it is. It is very easy to ship ideas around the world, for anything that can be put into digital form can be flashed anywhere at the speed of light. So cities such as Bangalore can flourish on electronic exports. But you cannot hug someone over a video link. For all our technology, all our sophistication, all our self-confidence, we are still human beings. The new communications technologies compliment and support the slightly older physical ones; they are not a substitute for them. We are so lucky to be alive in an age when we can communicate so simply, cheaply, competently and easily. But we are even luckier to be alive in an age when we can fly around the world too.

So we will surely value that freedom much, much more. We will allow ourselves the thrill of seeing another culture. We will cherish the variety of Europe and our great good fortune to be able to experience it. We will respect the fact that we can, reasonably cheaply, go to real America rather than learn about it from some imaginary Hollywood version. If we are able to go to China and India we will see at first hand the astounding new Asia bursting out before our eyes. But amidst all this we will value home more too, as anyone stuck abroad surely will acknowledge. We should not turn our backs on travelling, for it would be a tragedy were Europeans to visit each other's countries less often. But we should try to view each other's societies more as the pre-jet age generations did: with interest and with respect.

That is not to paint the Victorians as particularly sensitive observers of foreign peoples. Like Britons today, they took their home culture with them, the gin-and-tonic at sundown. But if they were staying in a place they did at least try and learn the local language, not something that every retiree in Spain has troubled to do. We are still as a people inveterate travellers – how else would there be a million of us stuck abroad? – but maybe we could be more open not just to foreign food and, um, drink but also to foreign culture and ideas.

It is commonplace to acknowledge that people so often only grasp the full value of something when they lose it ... but the events of the past few days remind us how it is true. Well, some of us have for a while at least lost the ability to get home. And all of us right across Europe have lost air travel for the time being. So when that comes back, let's try and use that wonderful freedom more thoughtfully, sensibly and wisely.

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