The world is not flat

Why Iceland's volcanic eruption showed us that some concepts of a globalised world are a myth.


    Local communities had little incentive to come to the aid of stranded passengers [AFP]

    It started with an utterly unexpected text message that appeared on my phone the moment I landed in Rome last Thursday. "Meeting cancelled. Check your email."

    Six days later and $1,200 poorer, the saga ended when I arrived home after a three day travel odyssey, only to open my lap top and read that most airports were reopening-a day before I was originally ticketed to fly home-because experts had determined that the threat to jet engines posed by the ash cloud emanating from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was not as great as originally assumed.

    Despite the hardships and costs, there was an upside to being in the middle of the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud saga. It offered a unique opportunity to re-examine many of the commonly accepted myths of globalisation and the way it has, or in fact has not, changed the fabric of human relations.

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    Volcano chaos

    My immediate reaction when I read the text message was that something had happened in Israel or the Occupied Territories to sabotage the meeting between Israeli and Palestinian experts on the peace process I had come to Rome to attend. Or perhaps the funders had gotten cold feet after pressure from quarters I couldn't determine.

    But then my friend Alessandro arrived to pick me up from Rome's central train station, and after the customary Italian "hello" asked if I'd heard about the huge volcanic eruption in Iceland that had occurred earlier in the day. Suddenly the text message made sense, and checking email confirmed that most of the participants couldn't get to Rome because all flights had been cancelled.

    Well, I thought, this won't last too long. At least I'll get to Sweden for a big conference on Syria in which I was supposed to participate five days later at Lund University. But by the next morning most of Europe's airports were in lockdown, Italian, French, Spanish, and German news channels and newspapers, as well as al-Jazeera, CNN and the BBC, were reporting that the eruption could go on for weeks or months, engineers were cropping up on most every news network explaining how the silicate ash cloud could cause "catastrophic failure" of jet engines, and I was frantically trying to find a train ticket up to Copenhagen from Italy.

    That proved impossible, as I could only get as far as Frankfurt. Everything farther north was already sold out.

    With Syria suffering the same fate as Palestine, my attention turned to figuring out how to go west instead of north, and hopefully get out of Europe through Spain before the cloud covered the whole continent.

    Having no meetings to attend, I spent the next two days alternatingly online, trying to find a flight home, and on line at Rome's Scuderie Papali al Quirinale museum, trying to see an unprecedented collection of the great renaissance artist Caravaggio. Sadly, the waiting time was almost as long as that at the train station, and tickets equally difficult to procure. I eventually gave up trying to get into the museum; I had no choice-or so I thought-but to continue trying to get home as quickly as possible.

    Flattening out a complex reality

    Walking back and forth through the hilly and often labyrinthine Roman streets, I thought about one of the most celebrated descriptions of globalisation in recent years, that it has made the world "flat". So argues best-selling New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his sequel to The Lexus and the Olive Tree, The World is Flat.

    Friedman's basic argument is that new communications and software technologies, and the business strategies that have developed along with them, have flattened the world, meaning they've created more equal opportunities for people to compete economically regardless of where they live, and in a manner that neither governments nor multinational corporations are able to direct.

    "It would seem that the globalised world is in fact multi-planar, with each level having a direct, but usually underappreciated, influence on the others. And with this complexity has come fragility"

    Veering off of Via Veneto into a side street that featured an alluring church facade, Friedman's assessment felt, well, flat. The reality, it seemed to me, was that world, and globalisation with it, are more like the streets of Rome-bumpy, windy, sometimes confusing and dirty, and undulating up and down with the city's topography.

    Indeed, the disastrous disruptions to global travel caused by the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud demonstrated that in the global era the world remains as three dimensional as ever. Events at 30,000 feet can profoundly impact those at ground level.

    Of course, so do events miles below the earth's surface, as the recent mining disasters in the United States and China demonstrate. After all, most miners are either digging for the coal that still constitutes the largest share of rapidly escalating global energy usage, or for the precious metals without which cell phones and other advanced communications technologies could not function.

    The oceans are equally vital links in the globalised economy; their intensified use, whether through over fishing or for dumping the innumerable waste products of the globalised production and consumption, are in fact producing disastrous consequences for the world's marine life.

    Finally, my frequent mobile phone calls home to check if my wife had managed to find me a new ticket reminded me that globalisation could not function without the increasingly crowded orbital satellite system, the nervous system of contemporary global communications.

    A fragile world system

    It would seem that the globalised world is in fact multi-planar, with each level having a direct, but usually underappreciated, influence on the others. And with this complexity has come fragility.

    A few days without regular air travel and supermarket shelves start going empty, airlines are warning of impending bankruptcy, cargo and freight are backed up as far away as eastern Asia, and the whole "just in time" system of globalised production, which depends on the precisely timed delivery of manufacturing components to build products with the least waste and expense, no longer functions.

    Airports are famous for being "placeless", each one looking the same as the other [AFP]

    Friedman argues that business-to-business software that allows computers to coordinate production and transportation is at the heart of the newest phase of globalisation. But the ash cloud reveals that for humans, it's the consumer-focused internet and communications technologies-many stranded travellers were simultaneously web-surfing, texting, phoning, and watching television in order to find the elusive bit of information that would help them get home-that is the true engine of globalisation, tying us together across time and space.

    Normally, one of the pleasures of living in Europe is that one can fly from Copenhagen to Istanbul, or Amsterdam to Rome, in a few hours. But take away plane travel and we're back to the early 20th century; suddenly, it takes days if not longer to go from one capital to another (high speed trains don't help if you can't find a seat).

    With neither planes nor trains offering a way out of Italy, I was forced to contemplate the unpleasant possibility of a multi-day bus ride from Rome to northern Europe. It seems the globe has not "shrunk" in the era of globalisation nearly as much as Friedman and other commentators argue, nor has time and space been irreversably "compressed," as leading sociologists claim.

    Europe, it turns out, is still a very big continent.


    Perhaps Ryan Bingham, George Clooney's character in last year's hit "Up in the Air," would enjoy being stuck in an airport for days on end. Being stranded isn't so bad if you can spend the time in the business class lounge, with its free food, alcohol, showers, wi-fi, and comfortable chairs and couches.

    For everyone else, stuck in coach, the airport can become a pretty uncomfortable place.

    "Perhaps this is a sign from mother nature-that despite her immense power, it is humans who ultimately have the upper hand when it comes to reshaping the world on a planetary scale"

    International airports and train stations have become famous for being "placeless", each one looking and feeling so much like the others that it becomes very hard to tell whether you've just arrived in Doha or Milan. Along with shopping malls, their design and décor typically have few if any connections with the country or culture in which they are situated, creating a feel of rootedlessness and lack of social meaning that define life under globalisation.

    Many critics of globalisation lament its "placelessness" on these grounds. The volcanic ash saga reveals another characteristic of such placeless spaces: how quickly they can become a twilight zone, with those stuck in them largely isolated from the surrounding societies.

    Of course, almost everyone stuck in the airports or train stations were, by definition, from somewhere else. In the wake of earthquakes or floods, people will often take in their neighbours or even strangers from the same town or country, as they share the large bonds of nation and culture. But the stranded passengers here were "others", not part of the local or national "us". And so, for the most part, those living in the surrounding communities had relatively little incentive to come to their aid.

    Indeed, as I watched travellers - many with young children, or themselves elderly -remain day after day at airports and train stations it became clear that another supposed characteristic of globalisation, that it has increasingly "made the world one," remains far more a dream than reality.

    In a dozen trips to the station in three days I never saw any Romans offering to take anyone in. And Rome was not the exception. To be sure, there were scattered reports of good Samaritan behavior in the US and a Europe, but there was no significant, organised movement by locals to house or otherwise help the stranded.

    Coach potatoes and "couch surfers"

    Even if people were sympathetic to the plight of the travelers, most remained content to participate in the saga passively, by watching the nearly continuous reporting of its unfolding on television. Few took matters into their own hands and reached out to those most in need.

    Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull is still erupting
    but spewing less ash and smoke [AFP]

    It's ironic then, that as I finally boarded a flight from Rome to Barcelona on Monday-which was almost cancelled at the last minute by the ash cloud's rapid southward descent towards towards both cities-the first article in the airline magazine was about the rising phenomenon of "couch surfing," a movement in which people open their homes, or rather their couches, to travellers wishing to experience a supposedly more authentic taste of the cities they're visiting.

    As the movement's main organisation, "Couch Surfing International," explains, "We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community".

    This is a laudable goal to be sure, but despite the movement's almost two million "couch surfers" there was little evidence of the practice when it was most needed in Rome, Milan, or Barcelona, apparently among the most active couch surfing cities in Europe.

    Sharing destinies, at least for a few days

    But if stranded travellers were largely either ignored or, via television, gawked at like accident victims by those not sharing their fate, inside the train stations and airport terminals the boundaries of nation, religion and ethnic identity quickly faded away.

    National identities and cultural particularities suddenly don't matter very much when you're desperately trying to get home. Abandoned by the outside world, inside the terminals people struck up friendships, encouraged each other's perseverance, shared food, computers and phones, and gave each other hints about what airports where open or where to find lodging.

    Suddenly, airports and train station became real "places" filled with social meaning and contact. And the ad hoc rainbow coalitions that formed within them revealed the potential for solidarity when more exclusive national or religious identities are laid aside, and narrow self-interest along with it. That is perhaps the true potential of globalisation, and it was revealed precisely when the larger system fell apart.

    Time to slow down?

    In the midst of all the bad news surrounding the volcanic ash saga, I read a short article reporting that the massive grounding of planes prevented the emission of upwards of six millions tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an amount that dwarfed the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by the volcano's eruption by about a factor of twenty.

    Perhaps this is a sign from mother nature-that despite her immense power, it is humans who ultimately have the upper hand when it comes to reshaping the world on a planetary scale. In this regard, the explosion of plane travel has been driven by the same factors as globalisation more broadly: the revolution in inexpensive computerised technology, the abundant supply of relatively cheap carbon-based fuel, and a seemingly unquenchable need for speed.

    Its disruption offered an opportunity to pause and consider the possibilities of living at a slower pace, of buying locally grown seasonal produce rather than relying on "fresh" fruit flown in from half a world a way, of putting more of society's energies into supporting the once pleasurable experience of traveling by energy-efficient trains rather than carbon-spewing planes, of becoming couch surfers rather than road warriors. Of turning off the news and closing your laptop and letting nature take its course.

    If I'd followed that advice, I would have wound up being able to catch my original flight home, on Thursday, with only minor modifications. In the meantime, I could have stayed in Rome or taken the train down to Napoli to visit friends. With time to wait on line and practice my Italian with other art-lovers, I might have even gotten to see that Caravaggio exhibit everyone was talking about. Sadly, it will be over the next time I get to Rome.

    Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam, and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989. He is also a visiting research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Lund, Sweden.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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