Image by wstera2 via Flickr
Whether or not the no-fly restrictions following the Eyjafjallajokul eruption were necessary is a matter for debate. My astrophysicist cousin, Dr Garry Hunt, a part of the original Voyager team, told me that these restrictions were needlessly imposed by politicians and that decisions would better have been left to pilots and airlines. What is more fascinating to me is the global economic impact, not of the volcano itself, but rather of a few days without flights to Europe. In particular, I noted that the economy of Bangladesh suffered multi-billions of dollars of losses with severe impacts upon the poor such as factory workers and truck drivers. Bangladesh's sweatshop economy is completely dependent upon sending daily planeloads of knitwear to Europe--clothing that nobody in Bangladesh itself could afford to wear--even if they wanted to. The cargo jets that set off multiple times a day from Bangladesh produce greenhouse gases, exacerbating the climate change that is devastating the economy and ecology of this poor and disaster-prone nation.
If a volcano in Iceland can create financial catastrophe in Bangladesh, we are living at a level of complexity that is disastrously unsustainable. The situation only serves to point to the importance of the Gandhian principles of svaraj, svadesh and sarvodaya. A country practicing Mahatma Gandhi's teacing of svaraj-- which embraces the concepts of autonomy and self-sufficiency --would not be dependent upon fragile global chains of supply and demand. Its populace would not stand in need of sweatshop labour as the only alternative to destitution. A world practicing svadesh or localization would assuredly engage in vigorous trade, but it would be trading at the margins. Items such as knitwear or food would no longer cross continents, burning jet fuel as they traveled. A few days ago I stood with some friends at Oakland Port, watching as container after container of dollar-shop Chinese goods were unloaded. Today we import our pot-holders and alarm clocks from China; a few generations ago, these products were the province of local craftsmen. Looking back at my own family history, I have seen the transformation of London's working folk from artisans to factory workers within a single generation. In our own generation, these factory jobs have themselves been outsourced to sweatshops overseas.
And this brings us to the consideration of the third Gandhian principle, sarvodaya, the welfare of all. In a world based on sarvodaya, we appreciate that none of us is safe if one of us is not safe, that none of us can prosper if some of us do not. Outsourcing of once-coveted manufacturing jobs to poorly paid workers overseas is but one illustration of the truth of this principle. As long as some of us must work for less than a living wage in appalling conditions, all of us will eventually have to do so.
Svaraj, svadesh and sarvodaya, self sufficiency, localization and welfare of all are vital and timely principles that provide a sustainable alternative to an economy based on endless growth, five-planet consumption and 'might is right.' Volcanoes are seen in many indigenous cultures as sacred messengers. Eyjafjallajokul comes to us with a message regarding our unsustainable complexity.