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April 19, 2010

Global Interdependence (and the need to admit error)

The eruption of a volcano in Iceland and its unprecedented impact on both air travel and the global economy call attention to a point I've recently become aware of and blogged about only yesterday. Science can be a two-edged sword. Not only is it showering us with previously undreamed of wealth, it has allowed our numbers to grow almost exponentially and thus created risks we are often unprepared for. The hazards posed to jet engines by volcanic ash, weren't even discovered until incidents in the Eighties called them to the attention of aviation safety experts. Others involved the near-miraculous survival of commercial aircraft despite ruined engines, which immediately raises questions about how many earlier crashes might have been caused when the similar rare phenomena weren't recognized.

The most famous such event occurred in Southeast Asia where volcanic eruptions are more common and airspace less densely traveled. The present one reverses both characteristics and emphasizes how little is known about key details of the hazard, to say nothing about the ripple effect of mass cancellations; not only on air travel, but on commerce in general. That those effects could suddenly threaten the survival of solvent businesses in a global economy suddenly made fragile by an unexpected increase in debt should also be sobering.

For me, it also emphasizes how vulnerable we have all been made by our species' tendency to exploit new technologies for the wealth they produce without fully considering what additional risks might be involved. Rather than ban all air travel, it clearly makes more sense to examine past mistakes and try to learn from them.

It's especially difficult to correct mistakes we still can't admit: the drug war, for example.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 19, 2010 04:01 PM