I’ve written before about how the “eat local” movement just doesn’t attract me too much while I live in London. Unless I want my family to subsist on parsnips, cabbage and tasteless strawberries, we absolutely must eat things that are not grown not only locally, but also not in the UK. The whole volcano vs. the modern world phenomenon might be putting an end to that though. A large percent of the produce and other food items sold in the UK arrive here on airplanes. And of course, there are no airplanes arriving to the UK at the moment (except, this morning, to a select part of the northern most Scottish islands).

As an illustrative anecdote, yesterday all of the green beans normally available from my on-line grocers were “temporarily out of stock.” That’s because almost all the “fine” and “extra fine” green beans sold in the UK are imported from just two countries: Kenya and Zimbabwe. And of course getting those beans to the UK takes an airplane (or two). I’m starting to wonder if the three browning bananas I have on my kitchen counter will soon have an exorbitant value on the black market (seeing as most bananas come from Ecuador, Costa Rica and several other Latin American countries, and I suspect are air freighted rather than shipped the old fashion way – i.e. on a ship). Perhaps my aging bananas will have as exorbitant a value as a colleague’s Eurostar ticket to Brussels (which he purchased pre-volcano):  this morning he was considering selling it to some desperate “volcano exile” sitting in London St Pancras station at a mark up of 900%…

Eyjafjallajokull Effects

April 17, 2010

Modernity was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? An Italian friend called while I was bathing my son this evening. Due to the complete closure of British airspace after Eyjafjallajokull’s eurption, she’s stranded in Belfast, and was calling from the port, where she was on a waiting list for a boat crossing the Irish Sea to Liverpool. From there, she hopes to take a train down to London, stay with us for a night, and then assess her options for crossing the Channel before making her way by train, bus or foot back to Rome.

In the meantime, and thanks to the same unpronounceable volcano, I’ve been on hold with the Canadian branch of British Airways for more than an hour because my husband is stuck at a conference in Montreal. Some of his colleagues report that they’ve been allocated return flights to Europe in 10 days time. A ship could cross the Atlantic in less time: in fact, a trans-Atlantic passage from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2 takes less than 7 days (but would cost more than $3,000). I’m starting to wonder which century I’m living in. Even my great-aunt and her parents were able to fly from New York to Rome in 1950 (albeit with many re-fueling and meal stops along the way).

Other than the millions of stranded passengers contemplating pre-20th century modes of transport, the Icelandic volcano is having other, more global effects. Like potentially on global warming. Much reported in the news is the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. A major eruption in the Philipines in 1991 apparently cooled the earth by almost 1 degree Farenheit, significantly more than humans have been able to manage by signing accords about carbon output.

While scientists suggest that so far, Ejafjallajokull’s eruption has been a) too small and b) not sulphuric enough to cool the earth’s temperature, I wonder if anyone has looked at the amount of carbon emissions saved by closing all air traffic in and out of Northern Europe for several days (or weeks?). Surely we’re doing something good for the planet by walking home from Belfast to Rome?

Taxi Talk

May 21, 2009

In July 2006, I landed in Caracas, Venezuela around 10:00pm on a flight from Managua via Panama City. I was in Caracas to meet with some government officials, and the Ministry had arranged my hotel reservations and flights, and I had figured everything else would work itself out (my general travel philosophy).  I didn’t have any bolivars, so I went to the ATM, and then remembered that I was going to be paying a high premium on the money I was taking out: the Venezuelan exchange rate had been fixed against the dollar for a number of years at the same rate, and overtime had become artificially high.  As a result, there was the official exchange rate, and the unofficial one, which was of course much more favourable to holders of dollars.  But as I had forgotten to look up the latest black market rate, I didn’t want to risk my luck with the informal money changers on the street.

Armed with my expensive cash, I hoped in a cab, and immediately struck up a conversation to ask what the going rate for dollars was.  As anyone who’s been to a new city knows, a taxi driver is exactly the right person to ask this question, seeing as they always seem to be on top of all social, economic and political trends based on their unscientific sampling of the opinions that pass through their backseats.  On the long trip into the centre of town, we talked about the state of the Venezuelan economy, Bush and Chavez.  He had been an avid supporter, until a bridge connecting the city to the airport collapsed, increasing his journey time to and from by more than two hours, with no corresponding increase in fare.  The conversation was the perfect brief introduction into the realities of Venezuelan life that I needed to keep a critical eye on what I was to hear and discuss with the government the next day.

I mentioned in my last post that I was shocked to find out on my recent trip to the US that a not insignificant percentage of Americans are so unhappy with Obama’s economic policies they would prefer to succede from the United States.  Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to take the pulse of any cab drivers about this.  Not because I didn’t take any cabs while in the US – I took a number of them while I was in New York for a long weekend – but because every cab I got into was driven by someone who talked throughout the entire trip on their mobile phone… or more precisely, into their mobile phone earpieces.

There’s no more taxi talk in New York City.  I don’t know who all the cabbies are talking to (each other?), but the art of taxi banter is fading fast.  Not only are the Big Apple’s cabbies on the phone, there are small television screens built into the panel of the seat in front of you, like on an airplane.  The cabbie no longer wants to talk to the passenger, and the passenger is distracted by a replay of that morning’s “Regis and Kelly” (that is if they are not talking on their own phones).  No informal political or economic banter is exchanged, and thus everyone’s a bit poorer.

I’m only slightly exageratting when I say that I think that this is the largest loss social science has ever suffered.   If taxi talk vanished altogether in other cities across the globe, I’m pretty sure that political analysts would do less well in predicting electoral outcomes.  That economists would have fewer hunches about the differences between the official inflation statistics and the reality on the ground.  And at a stretch: maybe if New York City cabbies had been talking to the bankers, trader and investors who hoped into the back of their cabs over the past year, more people would have been aware that the financial system and the global economy was on the brink of collapse.

Big foot

February 24, 2009

My one year old son’s foot fits comfortably in the palm of my hand, yet his carbon footprint is huge.  Using an online carbon emissions calculator, I calculated the carbon emissions from the flights that he had taken in his young life.  Turns out his per capita emissions based on his flights alone are greater than those of approximately 70% of the world’s, despite the fact that he weighs less than 25 pounds and his entire vocabulary is comprised of “mommy,” “daddy” and “juice.”

So, how does N.’s carbon footprint stack up?  Well, like I said, I only calculated his emissions from flying, as the calculations from the house and ground transport seemed too complicated and were likely to be much smaller as we don’t own a car and have a small apartment.  This chart, which shows per capita distribution of carbon emissions, shows that N.’s 6.31 tonnes of carbon emitted through his flights puts him exactly on par with the average Iranian (in 2004).   And therefore his emissions are larger than the average French, Mexican, Thai or even Chinese citizen.  Quite sobering.

Of course, N. is an innocent victim of his parent’s irresponsible travel habits, which are contributing to global warming.  He didn’t ask to go to Texas for Christmas, though he definitely enjoyed playing with his grandparents and harassing their dog.  And that’s my only excuse.  Since his grandparents live in two different countries, and we live in a third, almost all of his flights are explained away by visiting them.  Since he was born in November 2007, he’s flown round-trip to the US three times from London, taken one domestic US flight, flown round trip to Italy four times and flown once from Italy to Germany and from Germany back to the UK to attend a wedding.  Makes me wonder if there is a special offset mechanism for keeping globalised children in touch with their grandparents…

The consequence of being a “jet-set journalist” is that at some point it catches up with you, and you become the jet-lag journalist.   Or, in my case, you become the mother of a mini jet-lag journalist.  My transition from Texas to London was surprisingly easy: my little sweetie behaved as just that on the return Houston – London flight, rather than the hellion he had been on the way over.  He slept most of the way, and looked even more angelic in comparison to the other baby on the flight who screamed most of the way (been there, I told her mom).   I was tired on arrival, but had no jet-lag since.  But I’ve been suffering from indirect jet-lag.  That is to say, the baby’s jet-lag has been keeping us all up at night.  For a ten-month old who’s been sleeping through the night for more than 5 months, this has come as a bit of a shock.   I’ve got circles around my eyes from the 11-Midnight awake hour, and the “it’s 2am, let’s play!” syndrome.  Aside from the circles, the other consequence of baby-lag is that I haven’t had / made the time to post.   But happy to report we all seem to be sleeping on schedule again (she writes with trepidation at 11pm, fearing a late-night wake up call via the baby monitor) and thus the Interdependence Complex will resume with its regularly scheduled programming.