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?

Finding Mrs Right

January 29, 2010

According to new research out by Pew, the old social logic that women needed to find “Mr. Right” to improve their socio-economic status is changing, and in many cases, reversing.  In more than half of marriages amongst 30 to 44 year old Americans, women have at least as much education as men, and in 28% of cases, women have more education than men. And while in the majority of marriages men still earn more than women, the number of women who earn more than their husbands has increased 4-fold since the 1970s.

Maybe these statistics, and similar studies, have helped to influence government’s thinking about granting more generous rights to fathers when their children are born. Just yesterday, for example, it was announced that fathers in the UK will soon be eligible to take up to 6 months of paternity leave if their wives / partners return to work. Seeing as a good deal of those women may be making more than their husbands, sounds like a good deal for the economy, for the families and for the little ones that get to stay home with Mr. Right.

N.B. The title of this post does not refer to the killing of more than 45 million turkeys a year for American Thanksgivng tables, it’s just unhappy coincidence for the poor turkey pictured above. If you were hoping for a pro-veggie, anti-turkey eating tirade, I would recommend the new non-fiction book by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (it’s illuminating!), or this shorter article in the New Yorker describing the book in all its gory detail.

A series of things takes place in my life between the end of October and the end of November which makes it rough going. The most basic is that London moves off daylight savings time, which means that the darkness starts to close in ever closer to noon. This is depressing enough in and of itself without the tri-facto I’m about to mention.

First, there is a certain lack of festivity in London in this period of the year, or more precisely, a premature Christmas festiveness which is explained by the half-hearted observance of Halloween and the non-existence of Thanksgiving. There is something that has to be said about US commercialisation of holidays – at least we have three between October 31 and December 25 to diversify amongst; I really can’t get into Christmas in early November (and yes, I’ve written about how this provokes my homesickness on this blog before).

Second, the autumn term at LSE, which runs 10 weeks between the first week of October and the second week of December, is in full swing, and therefore I am at a peak level of stress. Combine that with the third, and essentially, November acts as a knock out punch: it’s high flu season. One member of my  family has been sick with something or another every weekend for the past three. I’m recovering from several days out with the flu, which is exhausting for all parties concerned (as I described it to a friend recently, having one parent sick transforms a “two parent, one child” household into a “one parent, two child” household).

The only bright spot in this season is that at the very end of November, I get to celebrate N.’s birthday, which is a very bright spot indeed. So it’s not actually that November is the cruelest month, but instead the month falling between 25 October (the day that the clocks rolled back and the sun went down before 5pm) and 25 November (Thanksgiving Eve, as despite the logistical challenges, I usually manage to get some friends and family together for a turkey). But saying that the non-calendrical month falling between the 25th of October and the 25th of November was the cruelest month just sounded so much less poetic.

In the 1980s, large swaths of the developing world became democratic.  Autocracies in Latin America and Africa fell, and with the downfall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe too became democratic.  Political scientist Samuel Huntington called this the “third wave” of democratisation.  Despite the initial euphoria, the new democracies did not always turn out to be liberal democracies with strong civil societies and democratic accountability.  In many places, elections were held (though they were not always free and fair), and constitutions existed (though they were often contradicted), and much of the day to day governance was not democratic all. Theorists of this phenomenon argued that elections were a necessary but not sufficient indicator of democracy.  A term, “procedural democracy,” came about to describe this state of affairs.

Today I’ve been wondering whether procedural democracy would be the right label for Europe.  Last week Europe held elections.  Those elections were to elect members to the European Parliament (MEPs).  If you are an American or other non-European citizen and you’re reading this thinking “gosh, how ignorant of me to not know there were European elections going on” you shouldn’t beat yourself up.  Lots of Europeans didn’t know there were European Parliamentary elections going on either.  Voter turnout was less than 50%, and many, if not most people,  did not vote on the basis of issues that have to do with governance of Europe, but rather to express their dissatisfaction with their own national governments.  In fact, many people don’t know what the European Parliament does at all: as a friend noted, it was both telling and unhelpful that the BBC waited until broadcasting election results to tell voters what the European Parliament does. One of the greatest thinkers on democracy, Robert Dahl, has argued that genuine democracy requires an educated electorate.  It’s highly problematic that Europeans don’t know (or care) what the European Parliament does.  I took a poll amongst one class of my master’s students at LSE last term, asking how many of them knew who their MEP was.  Not a single person raised their hand.

While this in and of itself does not mean that Europe’s democracy is only procedural, it’s at least worth point out that there are some paradoxical things going on with regards to democracy at the European level.   For example, an increasing number of anti-Europe MEPs are being elected. Wait,  you might be thinking, members of the European parliament that want to abolish Europe?  Yep, that’s what’s happening.  In Britain, a party called the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), who advocates withdrawing the UK from the EU, got more votes than the Labour party, which is currently in power.   A party called “No2Eu, Yes to Democracy” got 1% of the vote.  And the Conservatives, who are skeptical of further European integration, got 27% of the vote.

A further problem for European democracy is one that is long standing and much acknowledged: citizens often to seem to reject further European integration, which national leaders are in favour of.  The most recent example of this, is the long and winding road to ratifying a constitution for Europe.  The constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters, renamed the Lisbon Treaty, and then rejected by Irish voters.  So the Irish are being asked to vote again on it, in hopes they’ll give a different answer.

European leaders are now worried that the UK could derail the process.  Why?  Because the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, plans to ask the UK public in an referendum whether or not they want to ratify the treaty if (or more likely when) he is elected. European leaders thus hope that the current government, led by Gordon Brown, can stay in place long enough to allow the treaty to be ratified. There is something terribly un-democratic about this.  The fact that the public would reject the treaty if given the chance to vote is important, even if not all political issues have to be solved by an open vote.

Perhaps the most telling quote about the current woes of European democracy came from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.  Discussing a dispute about whether an Italian or Pole should become the parliament’s president he said: “If we can’t negotiate, then democracy will come into play.”  Any statement of European politics which puts democracy as the second option is highly problematic.

A funny thing happened on my way to Texas late last week:  I heard that an astonishing 30% of Texans want to secede from the Union (and more than 50% of those that are registered Republicans) and that Governor Rick Perry was encouraging this tomfoolery by sympathising with the rebels.  I learned this by reading the New Yorker I bought during my layover in Charlotte, while I was en route from London to Austin (the Texas state capital).  Having thus already cleared customs and immigration once when I landed in North Carolina, it was theoretically possible that I would have had to show a passport again to enter the sovereign state of Texas.

When the heck did this happen?  I live in a little Euro bubble, where everyone is ecstatic that Obama is the president, and is pursuing climate change and economic stimulus at the expense of the heath of the Federal budget.  But I can attest, based solely on the two gentleman sitting next to me on the plane from London to Charlotte and then from Charlotte to Austin, that not all Americans are equally pleased.  They are throwing “tea” parties: “taxed enough already”, they are talking about secession, they are worried about hyper-inflation (huh?) and think that Obama is “killing the innovation that makes America work.”   I tried to rationally talk these people down (mentioning my credentials at LSE helped somewhat – thankfully they didn’t know that the place was founded by a bunch of socialists), but they were convinced that Obama was running the country into ruin and that secession was a good alternative.

Never again will I just scan the domestic news reported in the New York Times.  My parents might end up living in another country while I’m not looking – and a petro-state at that.