By Terry Babcock-Lumish
It was within these pages in 2010 that I reflected on Mount Eyjafjallajökull’s latest eruption spewing volcanic ash across the European continent. I was one of the many affected by a volcano I had not hitherto realized existed and could scarcely pronounce.
In contrast with the unlucky sleeping in airports or train stations, I found myself happily stranded in Rome, a city so seductive one cannot help but fall in love. That week I continued sober discussions of global food security with colleagues by day, while by night, I strolled ancient cobblestones in search of swoon-worthy pistachio gelato.
As if the planets were aligned, it was the 40th anniversary of the founding of Earth Day that an Icelandic mountain rumbled and reminded me, 2,000 miles away, precisely why I developed my nerd-crush on geography.
As a policy wonk focused on the relationship between science, technology, and society, I was determined to see this monster for myself and so set off for Iceland to meet this Eyjafjallajökull. And, really, who could resist the opportunity to soak in the Blue Lagoon in the thick of a harsh Hudson Valley winter?
On my daily commute, I am humbled by the dramatic landscape of New York’s historic Hudson Valley, but I was wholly unprepared for the sheer power of Iceland. I felt tiny peering into the enormous canyon of the Hvítá River with its thundering Gullfoss waterfall. I felt ephemeral hiking the very rift created by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates’ 65-million-year-and-counting drift.
As we Americans struggle with our reliance on fossil fuels, Iceland uses only
renewables. (The Friðheimar greenhouse, reliant on geothermal energy and buzz pollination, served what may well be the platonic ideal of tomato soup.) Iceland harnesses vast reserves of geothermal and hydroelectric energy from beneath its citizens’ very feet, while the International Energy Agency reports U.S. renewables usage hovering at a mere 13 percent.
As someone interested in sustainability – environmental, political, financial, and otherwise – I find Iceland hardly beyond reproach. One need only consider recent banking crises or smelting controversies, ugly episodes far from the country’s more heroic lore.
Nonetheless, the Icelandic experience is a healthy reminder that decision-makers must understand that we live and work in an increasingly integrated world. If this is understood in an island nation, why not amongst those with near neighbors and borders?
Though far from a neo-Malthusian, I bristle at cornucopian ideas of exploiting the earth’s resources without check. I have yet to wrap my mind around golf courses in Arizona, Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, or China’s off-the-charts air pollution.
From a coffee shop in Reykjavik, I found myself reviewing recent months’ forecasts for long-run economic growth. Like many, I am optimistic about human ingenuity and the role of technological innovation, particularly as it relates to technical solutions to socioeconomic and environmental challenges.
Nonetheless, back home on America’s eastern seaboard, still recovering and rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy, we awoke to devastation wrought by an Oklahoman tornado so powerful it earned the National Weather Service’s strongest EF5 rating. We are both tiny and ephemeral.
Despite tremendous potential for international learning and collaboration, when will we learn to combine our creativity with respect for the power of nature? Our current saga continues to play out. Lest we forget, we are only human.Dr. Terry Babcock-Lumish is president of Islay, an economic, policy, and political consultancy she founded in 2005 to meet the needs of innovative clients committed to effecting positive change, from local to global. She also teaches economics at the United States Military Academy. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.