Diane Rehm
devoted yesterday’s radio show to a discussion of the situation in Iceland and the stranded travelers. There was a prominent tone of disbelief among many callers: How is it possible that in this day and age, a volcano could cause so much trouble? How could we really be unable to get around it? Couldn’t the airlines, the EU government, or the scientists be doing more? How is it really possible that a natural phenomenon could thwart so many plans, and worse, that we could actually not know when we might regain control?

In Hawaiian mythology, the volcano goddess Pele was a capricious type, exiled for her temper. Many of the old deities had similar characters, personified images of difficult and unpredictable forces of nature. As humans worked for generations to make life more predictable and thus, sustainable, new ideas of God took over, and the old deities were shrugged off. Today, we mostly worship the Gods of business. We believe in human industry, in innovation, and we have come to expect an unprecedented level of certainty and rationality in the day to day. When something goes wrong, we believe that companies, organizations, and governments will solve the problem. We expect it of them.

There are people suffering in various ways because of the ash cloud situation, and I don’t want to minimize that. But it’s comforting to find that the old, capricious gods can still confound the forces we seem to have so much faith invested in. It reminds us that the gods of industry and commerce are, in fact, not all powerful, and as anyone who has experienced their equally fickle and punishing nature can attest, it’s best that they don’t hold all the cards.

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