Monday 27 April 2009

Big Flu, Small Planet

A headline in the New York times read "Contagion on a Small Planet". Obviously the writer was referring to the recent outbreak of Swine Flu that is causing concern to health authorities across the world.

Something in the headline struck a chord: the small planet. Strangely enough I have often brooded on the melancholy thought that yes, indeed, our planet is terribly small. The most recent waves of Globalisation which occurred over the last 60 years in particular have truly shrunk the world. In part this is a conceit - we in the rich countries can fly almost anywhere while those in the poorer countries struggle to feed their families. But even in developing countries the numbers travelling have been growing. And if the runways in Kathmandu and Kigali are mainly used by Western tourists, the truth is that despite the inequality this a thickening of the connection between one part of the world and another.

When you have travelled a reasonable amount you begin to feel that the world is small. I haven't clocked an amazing number of air miles but I've been several times to North America, a couple of times to Asia, round a good deal of Europe, and once to Africa. Of course one trip to Africa hardly means I know the world's second largest continent. But the point is that the path is open.

And so many paths are now open on an enormous scale. Ads by travel agents convince us that nothing stands between us and the wonders of the Pyramids of Egypt, the Amazon rain forest, or the polar Ice caps, but a phone call and credit card number.

I have always been fascinated by that page in the in-flight magazine which shows the destinations which your airline serves; and filled by a mixture of amazement and horror by the number of destinations served by big airports like Heathrow. When you're at an airport the whole world seems to be on the move. You feel - or at least I do - that the whole earth has been unsettled and everyone is going somewhere else.

It is an amazing feat of technology and a triumph of the human desire for exploration and progress that we now have a world where you can pretty much get from one point on its surface to any other within about the time the whole thing takes to rotate on its axis. Amazing and triumhant yes. But also somewhat sad. It reminds of the star trek saying that space is the final frontier.

When I imagine our former earthly frontiers, the East, the West, the Dark Continent, the American West - which have been pushed into history by our intrepid explorers, I cannot suppress a faint but deep pang of nostalgia for that older world - the one that lay utterly undiscovered.

There had to be something of a spiritual vacuum at the heart of our burning desire to discover an elsewhere. The dream that beyond the frontier lay some untarnished wonder: an exotic people, a green, empty continent, an unlimited supply of gold. And now, when I visit other once far flung parts, I wonder what did the first visitors see? What vision had they or their immediate descendants for the land they were soon to make their home, or in the case of Africa and other parts, the land they were soon to exploit within an inch of its life? But above all imagine their wonder. The excitement of first setting foot in a new world. Like all journeys the expectation and the dream were probably bigger than the reality when it came.

And so we pushed back all earthly frontiers and made rapid paths - by land, sea, and air - to all corners of our world. God gave us a large planet, and we made it small.

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