Friday, January 15, 2010

The big freeze and the politics of avoidance

Ireland is a temperate place by European standards. It does not suffer from the extremes (in weather, that is) seen in other Northern climes. In winter, the average temperature is 5 ºC; in summer, it is 15 ºC. This beats the – 40 ºC in Canada or northern Europe, but it does mean that the weather is just grey, cold and awful most of the time.

This year, though, the winter has been particularly cold, snowy and icy – 2010 was ushered in with heavy snowfall and a big freeze icing over pavements and roads for a few weeks. Apparently, it was the worst cold spell in 30 years.

That said, and at the risk of stating the obvious or egging global warming on, winter occurs every year. Winter nights fall below freezing point in December and January year in and year out. Given this, you would think people would be ready for whatever winter delivers. Of course, they are not.

There is never enough machinery to de-ice the roads, airports grind to a halt and it is common for schools to close after an inch or two of snow. One year, I even witnessed an airport worker sweeping snow off an aeroplane wing with a household broom. I was delighted when my flight was cancelled.

Basically, when it snows, a level of panic and bewilderment sets in. I am not saying that conditions cannot be treacherous on the roads, because they can be. But the way people react leaves one thinking it never snows and freezing temperatures are a very rare occurrence indeed.

In South Africa, things are no better. Every year, winter in South Africa is treated as some sort of alien that springs itself upon the masses unexpectedly. When I lived in Johannesburg, I was never prepared for it, despite its predictable arrival.

I would mope about a freezing tiled- floor flat, complaining about how cold it was. Every year, I had to buy a new heater. It never occurred to me to insulate better or install a heating system. I seemed, along with the rest of the country, content with complaining and feeling surprised by the obvious.

But why do we do this?

One possible explanation is that there is a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ when it comes to weather, both in the global North and in the South.

In Ireland and the UK, people believe that, there, the climate is not too different to more accommodating parts of the world. The notion of a temperate climate is equated with mild winters and balmy summers. In South Africa, the notion of a good climate is confused with the idea that there is no such thing as winter.

It was the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’, in 1817. He was talking about literature. A writer, says Coleridge, can put some “semblance of truth” into a fantasy story and readers often oblige by immersing themselves in the story, even if the storyline is far-fetched.

Just like a fairy tale, the majority, certainly in the UK and Ireland, believe the myth that they do not live in one of the grimmest climates in the world. These misguided beliefs help people survive the gloom, but they also, like the secondary gain of engrossing oneself in a fantasy story, provide entertainment.

The joy comes in the telling, especially when the story inevitably deviates from the fantastical narrative that summers are warm and dry, and winters reasonable. In the last few weeks, in Europe, the media has gone into overdrive. The same happens every summer when it rains, and it always rains – a lot.

All anyone can talk about is the weather in these circumstances. It seems the weather provides a distraction from concerning oneself with the daily deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, poverty in Africa and Europe, or why the weather seems extreme, in the first place.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 January 2010. as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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