Fleeing Vesuvius - Official launch speech


Jonathan Boston              12 October 2011


Thanks for this opportunity to offer a few remarks at the launch of the New Zealand edition of Fleeing Vesuvius: Responding to the effects of economic and environmental collapse. It is an important volume, and I commend all those who have contributed to its production, not least those involved in ‘Living Economies’, such as Helen Dew – and to the 11 local authors.


Let me start with Mount Vesuvius:


Almost 30 years ago, when I was completing my doctorate in the UK, I spent part of the summer at the European University Institute in Florence and took a trip with a friend to Naples and the surrounding countryside, including Sorrento, Capri and Pompeii. It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world, with 3 million people living within about 20 kilometres of one of Europe’s most active, explosive and deadliest volcanoes – Mount Vesuvius – which is plainly visible from around the Bay of Naples.


Almost 2000 years ago, a major two-day eruption in AD 79 led to the destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii, for instance, was buried in 4-6 metres of ash and pumice. The cities were never rebuilt, although surviving townspeople and probably looters undertook extensive salvage work after the destruction. The towns' locations were eventually forgotten until their accidental rediscovery in 1749. Since then, Pompeii has been extensively excavated and is now a UNESCO world heritage site and open to the public. You can wander around the streets of this remarkable ancient city and see exactly where some of the people died during the eruption.


It is estimated that around 20,000 people lived in Pompeii at the time of the eruption; it was a popular place because of the climate, with many wealthy and prominent Romans having villas in or near Pompeii. The city had a forum, baths, temples, and lots of houses. How many people died in AD 79 is unknown, but probably thousands, many as they tried to escape – killed by falling rocks or pyroclastic flows.


What is the relevance of all this for our circumstances today? Let me offer a few quick reflections.


First, there is the issue of heeding the warning signs: significant earthquakes began some 4-5 days before the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, but this did not prompt evacuations of Pompeii or the surrounding areas because the Romans were relatively used to earthquakes in this part of the world. And when Vesuvius erupted violently several days later, for many it was too late: there was nowhere to escape. One of the many questions posed by the book Fleeing Vesuvius is whether humanity today is heeding the warning signs or putting its collective head in the sand.


Second, there is the issue of taking risks: the evidence of history in relation to active volcanoes like Mount Vesuvius is that many people are risk takers. Vesuvius has erupted no less than 40 times since AD 79, most recently in 1944, although none of these eruptions have been as destructive as the one in AD 79. Nevertheless, despite the evident dangers, millions of people have chosen to live nearby. It suggests that many people are risk takers, ill-informed or in denial. Whatever the reason, this is not a comforting prospect when we consider the growing planetary risks we face over the coming decades. The probability of seriously damaging environmental impacts is rising, but large numbers of people don’t appear to care or are in denial. This is a real worry. We need to be mitigating and managing the risks we face, otherwise we will be faced with unmanageable impacts.


Third, the devastation in Pompeii was the result of natural, geological causes. We still face such risks today – as the events in Canterbury and North-East Japan highlight. But arguably the greater risk we now confront is bringing devastation upon ourselves – from climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the squandering of valuable resources, pollution, poor management of our common pool resources, such as the oceans, and so forth.


Fourth, the citizens of Pompeii had somewhere to escape to – if they had chosen to do so, with the coast not far away. But humanity today has no alternative planet. There is no Plan B. We are all on this particular, vulnerable life-boat together. If we fail to live within the certain safe biophysical boundaries, we will suffer the consequences – and the consequences may be widespread, severe and long-lasting, if not irreversible.


Finally, I note that Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, was the patroness of Pompeii. The planet Venus may be far away, but if Dr James Hansen is correct, there is the potential to turn this planet into a lifeless and very hot planet like Venus. This is a terrible prospect. And while I gather that not all atmospheric scientists agree with Hansen’s assessment of the risks, we should certainly not conduct an experiment to find out who is correct.