LONDON—This column is arriving late this week. It is arriving late because, among other things, my flight out of London Heathrow Airport on Monday was canceled. Not delayed, canceled. So were almost all other flights out of London Heathrow. This stunning disruption to one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs was not caused by a terrorist attack or a catastrophic computer failure. It was caused by 5 inches of wet, rapidly melting snow.
Even for a native of Washington, D.C., the city that our new president recently described as in need of “flinty Chicago toughness” because of its pathetic response to the occasional snowflake, this reaction seemed excessive. So did the reaction of London’s transportation network, which grounded most of the city’s vast underground system and all 8,000 of its buses, leaving more than 6 million passengers stranded. So did the reactions of London schools (all canceled) and Londoners themselves. Walking down Piccadilly in the evening, I found no evidence that anyone had made use of anything resembling a snow shovel throughout the entire day.
In the past, when this sort of thing happened in Washington, it sent me into a kind of apoplexy, sometimes inspiring me to rant about the cosseted, pampered, litigious culture of modern American bureaucracy, school systems in particular. But the discovery that London’s reaction to a minor snowfall is even more hysterical than Washington’s annual panic inspired a set of more serious, more philosophical reflections: Events really do look different to people who live in different places, after all.
It is perfectly true, as one indignant Briton noted Monday, that the mothers of Oymyakon in Siberia allow their children to play outside until the temperature drops below minus 40 degrees Celsius. (Only at minus 52 degrees Celsius do they close school.) On the other weather extreme, mothers in Abu Dhabi forbid their children to play in the extremely rare episodes of rain, lest they catch a chill. People in Bangladesh, where the annual monsoon comes as a welcome relief, surely find that reaction every bit as comical as I found the cab driver who, on Monday night, absolutely refused to drive through a short expanse of wet slush.
But it is also true that unexpected weather seems to cause the most chaos in the most temperate climates, precisely because their inhabitants are the most unprepared, psychologically as well as practically, for any kind of extreme. A few years ago, a heat wave that would have been considered average August weather in Washington caused a national disaster in France. The English cope with the occasional warm spell as badly as they cope with the infrequent blizzard. And, yes, ice storms that would cause no comment in Chicago can paralyze the citizens of Washington, D.C., along with the entire federal government.
Trudging around snowy London, it was impossible to escape another thought: Surely what’s true of the weather is also true of other kinds of unexpected changes. For example, people who no longer remember slow economic growth might not cope at all well with a severe recession. In London, it hasn’t snowed much for 18 years, so no one owns a shovel—and if they do, they don’t know how to use it. In the United States, the economy hasn’t really collapsed since 1929, so no one knows how to save string and tinfoil—and if they did, they wouldn’t know what to do with them. A whole set of skills, from cooking with leftovers to recycling bottles (not because it’s green, but because it’s cheap), has been lost during two generations of prosperity, in much the same way as the British have forgotten how to drive their cars through patches of slush. The last time I went to have some shoes re-soled in Washington, the cobbler told me he wasn’t going to be in business much longer, so low had the demand for his services shrunk. Does anyone know how to repair toasters anymore? What about TV sets?
As I say, things look different to people in different places: I’ve no doubt that in those newly successful societies where folk memory of hardship nevertheless remains—Indonesia, say, or Ghana—plenty of people still fiddle with broken toasters and televisions in their spare time. That’s why, when recession hits, they’ll be better off than those of us who have forgotten how to shovel snow—or indeed have thrown away the snow shovel altogether.