Snow and Recession: Relearning How to Weather a Storm

By Anne Applebaum
Thursday, February 5, 2009

This column is arriving late this week. It is arriving late because, among other things, my flight out of London's Heathrow Airport on Monday was canceled. Not delayed, canceled. So were almost all the other flights out of Heathrow. This stunning disruption at one of the world's busiest transport hubs was not caused by a terrorist attack or a catastrophic computer failure. It was caused by five inches of wet, rapidly melting snow.

Even for a native of Washington, 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 shut down most of the city's vast underground system and all 8,000 of its buses, stranding more than 6 million passengers. 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 response to a minor snowfall is even more hysterical than Washington's inspired 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 mothers in Omyakon, Siberia, allow their children to play outside unless the temperature drops below minus-40 Celsius (only at minus-52 Celsius, or minus-62 degrees Fahrenheit, is school closed). On the other weather extreme, mothers in Abu Dhabi forbid their children from playing 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 London cabdriver who refused to drive through a short expanse of wet slush on Monday night.

But it is also true that unexpected weather seems to cause the most chaos in the most temperate climates, precisely because those who live there 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, storms that would cause no comment in Chicago can paralyze the residents of Washington, 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 true of other kinds of unexpected change, too. People who no longer remember slow economic growth, for example, might not be able to cope with negative growth, let alone a severe recession. In London, it hasn't snowed much for 18 years, so no one owns a snow 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 thrifty) has been lost during two generations of prosperity, in much the same way the British have forgotten how to drive their cars through slush. The last time I went to have some shoes resoled in Washington, the cobbler told me he wasn't going to be in business much longer, so low had the demand for his services sunk. Does anyone know how to repair toasters anymore? What about television sets?

As I say, things look different to people in different places: I have no doubt that in those newly successful societies where folk memories of hardship live on -- 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.

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