The end of the world never came last year, but the way the news media are carrying on you could be forgiven for thinking it's The Day After Tomorrow outside. Yes, snow has fallen and Britain is convulsed by paroxysms of crisis. Schools and colleges up and down the land shut, planes and trains were cancelled, and millions of people had an unexpected but welcome long weekend ahead. And, of course, the weather may yet prove a useful foil should poor economic figures require it.
The idea of snow as a doom-laden crisis recurs every winter. So what's going on? Why has this notion of 'snowmageddon' got such traction, and where does it come from? Here are some sketchy thoughts:
1. We may get snow nearly every year, but compared to the British Isle's default setting (mild, dull, with a hint of rain) there is something quite rare and exotic about it. In his famous 1967 book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel discusses what he calls "breaching experiments". These were occasions where his students were encouraged to disrupt the taken-for-granted social situations of everyday life to show how people (or 'members' in Garfinkel's terminology) construct and make sense of the out of the ordinary, and how they also constitute the standard and mundane aspects of social life. For example, Garfinkel's Wikipedia entry illustrates this with the disruption one of his students visited upon standard small talk with her husband. Another famous example/ethnomethodological urban legend was the releasing of chickens into rush hour traffic (not something I'd recommend trying for all sorts of reasons).
In many ways snow in Britain, and particularly for the heavily urbanised population of England, is a meteorological breach in the standardised practices of everyday life. All of a sudden, they are thrown out of the window. Work is, for many, disrupted and shortened. Children get a day or two off school. The sledges come out. Streets become scene to pitched battles of snow and ice. Up pop snowmen in gardens and back yards. And the more curmudgeonly among us grumble about the roads, the weather, and yearn for the normal's quick return. It's a bit like a mild outbreak of the carnivalesque, and as such snowmageddon holds a certain transgressive appeal.
2. In the age of 24 hour rolling news, of instant commentary and declining news desk budgets, widespread snow is a positive godsend. The main news channels clutter up their coverage of reporters outside council depots and schools. We've seen journalists embedded with gangs of sledging teenagers and gritting lorries. It's dirt cheap to cover but endlessly newsworthy because of its disruptive qualities. And what is true of the broadcast media works for our beleaguered newspapers too. You don't even have to send anyone out of the office. You can produce accurate reports of the snow by mining radio, regional TV, and social media. Some people might even phone or email in with the travails they've faced getting their car up a hill. Therefore it's easy, costs next to nothing, and convenient to splash snowmageddon absolutely everywhere and, thanks to the sheer volume of snow-related news, adding to the crisis anxiety about it.
3. To do a little bit of violence to Anthony Giddens, he once observed the capacity for societies to be self-reflexive has never been greater, but added the likelihood of that happening has never been more remote. Contemporary culture is founded upon a great deal of anxiety and lament. There has always been such a current running through advanced capitalist societies generally, but it has grown in prominence and weight in Britain and America these last 30 years. As the weight of economic restructuring and cultural change has broken down old communities of solidarity, it has conspired to atomise and individuate us as employees and consumers. At the same time, if the idea of being fundamentally on your own wasn't bad enough, there are all manner of things that threaten to destroy us too. The USSR and the imminent threat of global thermonuclear war went out with overdoing hairspray, but in its place have multiplied all kinds of threats and risks. Terrorists. Climate change. Immigrants. Super volcanoes. Plague. Grey goo. Crime. Europe. Peak oil. Meteors. Zombies. To greater or lesser extents, they contribute to diffuse senses of social anxiety. If they are not already gnawing away at the foundations they threaten to tear away our existence at any moment.
The peculiar characteristic of this anxiety is that we find it entertaining. In the age of extremes, it's no longer the in-thing to ponder your own mortality - only the possible extermination of everyone and everything will do. Our newspapers, particularly those mired in the irrationalism of declining, hard-right conservatism AND the political economy of more-from-less appeal to certain audiences because of the frequency they will feed, and thereby encourage this anxiety.
Snowmageddon, therefore, is a marrying of churnalistic snow reporting and WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! The 'breach' with standardised social life isn't an opportunity for fun, it's an occasion for social breakdown, accidents, and all manner of unpleasantries. For a significant share of the audience that laps this stuff up, it speaks to those who obsess over the declining significance of Britain. The inability to cope with snow is symptomatic of the liberal rot that has made this Once Proud Nation an island full of muslamic extremists, health and safety consultants, people who recycle, and unmarried women.
Hence we can never just have a bout of snow as we would have a rainy day. Because it is potentially disruptive it must be relayed back to us as being as devastating as possible. Hence snowmageddon is here to stay.
Meanwhile, this is probably what it really looks like.