Floods in Britain: the social effect of capitalist production

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“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us” (Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man).

Floods, caused by a series of severe storms that battered the Northern British Isles this December, have brought the misery of repeated flooding to thousands, not just in the North of England but also in Scotland, and Ireland. They are one of a number of phenomena to hit the world this winter, including unseasonably mild weather on the East coast of North America, Western Europe and the North Pole; El Nino and flooding in South America, with the latter inundating 130,000 homes in Paraguay alone. Equally striking is the fact that the media are not passing it off as an ‘Act of God’ or a purely natural disaster, but apportioning blame to government policy on flood defences and considering the contribution of climate change. They do not, however, recognise the role of capitalism itself.

What sort of protection for areas at risk of flooding?

About 16,000 homes in England flooded; Cumbria faced in the third winter in a decade with the sort of flooding that is only supposed to happen once in 100 years; power cuts affecting a similar number of homes and businesses. There have been plenty of people willing to help each other out, including Syrian asylum seekers who volunteered to help the temporarily homeless. Help from the local or national state has been lamentable. The volunteer asylum seekers were set filling sandbags when they were no longer any use as the floods had already ruined homes. When they could have been useful many councils were unable to provide them. In Leeds and York their response was largely restricted to evacuation. Environment Agency spending on flood defences was cut by one fifth after 2010-11, although the fall in the North West of England was much steeper, to about 25% of the previous year’s total. Although the spending has risen since 2011-12 it has not yet reached the previous level. How fortunate for the ruling class that the Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley should have been on holiday in Barbados during the worst of the flooding and therefore able to become a scapegoat and resign – whatever he personally did or neglected to do, the cuts to the budgets of the very institutions responsible for flood defences and relief show that it is not a priority for the British state.

Insurance firms do not even pretend it is a priority: after all, as private businesses their responsibility is to make a profit. Many households in flood prone areas cannot get insurance against floods, and those that are insured often have to wait weeks for a claims assessor to visit, causing delay in cleaning up their homes.

It is not just a question of how much is spent on flood defences but also of what sort of defences and what sort of land use. First of all the Environment Agency is only responsible for protection against sea and river flooding, while 60% of damage to houses comes from surface or ground water (The Economist, 2.1.16). Secondly, the type of flood defence tends to treat nature as an enemy to be subdued and regulated. Walls are built, although clearly not high enough for this winter’s floods. These can be important, but are not the only approach, as was demonstrated in Pickering in North Yorkshire. There, unable to afford £20 million for a wall high enough to protect against flooding, and aware that the wall would be an eyesore and bad for tourism, they chose to work with nature building 167 leaky dams above the town, plus smaller obstructions, planted woodland and built a bund to store up to 120,000 cubic metres of floodwater. As a result they remained dry while neighbouring towns were flooded.[1] This is not a panacea to be applied everywhere, nor a guarantee against floods, but shows the possibility of a different approach based on understanding the local geography.

There is also the question of land use, and measures taken to support it that make the problems in the towns on lower ground worse. Farmers are permitted by internal drainage boards to dredge the rivers on the hills, straighten them and build up their banks, protecting their fields at the expense of those living downstream. Similarly grouse moors require land drained and heather burned, meaning that it can no longer soak up floodwater. This attracts an agricultural subsidy, as does clearing land of scrub, woodland and ponds even if no actual agriculture takes place on it (Guardian 30.12.15). All these measures increase the likelihood and severity of floods lower down.

These decisions are not down to ignorance since the dangers were already well known in the 19th Century: “When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes … they had no inkling … that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season” (Engels, op cit). So why does the ruling class take such decisions? Why for that matter are they building 10,000 homes a year on flood plains, i.e. on land liable to flooding? Why are they not able to take account of the danger to the homes, and potentially the lives, of thousands of people? Engels went on to say “individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must be taken into account. … In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different…

Storms as part of climate change

A far more remote effect of capitalist production than flooding downstream is global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless this is now so widely accepted that there have been articles discussing whether it is behind this winter’s storms and heavy rain. Science cannot prove climate change based on this or that meteorological event and is therefore not able to state that this or that storm is, in itself, due to such changes. But it would be equally wrong to try and dissociate any particular event from it. Thus, it has been estimated that storms such as Desmond are 40% more likely now than in the past using climate models at global, regional and local levels (see New Scientist 9.1.16); and from another report we learn that “Atmospheric thermodynamics explain that the moisture-holding capacity of the atmosphere is largely influenced by temperature and pressure, and that warmer atmospheres have larger saturation vapour content. The median intensity of extreme precipitation increases with near-surface temperature at a rate of 5.9%–7.7% per degree[2]. In very technical language this is telling us that warmer air will carry more water vapour and so cause heavier rain. However the relationship between global warming and storms does not end there, since they are actively redistributing heat and moisture across the globe. Storm Frank, before it crossed the Atlantic and received its name, started in North America where it caused flooding that drowned 13 people, and after it hit the British Isles it turned north to carry yet more heat to the Arctic (The Economist 2.1.16). So the weather systems causing these floods were also contributing to the frighteningly high temperatures at the North Pole at the end of December, more than 30oC above the usual, and above freezing point.

For capital this Arctic warming is first and foremost an opportunity bringing not just the hope of ice-free shipping lanes but also the opportunity to extract yet more oil from the area. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie’s political representatives have been at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, wringing their hands about the danger of global warming. While we will deal with this conference in a future article, we can just note the views of James Hansen, a NASA scientist who was silenced by the US government from 1988 when he started to warn against greenhouse gasses until he retired: “It’s a fraud really, a fake… It’s just worthless words…. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”[3] We also note the actions of the British state in cutting the subsidy for solar power and in its enthusiasm for shale gas, which speak much louder than any words on the COP21 agreement.

Capitalism’s congenital inability to tackle pollution and climate change

So far we have looked at several examples of short term decisions taken regardless of consequences such as flooding on lower ground, and the hypocrisy of governments in the climate change talks. Many think the answer is to campaign against such decisions and demand that states put in place measures such as a carbon tax to create an incentive to use alternatives to fossil fuels, in other words to demand that the capitalist state effectively reform itself. We think this is impossible. It is not just a question of this or that measure, but of the nature of capitalism. Hansen is quite right to point to the fact that the cheapest fuels, fossil fuels, will continue to be burned – no business competing with others, no-one on a wage or other limited income, will be able to afford to do otherwise. He says they only “appear” to be cheapest, but for capitalism the products of nature, and the pollution of it, have no cost. If polar bears go extinct, if small islands are submerged, if pollution in Delhi and Beijing is injurious to health, this does not appear on the bottom line. Those who, like Hansen, recommend a carbon tax to give a financial incentive to reduce emissions, point to British Columbia which has had one since 2008 although the evidence is equivocal at best. Sales of petrol have fallen, although there is evidence of those who can crossing into the USA for cheaper petrol[4]. Total emissions have fallen no faster than those in the rest of Canada[5], and as a tax on goods, compensated for by cuts in other taxes it has a tendency to be regressive, hitting the poor hardest despite a tax credit system designed to compensate for this.

In capitalism the ruling class only acts on the pollution it creates when its effects are direct or at least not too remote, and that usually means something to do with the economy. The UK Clean Air Act of 1956 was not due to the fact that dirty air causes deaths, known about since the previous century, but to the fact that the great smog of 1952 not only caused 12,000 deaths but also brought London to a standstill. The populations of Beijing and Delhi can only hope for a similar incentive to clean up their cities. Right now the bourgeoisie has something much more direct and immediate on their minds, the danger of a new financial crisis caused by phenomena such as “the collapse in demand for credit in China[6] – in other words the slowing down of its (extremely polluting) growth is a real problem for the economy, and this will carry much more weight in capitalist decision-making than the danger of greenhouse gas emissions.

Engels again: “… by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well. This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.” (op cit). Since he wrote this, science has become much more aware of the “remote effects” of our production on the natural world and the danger this poses to many populations as well as to the world’s ecosystems, while at the same time science and technology have become much more powerful, and the most polluting industries have spread to new geographical regions. The management of economy and ecology remains in the hands of a ruling class whose vision is generally limited to a fast buck, whose states apply all the arts of deception recommended by Machiavelli, in an atmosphere that dumbs down history and theory. We simply cannot afford to leave such productive power in the hands of this ruling class.

Alex  14.1.16

[2]. Asian Development Bank report, https://www.adb.org/publications/global-increase-climate-related-disasters. The bank is particularly concerned by “Climate-related disaster risk is defined as the expected value of losses” since its zone of investment is at particular risk from the effects of climate change, and the conclusion of its report states “the danger of climate change presents a greater threat than the current global economic malaise. … we need to build disaster resilience into national growth strategies”.




Capitalism and the Environment