Flooding: the shape of things to come

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The floods which hit Britain this winter, especially in the south west of the country, brought further evidence that the impact of climate change is already being felt, and not only in poverty-stricken and low lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, but in the ‘rich world’ too: most recently, in last summer’s droughts and wild fires in Australia and parts of Europe, and the droughts and unusual storm activity in the USA. Now even ‘Tory heartlands’ like Surrey and Somerset are being bitten by weather conditions that seem more and more unpredictable. The Daily Telegraph – not a paper that normally shouts loudest about the ecological crisis – wrote about a new report which links the floods to man-made climate change: “Devastating floods which wreaked havoc across Britain in 2000 were made more likely by global warming, according to the first study to link flooding in this country to climate change.

The Oxford University study said the floods, which damaged nearly 10,000 homes and cost £1.3 billion, were made twice as likely by a warming climate. This is because warm air holds more moisture, making outbreaks of heavy rainfall more frequent”.

The jokes about ‘so much for global warming’ when winters get colder than usual or the rain keeps falling and falling are beginning to fall flat, and the Daily Mail and other right-wing tabloids would now have to think twice about using this witticism as a lead story. There is a greater understanding that climate change, even if attributable to a general increase in global temperature, will make itself felt in all kinds of perturbations and extremes in weather conditions.

The climate change deniers, who seemed to be making progress when people’s concerns about the deepening economic crisis had a tendency to push ‘green concerns’ down on the agenda compared to more immediate worries like losing your job or having your wages or benefits slashed, are finding it increasingly difficult to make their case stand up. Many of them accept that the climate is changing but deny that this is anything to do with human activity: it’s just the result of sunspots or other distant cosmic processes, which blithely ignores the fact that the most consistent temperature rises also coincide with the emergence of ‘industrial civilisation’ and above all with the period since the end of the Second World War.

If the ‘hand of man’ (or rather, of capitalism) is becoming increasingly recognisable in the overall pattern of climate change, then it has become even more obvious that the same hand is wielding a very large spanner against any attempt to deal with its effects. Just considering the present UK government, for example:

  • It made massive cuts in flood defences in the period leading up to the floods, despite mounting evidence that flooding was becoming an annual nightmare in parts of the country;

  • It has encouraged agricultural policies which have greatly increased the risk of flooding. George Monbiot wrote two articles in the Guardian arguing that the government was actively subsidising the denudation of trees and other vegetation in hillside areas in order to focus on animal pasturage, with the effect that natural ‘soaks’ in the hills no longer function and more water, swelled by increasing rainfall, is now descending into the valleys1. Meanwhile in the low lands farmers are also being encouraged to adopt policies which further increase flood risk:

Six weeks before the floods arrived, a scientific journal called Soil Use and Management published a paper warning that disaster was brewing. Surface water run-off in south-western England, where the Somerset Levels are situated, was reaching a critical point. Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water – instead of percolating into the ground – is now pouring off the fields.

Farmers have been ploughing land that was previously untilled and switching from spring to winter sowing, leaving the soil bare during the rainy season. Worst of all is the shift towards growing maize, whose cultivated area in this country has risen from 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970. In three quarters of the maize fields in the south west, the soil structure has broken down to the extent that they now contribute to flooding. In many of these fields, soil, fertilisers and pesticides are sloshing away with the water. And nothing of substance, the paper warned, is being done to stop it”2

These kinds of revelations have contributed to a minor political disaster for the Tory Party, which has gone from touting itself as leading “the greenest government ever” at the start of the coalition to David Cameron being caught muttering about his wish to “get rid of all this green crap” which is more and more seen as an obstacle to the number one requirement for any serious government: to cut public spending while stimulating economic growth. Appointing Owen Paterson as environmental minister – he has a reputation for being a climate change sceptic - has further confirmed that “voting blue to go green” was never going to work.

Another left wing contributor to the Guardian’s comment pages, Seamus Milne, published an article about the floods, linking them to a growing list of phenomena from all around the world that confirm that the effects of man-made climate change are already with us3. He also exposed the hollowness of the arguments of the right wing climate deniers, who in most cases simply follow the agenda of the gas and oil industries which have liberally subsidised propaganda against the now overwhelming body of scientific evidence for man-made climate change.

Milne argues that the hostility of many right wing, free market ideologues towards the theory of man-made climate change is the product of a profound anxiety: if it can be shown that unfettered, market-led economic growth is leading us towards ecological catastrophe, then it must be curbed, and the only force capable of doing this is the state. So the left love climate change because it gives them the excuse they need to push for further state tyranny. Of course Milne himself doesn’t see state intervention as synonymous with tyranny because he believes in popular control of the state and the economy.

What Milne doesn’t do is argue that the ecological crisis, like the economic crisis and the spread of war and militarism, provide further proof that capitalism, as a historic mode of production, has reached the end of its tether and needs to be destroyed from top to bottom if humanity is to emerge from these inter-twining crises. As we wrote in our resolution on the international situation at our last international congress:

although the bourgeoisie tries to attribute the destruction of the environment to the wickedness of individuals ‘lacking an ecological conscience’ – thereby creating an atmosphere of guilt and anguish - the truth revealed by its vain and hypocritical attempts to resolve the problem is that this is not a problem of individuals or even of companies or nations, but of the very logic of devastation inscribed in a system which, in the name of accumulation, a system whose principle and goal is profit, has no scruples about undermining once and for all the material premises for metabolic exchange between life and the Earth, as long as it can gain an immediate benefit from it.

This is the inevitable result of the contradiction between the productive forces- human and natural- which capitalism has developed, compressing them to the point of explosion, and the antagonistic relations based on the division between classes and on capitalist competition”.

It is this fundamental problem, rooted in the social relations of bourgeois civilisation, which prevents capitalist governments - whether of the right or the left - from taking any effective action against climate change. In a world system made up national units competing to the death for markets and profits, reining in ‘economic growth’ (i.e. accumulation) would be suicidal.

Capitalism’s inbuilt rush towards environmental destruction is not a new discovery for marxists. In the 1950s, the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga, an engineer by training, wrote a number of articles on the subject of contemporary capitalist disasters like the flooding of the Po and Piave rivers and the sinking of the Andrea Doria liner. These essays have been collected into a volume called Murdering the Dead: Amadeo Bordiga on Capitalism and Other Disasters (Antagonism Press, 2001, a slightly different version of the collection is also published on the web).

Bordiga denounced the capitalist argument that unrestricted economic growth (which during the post-war ‘prosperity’ seemed to many to have overcome all limits) must be accepted as ‘progress’. He showed, for example, that deforestation and the sacrificing of many traditional means of flood defence had actually increased the impact of the Po flooding (a similar point as that made by Monbiot). He also challenges capitalism’s very notion of progress by showing that it is necessarily a blind movement, entirely lacking in any coherent plan for the future, even in the short term. Capital’s drive for the fastest possible buck obliges it to cut corners when it comes to the safety of human beings, as in the case of the Vajont dam on the Piave whose shoddy design resulted in a disastrous breach and in devastating floods in the valley below. In a broader sense, capitalism’s insatiable thirst for profit necessarily undermines any attempt to harmonise economic needs with the health of the natural world on which we depend. And Bordiga also had no doubt that the left wing of capitalism’s political spectrum is equally dependent on the profit motive: it wants the accumulation of value to be directed by the state, but it doesn’t question the need to accumulate.

Bordiga went further in his argument. He saw that capitalism’s drive for profit also has an inbuilt tendency towards destruction. Since capitalist profit can only be derived from living labour, it is periodically driven to destroy dead labour in order to rebuild through the exploitation of living labour. “Modern capital, which needs consumers as it needs to produce ever more, has a great interest in letting the products of dead labour fall into disuse as soon as possible so as to impose their renewal with living labour, the only type from which it ‘sucks’ profit. That is why it is in seventh heaven when war breaks out and that is why it is so well trained for the practice of disasters. Car production in America is massive, but all, or nearly all, families have a car, so demand might be exhausted. So then it is better that the cars last only a short time” (‘Murdering the Dead’, p35)

But what Bordiga does not see so clearly, even if he is on some occasions led in that direction, is that at a certain point in its evolution the destruction of dead labour serves not as a stimulus to fresh accumulation, but produces only the accumulation of ruins. This was the underlying logic traced by the Gauche Communiste de France in the wake of World War Two, when it saw that the tendency towards destruction embodied in war and militarism was leading to the point where all the economic benefits accruing from war would be swallowed up, annihilated – as would certainly have been the case in a Third World War. This is an expression of the irrationality and decadence of a mode of production that is increasingly undermining its own economic needs and its own future. Today, capitalism in decay has added the threat of planetary ecological catastrophe to the threat of the destruction of humanity by imperialist war; in fact, the insolubility of the ecological crisis has become an added factor sharpening imperialist competition over dwindling material resources – including one most essential for life, water:

The US security establishment is already warning of potential conflicts – including terror attacks – over water. In a 2012 report, the US director of national intelligence warned that overuse of water – as in India and other countries – was a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security4.

Following the floods in the south of England, some leftist comedians have tried to entertain us with sneering jokes about the ‘Tory voters’ who have been having a hard time of it in their once comfortable suburbs. This is truly ridiculous: in all such situations, it’s the rich minority which suffers the least and the less well off who suffer the most. But what communists have to draw out from these events is that they are a small foretaste of the global nightmare capitalism has in store for all of us if we allow it to continue.

Amos 8/3/14



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