Sunday, 2 February 2014

Of Gods & Prime Ministers - Levelling with Somerset

Fix this: Cameron is no King Cnut
As Britain has experienced a warm winter and, in consequence, the wettest January on record, the last few weeks have seen more and more areas affected by serious and persistent flooding, especially in south Wales and south-west England. The flat area of the Somerset Levels, which are below sea level, have been particularly badly affected with one village cut off for a whole month now and warnings from the beleaguered Environment Agency just today of lives being at risk as new storms are set to batter the area.

Farmers have complained that with crops submerged now for three weeks or more, their produce will be rotting in the ground and with a number of sewage planets, septic tanks and silage stores breached, there is a growing risk of water-borne disease affecting both humans and animals. It is a major public crisis, though so far treated with rather casual equanimity by a Government that seems rather perplexed by the series of unfortunate events. The army was promised as a rescue agency, only to be withdrawn before it started any work, and the burden has shifted back to local councils and agencies reeling from financial cuts imposed by the Coalition parties - both of whom have significant numbers of MPs in the south-west.

The ending of dredging of rivers, a move actually taken under the last Labour Government, has been criticised by some as the cause of the flooding, but environmentalists and meteorologists have stressed that the levels of rainfall have been such that had the process still been in place, it would have made very little difference - and indeed conceivably have made it worse by speeding the flow of water from catchment areas into river channels. The fact is that nature has overwhelmed the human-made defences and would have in almost any case - for example, a bus was swept off the road today in Pembrokeshire by a twenty feet high wave; it is difficult to envisage any feasible defence that could have been created against such a phenomenon.

And this perhaps is the hardest message of all that stems from this disaster - but it is one we will hear more and more in the future, and one which politicians and the public alike really need to get their heads around: as global warming takes hold, there are no technical fixes for what is coming.

Some years ago, at a seminar held by a leading social "think tank", I listened to a very coherent and dramatic presentation on the future impact of climate change, especially in that the areas most likely to be most affected in the first instance in this country and elsewhere would be zones of social deprivation. As with so much, the poor will suffer most first.

A question came from the audience, from someone who had been a senior civil servant. She acknowledged the devastating effects outlined by the speaker. "So, what are the steps we need to take to mitigate them?" And she went on to ask about - flood defences, food stores and supplies of breathing masks (a la Beijing).

And this is where our elite, our political class, business barons and bureaucrats are betrayed by their own hubris and ignorance of the severe global crisis we face. Flooding? Build a wall. Extreme temperatures in inner London? Install more air conditioning. Too much carbon emissions from cars, planes, industry? Let's invent carbon capture and storage, somehow, one day... And so on.

It is the same mentality that seriously considers seeding the seas with iron filaments to stimulate photoplankton as a carbon sink; or placing solar reflector satellites in orbit to reflect the sunlight away from the earth to make up for the loss of the albedo effect from the melting of the icecaps and Siberian permafrost. Rather than consider how we are unravelling the threads of our biosphere with our inter-related addictions to carbon fuels, growth and capitalist competition, the thinking is we can go on our merry way as before and somehow find a way to engineer a "fix" with carbon capture or radioactive energy.

It resolutely refuses to contemplate the truth revealed by these floods: that ultimately we are at Nature's mercy and while there is no doubt we can ruin it for ourselves and other species, no amount of scientific genius, financial investment or emergency planning will ever grant as imperfect a creature as homo sapiens the ability to "manage" the Earth. Ending use of carbon and planting millions of trees will have a lot more to do with a solution than expensive, ineffective and in many cases still uninvented "mitigation technology". But of course, it is dependence on such large scale technologies and carbon energy that perpetuates the economic and political power of the global elite - at huge risk to all of us.

Cnut: the King knew his limits.
As our planet becomes increasingly hostile to our continued existence on its surface, perhaps it is time more for humility and asking how we can return to be in some degree of harmony with Nature rather than for planning somehow to conquer it. Unlike David Cameron, his ancient predecessor King Cnut deliberately demonstrated the limits of his powers to his fawning courtiers by failing to hold back the tide of the sea. A thousand years later, we could do with some of his sanity to prick the pomposity of our elites. Leaders who believed themselves to be gods went out with the Roman Emperors - and as so many of them discovered, such unwarranted pride tended to come before a great fall.

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