Lindsey German on what the floods tell us about 21st century British capitalism
Climate change is a reality, and those who deny it are the equivalent of those who persisted in believing the earth was flat, against all scientific evidence. Sea levels are rising worldwide, weather is becoming much more unpredictable and this is having a knock on effect on food production, where people live and how they carry on their livelihoods.
The lack of flood defences is about much more than current government cuts, although these are obviously contributing to the disaster. In Britain we have seen a systematic attack on spending on infrastructure going back more than 30 years. Every area has seen ‘economies’ which cause problems somewhere down the line. Train companies don’t cut back overhanging trees, so when bad weather occurs, railway lines are blocked. Nurses are sacked and wards closed in hospitals, so there are not enough facilities to care for the sick. Lack of investment in flood defences or dredging has left large areas of the country more vulnerable to flooding.
Since Thatcher, planning restrictions have been weakened or abandoned. This has led to widespread building on flood plains, meaning that higher numbers of people are subject to flooding. The private builders who make a profit from the houses, supermarkets and roads that they build, make no contribution to future flood defences.
The process of privatisation has worsened the situation. The private owners of utility and rail companies prefer to pay their shareholders dividends than to invest in infrastructure that doesn’t turn an immediate profit. They are also concerned to cut back on jobs in order to save wages bills. So when there are any problems, they simply don’t have the resources in terms of workers to solve them.
Changes to the countryside, for example the cutting down of trees, appear to have worsened the problems of flooding. But government through subsidies to farmers encourages these practices.
The failures of government and the Environment Agency cannot be placed at the door of Eric Pickles alone, tempting though that might be. They are the result of many decades of profit led policies, privatisation and austerity. They are also symptomatic of a lack of planning and long-term strategic thinking throughout government.
The combination of these factors marks a society in decline. Brunel built the railway in Dawlish in the 1840s. Dutch engineers from the 17th century onwards helped drain the fens and levels in England with a sophisticated system of drains, dykes, rivers and dams. We are going backwards in these respects.
While the politicians make points attacking each other, it is clear that mainstream politics is quite incapable of dealing with these issues. The government is now bringing in the troops, but why do we have the largest army in Europe but not any adequate civil defence. This comes down to political priorities.
Any serious attempt to deal with climate change and its consequences needs to restrict free market capital and control carbon emissions. No government has the will or the capacity to stand up to the vested interests who have created these problems in the first place, and who use a tame media to trivialise or ignore the issues.
To begin to deal with the problems therefore requires systematic campaigning, but also an understanding that the way in which society is presently organised, on accumulation of capital and the profit motive, is destroying the planet, and has to be fundamentally transformed.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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