Taken at the Flood

In southern England, January 2014 was the wettest since records began (the 1760s in the case of the Oxford Radcliffe Observatory).  Thousands of homes have been flooded, and large parts of the Somerset Levels have sat under water for weeks.  In a week of storms (‘stormageddon’, announced the Daily Mirror), a stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon was destroyed, cutting the only rail route to Plymouth and Cornwall. The Environment Agency was accused of ‘putting birds before humans‘.   In the Daily Mail, the Environment Agency was likewise accused of favouring conservation by failing to dredge Somerset rivers ‘and then spending £20m on bird sanctuaries’.

These headlines are perhaps no worse than we have come to expect from public debate about the environment in the UK, driven, as they are, by a combination of ignorance and outrage.  Indeed, by some standards they are quite sensible. A councillor for Henley–on-Thames (from the UK Independence Party), blamed the storms and floods on an act of God because of legislation to legalise gay marriage.   Meanwhile, The destruction caused by floods and storms have triggered that favourite British sport of pass-the-blame: victims blame the government for not doing more, the Local Government Minister blames the Environment Agency, whose Chairman replies by accusing politicians of ‘playing politics’ with the crisis, and for cutting his organisation’s staff.

The headlines are relentless.  It seems everyone has a good reason to hate the floods. They seem without a redeeming feature.  I was thinking about this last weekend when I crossed a local stream, just west of Cambridge.  The Bourn Brook flows into the River Cam at Byron’s Pool, above the city.  It is usually pretty docile, a slightly depressing gutter between intensive arable fields, albeit one increasingly well managed for wildlife, and to which otters have returned.  Last weekend it was astonishing: running fast and high, well out of its channel, a broad sheet of water curving through a normally flat-looking field of winter wheat. For a couple of days, the much-drained brook had re-acquired a floodplain.  Momentarily the stream and its setting looked as it must have done before the shift from mixed farming to arable prairie, before under draining of the clays, before the enclosures.  The river took a form more familiar to the Saxons who farmed the valley before the Norman conquest, to the Romans who built a villa on the long northern slope of the shallow valley, than to us, in the closely engineered twenty-first century.

This set me thinking about what we might learn from these floods: what, for example, do they tell us about nature and about conservation?  Four things spring to mind.

The first is relatively simple from a conservation perspective: the floods show the importance of making space for nature.   Wetlands are important for flood storage as well as birds, and the way we manage upstream catchments affects downstream floods (so simple structures like debris dams, or even beaver dams can reduce peak flows).  In short, we need to get better at thinking holistically and cleverly about how we live with nature.

Second, a perhaps less comfortable thought for conservationists, is that the floods tell us very clearly not to pretend that nature is nice.  It’s not all Squirrel Nutkin and soft refreshing rain.  Nature is, and has always been, tough, implacable, uncomfortable, dangerous. We have grown used to thinking nature can be controlled.  We have lived so long with what George Perkins Marsh called ‘great projects of physical change accomplished or proposed by Man’ that we easily imagine (unlike him) that they always work: that nature’s unruly energy can be engineered into submission.  We blame the nearest government agency when that is revealed to be untrue.

Third, the floods tell us that ‘naturalness’ is not a comfortable concept that we can choose where and when to apply.  Over the last hundred years, we have grown used to the idea that we can separate areas where nature is allowed to be ‘natural’, and places where it is controlled, made to submit to human whims and wants.  We like ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ nature in protected areas, but we prefer nature to be predictable and safe where we live and work.  The floods remind us that the ‘tamed’ bits of nature often turn out to be quite wild as well: not just in terms of storms, but in lots of other respects. Nature keeps re-assembling itself in novel, unorthodox and unwanted ways.  In their own field, conservationists are just as challenged by this as engineers.

Fourth, the floods therefore remind us that the agency of nature is important.  I would argue that nature is precisely valuable because it is never contained entirely by human plans.  The physical environment is driven by geophysical systems of huge scale and power; biological systems grow, reproduce and evolve.  The outcomes of these processes are the species and ecosystems that conservationists love and nurture.  But it is the engine that creates them that really matters.  It is the wildness, the un-controlled character, of nature that makes it exciting, that makes us engage with it.  The last child in the woods is not going to be enchanted by manicured lawns or over-engineered landscapes: they want action: mud and puddles, bugs, birds, even fairies.

This winter’s floods and storms have been an unmitigated disaster and a source of misery for thousands of households in the UK.  In response, the Environment Agency has said ‘we can save the town or the country, but not both’.  But while this might be a real choice for a cash-strapped government agency, the message about nature is that we cannot ‘save’ ourselves from its whims: we live within it, and whatever we do, it remains unruly, awkward, often unfriendly.  Nature is truly wild, even where we think we have it tamed.

Alongside the human tragedies and disasters, the crisis of this winter’s floods and storms therefore present an opportunity for conservationists to explain why nature has value in a humanized world.  Now is the time to celebrate the wild power of nature. Without it, conservation risks becoming merely another part of a strategy to keep nature within human bounds. As Shakespeare put it:  ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries


4 thoughts on “Taken at the Flood

  1. An issue which intrigues me as I watch the flood events literally through the lens of the media is to what degree they will result in a systemic change across the social – economic-ecological nexus, or will we see a return to business as usual? In the short term, despite some being fixated on the more traditional solution of river dredging we seem to have heard a rather broader public discourse about flooding and its control than before. This is includes the political class, media and judging from vox pops on the TV news, the general public, who seem to be reflecting a spectrum of different opinions but shared between members of these different groups. Inter alia this includes some recognition of the need for whole catchment management, even amongst the farming community; a heightened awareness of how funding priorities are set technocratically by the Treasury / Defra / Environment Agency and their consequences; the setting up of at least one flooding “action group” in Somerset (i.e. new social action) and doubtless a good deal of debate and acrimony behind closed doors in government but spilling out into the media. Although no one seems to be speaking up for the birds.
    From a policy influencing perspective developing greater understanding of the change or lack of change to the social-economic-ecological system which flows from this disaster and the political, social and economic factors which have promoted or blocked change could be of great value.

    • Hi John. Many thanks for your very interesting comment. My theory on this is that in terms of policy debate / change the duration of the ‘crisis’ is more important than its severity. The simple fact that flooding has been top of the news agenda for over a month has forced the discourse to mature, and given space for new ideas like ecosystem based adaptation to make it into the policy debate. If it had all been over two weeks ago, Eric Pickles would have had the last word and left the blame with the Environment Agency, but as it kept going there was time for Chris Smith to fight back, and for everyone to move on to something more mature than mere mud-slinging. I doubt the same would have happened if there was a short but truly devastating event (such as a hurricane). Perhaps those who know more about policy formulation can let me know whether this is a well established theory?

  2. This sort of theory sounds similar to some of the sentiment within some political science studies. Lots of studies e.g. Weiss (1977), Baumgartner and Jones (1991) find that policy change happens over long timescales and Hajer (1995) would agree with this and argue that discourses can change over time, sometimes quite slowly. Hajer tends to speak about discourse over much longer timescales, however.

    I think you could argue that the length of time the flooding debate has pertained over has allowed an ‘opening up’ of the debate, rather than a short, sharp controversy in which the debate was fairly ‘closed’. This would echo the work of e.g. Andy Stirling, with James Palmer (2012) giving a good overview of this. This work really focuses on the effects of ‘framing’ in policy debates, but I think you could draw parallels between the ‘opening up’ idea and Chris’ thoughts about the lengthy debate over flooding giving time for different issues to enter discussions.

  3. I think this is a very well balanced article. I agree that a more holistic approach to land management is necessary. As a member of the farming community who deals with the wickedness of nature every day and of course delights in its wonder, I would like to present a real problem for discussion. The present CAP regulations penalise farmers for having water on their land. Not only is there a disincentive to create reservoirs but there are fines for not draining flooded hollows. With this paradox in place there is hope for neither humans or birds.

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