How the demands of capital denuded Britain of its natural flood defences

All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer.’ Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1

Much analysis of the most recent flooding in Britain – although you won’t hear any of it from the government – has centred on the effects of climate change. And not before time. Long-ignored climate experts have warned for the past quarter of a century that Britain would see more high winds, higher temperatures, dramatic variations in rainfall, and more flash flooding. Indeed, the Met Office confirmed that it was both the wettest and warmest December on record with 351mm of rainfall and temperatures 2.7C above average. A recent study published by Oxford University found that global warming made the floods caused by Storm Desmond 40% more likely.

But while the link with (capitalism-induced) climate change is a vital one to make, a full analysis must recognise the decades-long process that has denuded Britain of its ‘natural flood defences’ – and as a more or less necessary outcome of satisfying the needs of capital.

While some mainstream liberal publications acknowledge that man’s destruction of nature causes flooding, rather than nature per se, they do not make the connection with capital accumulation and its need for ever-growing profits.

For example, forests and wetlands that would act as ‘giant sponges’ have been stripped away to make room for (subsidised) upland sheep farming, meaning Britain has become one of the least wooded countries in Europe (The Independent, 2 January). Rain sheets off the hillsides compacted under the hooves of grazing sheep, yet farmers have been encouraged to overstock. This is not to say that sheep farming is unnecessary, but that under capitalism our ecologies, both human and environmental, suffer as subordinates of the economy. The profit motive and its in-built short-termism have made the detrimental alteration of the landscape inevitable, with almost total disregard for the knock-on effects and little investment spared to compensate. In the co-evolving relationship between the rural and urban, keeping the City of London’s parasitic fat cats well fed takes priority – at the expense of the rest of the country.

And yet this poorly planned commitment to British farming hasn’t been enough to bolster the industry. The laws of international capitalism won’t allow it. Stalling productivity and a rising population (manufactured by the need to import cheaper labour) mean the UK will have to import more than half its food within a generation (The Guardian, 24 February 2015). The contradiction lies with cheap imports hitting the UK market as a result of globalisation, and the rise of supermarkets from capital’s tendency towards monopoly. Short-term planning demanded by capital has also seen a failure to invest in new crops and smarter growing systems. These contradictions have seen self-sufficiency fall from 78% to 60% in the past 30 years. Historically, Europe’s poor agricultural productivity, stemming from the degrading effects of wheat production, played a major motivational role in the continent’s drive to expand and export capital.

Grouse moors also lead water to run straight off hills into populated valleys, while the burning back of heather has reduced areas of peat and the ground’s ability to retain water. ‘For too long landowners have been left to their own devices,’ said Daniel Johnson of the Climate Change Committee. ‘We have to recognise there are some powerful vested interests involved. We have to decide what uplands are for in the context of climate change: grouse moors and marginal farmland or slowing down water.’ According to the industry, grouse shooting puts £100m annually into the rural economy and provides more than 2,500 full-time jobs (Financial Times, 31 December 2015).

There are plenty more examples of government policy destroying our environment for profit but the flooded towns suffer from the same logic. Because the land is cheap, half the houses built in Britain in the past 60 years have been dumped on floodplains. A trend that has seen fields and gardens replaced with concrete and decking means stormwater runs off into overwhelmed sewers. Measures taken in 2010 to ensure that new developments minimised run-off with ‘sustainable drainage systems’ were delayed by the coalition and then scrapped completely. All to keep expenditure low in the interests of capital.

Barny Phillips

Much of the material in this article is drawn from research by George Monbiot

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 249 February/March 2016


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