As Storm Frank and the floodwaters in York, Ballater, Hebden Bridge and other communities abate, a milepost may finally be visible on the horizon for river catchment and land management on this changing island. In his excellent article yesterday, George Monbiot certainly foresees a shift in emphasis – one which must be seen as simply intuitive by the incoming generation of environmental managers, the likes of whom I graduated alongside not five years ago. This shift is – and must be – away from investment in hard engineering and river dredging to defend our towns and cities against flooding. Such attempts have been proven to be futile in the past month. As Monbiot highlights, radical change is needed to land management in the upper catchments of our rivers, where farmers and estate owners are being subsidised to ensure that water is conveyed downstream as quickly as possible. The straightening, banking, and dredging of rivers, the clearance of trees and vegetation, and the compaction of soils have meant that urban flood defences stand little chance in the face of increasingly heavy precipitation events. Monbiot has made this point before, and it is one that reflects the teaching at my own institution, from which at least one of my colleagues has gone on to begin a career at the Environment Agency.
But if it were simply a case of employing young scientists with more holistic and socio-ecological perspectives, then the Environment Agency would already have been able to avoid the devastation which has been visited upon the communities of the north and west this Christmas. The reality, as Monbiot relates so incisively, is that the mediation of our relations with the environment is a political and political-economic endeavour before it is ever a practical one. If hillsides are to be left un-grazed, moorland to be restored, and rivers to reconnected to their floodplains, the interests of those who would see those things not happen must be mitigated. This is a difficult task because such interests are expressions of accumulated wealth, property, power and influence over political figures which is ingrained into our society and culture. This is manifest in the perverse situation by which wealthy elites reserve vast swathes of land to partake in a ‘leisure activity’ which was once essential for the subsistence of the peasantry. And while today such behaviour is having dire consequences for less well-off communities, sympathy can still be found among the conservative working classes for the traditional cultural value of pursuits such as grouse shooting.