Where there’s a welly, there’s a way

We've been inundated with suggestions that the floods are punishment for our wicked ways. But human ingenuity is the solution, not the problem.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It would be easy to dismiss the television coverage of the flooding in the west of England. And as it’s Friday, ‘easy’ works for me.

The basic coverage of the floods (all news channels, all day) has been: cut to reporter in large wellies wading through the streets of Tewkesbury with a large furry microphone in hand; pan to shot of old granny in a boat being helped through three inches of water by kindly men in fluorescent orange jackets; lots of talk about ‘human tragedy’; family in emergency community centre with father saying ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do’; shots of ruined carpets, and helpless, whimpering pets; everyone pointing to the irony of there being too much water and not enough water, like teenagers who have read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for the first time; talk of floodplains being concreted over; back to the studio for an interview with some bearded Anglican cleric or earnest environmentalist saying this is all man’s fault and is ‘a wake-up call’ and that ‘something must be done’; newsreader moves on to the foreign news and points out that most of the Balkans are ‘ironically’ on fire; something about hundreds of people dying in Iraq as a footnote; then newsreader swivels his chair to cheerily ask the nice weather lady: ‘Now, can you give us some good news?!’

The urge to blame natural disasters on man’s supposed hubris or folly has been an eternal one. For instance, some say the Black Death was chiefly responsible for creating Protestantism, in that it drove many to suspect that there was something rotten in the Catholic church for allowing it to happen. Much more recently, there was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which was apparently the most racist hurricane in mankind’s history, and all the fault of George Bush. The Great Storm of 1987 which hit south-east England has been blamed on BBC TV weatherman Michael Fish for ignoring some old lady who warned him it was going to happen. Even in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, some struggled to find a way of blaming humankind (extremist Islamic clerics calling it divine punishment for Indonesia’s decadent culture), even though human activity cannot be blamed for the movement of tectonic plates.

The problem is that natural disasters do not only affect the minds of the religiously credulous, but those of the supposedly rational and enlightened, too. Take the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which is estimated to have been a ‘9’ on the Richter Scale, and killed at least 60,000 people, resulting in a tsunami and a firestorm. Its effects were felt as far away as Finland; the tsunami hit Martinique, Barbados and the west coast of Ireland. There was subsequent widespread looting (as we’re told there was in the west of England last week) and 34 looters were hanged.

The fact that it happened on 1 November, All Saints’ Day, and destroyed so many churches, was adjudged by many to signify either that God was wicked or just stupid. This led many Enlightenment figures to question the nature of God. Voltaire penned his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne and attacked the notion of a loving God in Candide. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the godfather of those who profess to love people but actually really hate people, blamed over-population in Portugal. (Does this sound familiar?) Immanuel Kant was one of the few thinkers to emerge from this tragedy with any dignity, pointing out that the Lisbon earthquake may have just been caused by a random act of nature, and that no-one was to blame: neither Man nor God.

I’m not one of those people that denies global warming is happening, and I do suspect that humankind is responsible for it. But the thing to remember is that humankind, culpable or not, is capable of reversing it. Even if it is the fault of the sun hotting up, humankind can change its ways. The problem with the mainstream environmentalist lobby is that its relentless misanthropy and Old Testament-like view of humankind being doomed sinners renders us all helpless. Floods and forest fires should not be treated as metaphors, any more than it is appropriate to retrospectively interpret the sinking of the Titanic as a condemnation of the capitalist Edwardian patriarchal class system, an omen for the First World War or an indication of man’s hubris in general. The Titanic sank because it hit an iceberg. Simple as that. Accidents will happen. Yet that 1912 disaster led to the far greater provision of lifeboats on ocean-going vessels.

The Titanic’s sinking was not interpreted as a metaphor at the time. It illustrated that there was a problem to be solved – a problem that was indeed solved because humans are fundamentally ingenious creatures. No amount of rhetoric about the wrath of God, or Nature, or Man will solve the global warming problem; only a belief in humanity will. The sooner lofty mainstream environmentalists stop going on about how much they hate us all, the sooner we will listen to them. Like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and all today’s professional atheist polemicists, the environmentalists miss a basic marketing strategy: you do not constantly insult those you are trying to convert. And the sooner ridiculous popstars such as Duran Duran and Joss Stone stop going on about it too, the more credibility their cause will have as well.

And let’s not forget those television presenters in wellies with large grey microphones in Gloucestershire. They should be true to their word when they utter that immortal line: ‘And now, let’s return to the studio’.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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