Financial drain

When was the last time you switched on the radio to hear reported a bishop claiming that recent natural catastrophes were God’s revenge on us all? It had me listening. It goes without saying that the floods in the UK have caused devastation to thousands of people and should not be considered anything less than a national emergency. I don’t want to even begin to imagine the distress of families whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by the water. But I do want to take a moment to reflect on how this natural disaster has been interpreted by those of us fortunate enough to remain dry.

The Bishop of Carlisle is clearly wrong in his claim that the floods are God’s wrath on modern society’s moral deviance (if this is news to you, check out the article in full). Why is he wrong? Well:

  1. That would imply a vindictive God.
  2. If this were God’s wrath, then why attack people indiscriminately? Why not target the attack, aiming most acutely at those who transgressed the ‘worst’? This affected people by geography, irrespective of their moral behaviour.

There is another way of looking at this, moving away the bizarre claims as reported by the newspapers:

  1. Our modern lifestyle – by and large – is a materialistic, consumerist one.
  2. This puts a massive strain on the natural resources of our planet.
  3. Our modern urban living and global culture – detached from our natural environment – allows us to consume to excess, ignoring the natural negative feedback loops with which previous generations had to contend. (Run out of potatoes? Import them.)
  4. This extra strain causes massive changes. (e.g. Climate change.)
  5. Climate change was the cause of the recent downpours.

Aside from the fact that the last proposition is hard to verify, isn’t there something to be said for our responsibility in these recent weather catastrophes? Well, perhaps. The first thing to be said is that responsibility does not equate with moral deviance, as expressed by the Bishop. We could all remain in deceitful heterogeneous marriages and we would still want to take two holidays a year by aeroplane and enjoy Florida oranges. Our distance from the path of religious ‘moral’ behaviour is not casually connected to climate change.

If we begin to talk about the morality of our behaviour towards the planet, and to think of God and nature in the same breath, then we find ourselves following in Spinoza’s footsteps (a philosopher who was ex-communicated by the Dutch Jewish community for his writings concerning God).

Spinoza believed that God was nature and that everything that exists within nature and the universe are all part of a single unifying substance (we 6.5 billion, are one). To transgress nature, as we have done in modern industrialised society, is to transgress God. But it’s not just God we’re transgressing. If God is nature, and we (as in the universe) are all part of one unifying substance, then you are me, and I am you. This transgression is self-transgression. I don’t want to go further down this thought route other than to say that if we were to understand our actions in terms of God, then we might very well end up perceiving of a very different God in the first instance, and our relationship to God in the second instance. (Have we just moved from hedonism to self-harm?)

There is another element to the recent flooding to be taken into account. The South Yorkshire area is largely built on flood plains. This has always been known. The flood drainage system in Yorkshire has been developed (and has been protecting South Yorkshire) for several hundred years. However in recent years these defences were poorly maintained and became blocked with silt and detritus. It’s the job of the Environment Agency to police these drainage system. Unfortunately, the Environment Agency received a 5% budget cut in 2006 (£28 million) which at the time was asserted by Environment Agency staff to directly increase the risk of flood defence failure.

Now there is no doubt that this has been the wettest June for nearly 150 years. But there is good reason to believe that the existing flood drainage system in Yorkshire, had it been properly maintained, would at the very least have lessened the damage done by the increased rainfall.

Where does this leave us? I don’t know. Two points have struck me, however, whilst writing this. Firstly, that cutting finances to an agency set-up specifically to deal with environmental issues seems an odd thing to do politically (never mind the practical effects) in the current climate (pardon the pun) of environmental concern. Secondly, I remembered that Carlisle was unfortunate enough to be flooded in 2005; perhaps the Bishop is still a little soggy?

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