• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Floods: God’s punishment for our eco-sins?

The response to the tragic floods that are damaging homes and disrupting lives in parts of England shows that today many of us find it difficult to accept that disasters are a normal part of the human experience.

The term ‘natural disaster’ is fast losing its meaning. Instead, our cultural outlook tends to assume there is something profoundly unnatural about these floods. In recent weeks, commentators have not tired of telling us that the frequency and scale of the floods in Britain, and of other floods around the world, are unprecedented. The floods are discussed as the harbingers of ‘greater dangers’ to come. Experts are queuing up to warn the public about a perilous future in which British towns will be effortlessly washed away by catastrophic floods. A speculative study published this week by a team of researchers from Japan, Canada, the UK and the US looks set to lend scientific authority to the belief that human-induced climate change is responsible for increasing levels of rainfall (1).

The prophets of Biblical times, who warned of the misfortune that would befall those who turned away from God, have been replaced by computer-generated models which apparently conclusively prove that ‘The End is Nigh!’ One green commentator and former adviser to the government said of the floods in England: ‘The drumbeat of disaster that heralds global warming quickened its tempo this week; some parts of Britain had a sixth of their annual rainfall in 12 hours…. It has all been foreseen, and for far too long.’ (2) Foreseen where? In the Book of Revelations?

Claims of a prophecy foretold add an ominous Biblical quality to all the media coverage warning of an impending age of apocalyptic floods. These alarmist interpretations of the rainfall in Britain seem to suggest that the Biblical cautionary tales about floods – in which floodwaters were seen as punishment for our sins – continue to excite the Western cultural imagination. We do not quite have a Deluge, and there is no new Noah to save us – but we have been left in no doubt that the floods in England show that God is displeased with the human species and our sinful ways. The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, was quoted as saying: ‘We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused.’ In the bishop’s view, the floods are some kind of payback for man’s ‘arrogant’ behaviour and especially for his disregard for the welfare of the planet. Sodom and Gomorrah meets irresponsible ecological behaviour, with disastrous consequences for humanity.

There is something profoundly misanthropic in the bishop’s condemnation of apparently immoral behaviour. Religious leaders have often looked for transcendental meaning in natural disasters, but not necessarily in such a pessimistic and mean-spirited way as the Bishop of Carlisle did after the recent floods. Following the Bradfield Disaster in 1864, in which the bursting of the Dale Dyke Dam led to the Great Sheffield Flood, killing over 250 people, the preacher Thomas Hughes noted that ‘sin has its punishments’ but ‘not by these occasional calamities’. He, too, was concerned about the values and direction of secular society, yet he said, with a hint of optimism, that though ‘we cannot remedy the past’ we ‘may carry lessons of wisdom to the future’ (3).

After the tragic floods in south-east England in 1953, in which more than 300 people drowned, the then Archbishop of Canterbury talked about people’s capacity for dealing with adversity. He informed the House of Lords that ‘nothing revealed mankind at its best so much as a disaster of this kind’. ‘Everyone had shown the courage and comradeship they had prayed they would show in such circumstances’, he said. Thus, the ‘disaster had a majestic honesty about it’ since it encouraged acts of solidarity (4). The Archbishop’s celebration of the flood-stricken communities’ fortitude and human virtues stands in sharp contrast with the degraded view of humanity that is widespread in the discussion of today’s floods.

Yet it would be wrong to single out the Bishop of Carlisle for criticism. He only expressed a view that is strongly held in secular circles, too. In a world where human beings are discussed more and more as a species of polluters, sin, it seems, is no longer an individual matter. Instead, humanity as a whole is held responsible for leaving behind an ugly ecological footprint and for threatening the survival of the globe. And in such circumstances, retribution is unlikely to discriminate between sinner and saint. That is what the bishop meant when he was reported as saying that the problem with ‘environmental judgement is that it is indiscriminate’. However, the environment is not a moral actor capable of making judgements against mankind or anything else. And yet, post-floods, the bishop and numerous secular commentators have all tried to adopt the authority of God in order to warn the public about its behaviour. Writing about floods that are yet to come, one commentator said: ‘Behind the gathering clouds the hand of God is busy, writing more bills [for mankind]’ (5).

In previous times, some religious figures positively welcomed disasters: they interpreted them as signs of divine displeasure that might serve as a wake-up call to an otherwise feckless and morally disoriented public. ‘It may appear not heartless to note some benefits of a visitation so awful as we have just met’, said a clergyman following the Boston fire of 1872. One ‘recompense’ of that tragedy is that it ‘wakes us to reflection’, he said (6). Now, many secular observers are echoing these sentiments.

Today’s climate of cultural pessimism has encouraged some commentators to discuss the floods as a call for moral renewal. Jackie Ashley, a columnist with the UK Guardian, believes ‘the turbulent weather we’ve seen is a warning of what lies ahead of us’, and pleads that ‘only a new politics can address climate change’ (7). Her fellow columnist, George Monbiot, concurs. Although he concedes that ‘I can’t claim that these floods were caused by climate change’, he does think they provide a nice cautionary tale about disasters yet to unfold. ‘[L]ike the ghost of Christmas yet to come, they offer us a glimpse of the possible winter world that we’ll inhabit if we don’t sort ourselves out’, he warns (8).

Floods are all too normal

The impact of a disaster on society is not determined by the scale of destruction, but rather by how society interprets the act of misfortune. Society can decide that the current floods were a painful and costly episode that can be put right through generous support and sensible technical intervention. Or it can respond by treating the floods as an unprecedented crisis that will destabilise Britain for generations to come.

One of the most striking things about the response to today’s floods is the clear loss of historical memory. Those who claim that the floods are ‘the worst in living memory’ overlook the death and suffering experienced by many communities during the flood of 1953. Indeed, history shows that heavy rain and flooding are parts of the British way of life. Just last week, scientific researchers reported that Britain became an island hundreds of thousands of years ago after a catastrophic megaflood separated our landmass from that of present-day France.

Today, many find it difficult to accept that floods are fortunately infrequent but regular occurrences. People have always found it hard, if not impossible, to treat really big violent catastrophes – from the destruction of Pompeii to the Black Death to earthquakes in the 1900s – as just that: catastrophes. And in the current period, the threshold for accepting misfortune has fallen even lower. So a dry summer is discussed as proof of global warming and an early sign of an impending water shortage. A rainy July and outbreak of floods is talked about as a precursor of Deluge. We now discuss the climate with a reverence that was once reserved for sacred Gods. It seems that climate, like God, works in mysterious ways.

The transformation of climatic conditions and floods into a quasi-religious search for meaning betrays a powerful sense of moral uncertainty in British society. We may live in a hi-tech, turbo-powered global era, and yet pessimism and apprehension about the future dominate today’s political and cultural imagination. This fatalistic view of the floods really does matter: instead of treating the floods as relatively minor problems that we can contain through financial investment in Britain’s infrastructure, we have transformed them into a crisis of historic proportions that threatens our survival.

It is time to stop pretending that we live in a Hollywood disaster movie, and get real.

(1) See the letter Detection of human influence on twentieth-century precipitation trends, Nature, 23 July

(2) Jeremy Leggett ‘The Drums of Neglect’ , Guardian, 27 June 2007

(3) ‘A sermon in Priory Place Chapel, Doncaster 20 March 1864

(4) ‘Mankind At Its Best – Primate’s Tribute’, The Times (London), 20 February 1953

(5) Jeremy Leggett ‘The Drums of Neglect’ , Guardian, 27 June 2007

(6) C.A. Bartol ‘the trial by fire – a sermon – preached in the west church, Boston, 17 November 1872

(7) Jackie Ashley ‘We must face up to the flooding, not flee to the sun’, Guardian, 23 July 2007

(8) George Monbiot ‘Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are’, Guardian 24 July 2007

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