Europe and especially the UK have experienced severe flooding during the past month and the future holds more of the same. As this George Monbiot article from the Guardian sets out – the consequences were predictable and avoidable. It’s not a knowledge problem.
The lessons have been learned, understood, researched and validated for decades.
We have known for years that trees play a vital role in drainage, and that land around tree roots will actually drain at 67 times the rate that grass drains – yet we are cutting tree-planting subsidies and increasing land-clearance subsidies, investing money in dredging and re-engineering rivers and building reservoirs. We negotiated a mountain subsidy – rewarding farmers for clearing and farming the top of watersheds – precisely where the compacting effect of animals’ hooves will raise the run-off rate the most. We even fly in the face of the advice we give to the developing world through our own Department for International Development. Do as we say, not as we do? it’s the political knowing-doing gap.
So what’s going on?
Is really just ignorance, poor advice and misunderstanding?
Or is it a conscious decision to yield to lobby groups, hide behind the Common Agricultural Policy and “evidence-based” national policy-creation which kicks the common-sense can down the road for years – well into the next government. The Guardian’s Monbiot (with an undisguised political standpoint) takes this perspective and it’s hard to argue against it, although I couldn’t limit culpability to the current administration alone.
One commenter on the article put it succinctly:
What is most infuriating about this is that it has all been common knowledge for at least 4 decades – probably longer. By far the most economic use of low grade upland is for flood control, and the cheapest way to do that is to let nature take its course. And natural flowing rivers are almost always more efficient at preventing flood peaks than any engineered routes. This has been standard textbook stuff since the 1980’s at least, and usually acknowledged in official documents (local plans, national planning guidance, etc) since the 1990’s. They have been re-wilding rivers across Europe since the 1980’s as standard anti-flood practice. It is absolutely nothing new to anyone with even the slightest academic or professional interest in the topic. And yet the sheer force of inertia and vested interests has resulted in billions of pounds/euros/dollars in malinvestment across the developed world.
I have consulted with ten different government departments in past years, and in each case, I have met with intelligent, rational, passionately expert civil servants. There is no shortage of knowledge and insight, no shortage of common sense, and no shortage of commitment to offer the best possible advice to ministers.
It’s not the lack of knowledge, lack of lessons learned, lack of research, lack of expertise, lack of professional advice or the lack of wisdom.
It’s the lack of moral courage to listen and do the right thing which gives politics a disastrous victory over policy.
In cases like this, knowledge serves us best when it is in the hands of the majority as well as the decision-makers – when understanding amongst the voters is raised to a degree whereby the policy-makers dare not take liberties with a better-informed and increasingly incredulous electorate. So thank you George Monbiot for such an excellent, incisive article which deserves a far wider readership.
Here’s hoping that knowledge-sharing truly is power.