‘The wickedness of man was great in the earth’

Today, everyone from ITV to heavyweight politicians seems to believe in the Middle Ages idea that floods are punishment for mankind’s hubris.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Rob Morrison is the engineer trying to keep the Thames Flood Barrier in working order – which just happens to be where his ex-wife Sam works. And now his dad, Professor Leonard Morrison, long absent when Rob was growing up because of his tireless work on the possibility of London becoming flooded, is about to be proven right: there’s a massive storm surge heading towards the capital.

This could make for a perfectly decent satire of the disaster movie genre, if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone was playing it straight. Flood, ITV’s big drama offering to British viewers over the May bank holiday weekend, could just as easily have been called The Day After the Deep Impact Armaggeddon since it was simply recycling the stock characters and situations from every other disaster movie you’ve ever seen. But today, the line between serious documentary and fantastical disaster movie is blurred in an effort to teach us all the same lesson: human beings have been arrogant for too long and must now bow down before the forces of nature.

Thus, the deeply silly climate change flick, The Day After Tomorrow, was touted as something that could provoke serious discussion about global warming (even though it’s about the east coast of the USA dramatically freezing). Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth also won a global audience by trying to scare the living daylights out of us by suggesting that it won’t be all that long before there are 100million refugees running away from sea levels 20 feet higher than they are today; much of that film was as fictional as The Day After Tomorrow (see the trailer for An Inconvenient Truth below).

The notion of floods as comeuppance for our sins is nothing new. It’s as old as the Bible. Genesis, chapter six, tells us: ‘The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”‘

No one would remain but Noah and his family, who built a mighty ark to save themselves and a breeding pair of every beast on the earth. And when the animals had boarded the ark, two by two, ‘all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights… And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.’

You just need James Earl Jones to read that out in his best baritone, and you won’t be sleeping tonight.

The Bible story endeavours to tell us what will happen if we don’t change our wicked ways. Today, in the absence of God as a force that is taken seriously by society, those who want to scare us into accepting their policy prescriptions have to fall back on Nature instead. But this reliance on natural disaster to reshape society is an illustration of the weakness of politics in the current period, and it’s also downright distasteful.

So, Al Gore implies that the disaster in New Orleans in 2005 was a result of climate change. That is simply not true. Hurricane Katrina was certainly a big storm, but the flooding of the city was the result of the inability of the government to build a proper flood defence system, despite numerous warnings. After widespread flooding in the UK in 2007, there was much talk about how this might be the shape of things to come – only for the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to declare in March 2008 that there was no link between the floods and climate change. A report by MPs published yesterday pinned the blame for the impact of the floods on a lack of preparedness for surface water flooding (as opposed to coastal and river flooding). Essentially, in the UK, nobody seems to be responsible for ensuring that local infrastructure can cope with sudden, torrential rain.

But the flood is being used as a lever in other situations, too, not just in trying to make us all into good, green citizens. The current disaster unfolding in Burma, following the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis, is being used to put pressure on the military junta in Rangoon to open up to the West. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters in Paris yesterday: ‘We are seeing at the United Nations if we can’t implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations resolution which authorises the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government.’ Having been helpless as the generals cracked down last year on protests by Burmese monks, Western politicians are hoping the weather will force the generals into submission instead.

The notion that human beings can change the world for the better, purely by following their own interests, has been abandoned. Al Gore, who presents himself as the man ‘who used to be the next president of the United States’, has clearly decided that persuading the people of his qualification for high office is no longer enough. Instead, he seems to want to scare the powers-that-be into granting him power and influence instead. (And with a Nobel Peace Prize in his pocket, it seems to be working.) Gore’s tale is just one snapshot of the wider disillusionment with the masses that underpins the thinking of many left-liberals in a wholesale shift from ‘red’ to ‘green’.

In Flood, as in so many disaster flicks, the message is that we need to realise that running round pursuing our ambitions can only lead us to lose sight of what’s important. It takes a catastrophe to bring a family – nay, a nation – together. This kind of thinking – of some kind of external retribution for our wrongdoing – belongs in the Middle Ages. There is more to fear from the nasty, anti-human and anti-democratic streak that runs through scare stories of flooding than from any amount of water here in the UK.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi questioned whether floods are punishments for our eco-sins and called for us to challenge the politics of the apocalypse. Mark Saunders reckoned extreme weather was the norm. Tony Gilland reviewed The Hot Topic, calling its author the King of climate porn. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

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