Designing a politics for tomorrow

Learning to live well with extreme weather and disease

As media moguls lead the charge in mounting pressure to lift the lockdown, the discourse has shifted from the war-like rhetoric of defeating covid-19 to learning to live with covid-19 instead. Government ministers are becoming divided into ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ depending on their views as to whether we end or maintain lockdown respectively. Yet all the while there seems to be a longing for some semblance of normality. We keep hearing the new normal to be on the horizon. Regardless of the difference of opinions as to what this means, few would disagree on one thing; we cannot return to how things were before.

I carry out research looking into the decisions taken within flood risk management, specifically looking at how values play a part in this process. In the UK, the Environment Agency have adopted a similar position to this response to covid-19 pandemic, emphasising how we need to learn to live with water rather than to fight against it. In this article I will reflect on some of the tensions that lie beneath the surface that are posed by living with both flooding as well as a pandemic such as Covid-19. I will draw specifically on three themes from my research in flood risk management — the notion of resilience, adopting a relational worldview and the question of responsibility— to prompt us as readers to think about how we might design our future political systems differently.

Resilience

Firstly, an idea that often comes hand in hand with both extreme weather and disease is resilience. The development of ‘resilient communities’ has been a key strategy both in flood management as well as sustainable development across the world. But what is even meant by resilience? This question has been a much contested concept in psychology and ecology but also politically amongst community groups who are often fed up of being told about the importance of becoming ‘resilient in the face of adversity’ when in reality that ‘adversity’ is often forced upon them. Importantly, we cannot take resilience to be a neutral idea about how we cope with disasters. By a neutral idea, I mean an idea that is not value-laden, i.e. a concept that is loaded with a basic understanding of ‘what is good’. In such a health crisis we are all relying on our immune systems to ensure our physical resilience. Here resilience refers to our ability to bounce back to ‘good health’. The same question can be asked about making our economic systems resilient. For example in ensuring our economy bounces back after this crisis, we might ask bounce back to what state and for who would that benefit? Essentially we might ask what would bouncing back to a ‘good economy’ look like? These questions highlight the need to think about ethics and our values in these moments. What values do we as a society hold and how do these values shape the social and economic systems around us? More and more prominent philosophers and economists have been asking these questions of late.

From the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Map by Geologist Harold Fisk in the 1940’s.
It maps layers of the river’s different
courses from different times, showing
how dynamic the Missouri river is,
both its course changing as well as
the human settlements around it.

The enormity of the economic measures to combat the impacts of Covid-19 so far have been taken with the sole goal of putting the economy on pause for as long as possible so that it might ‘bounce back’ and carry on again as soon as this crisis has passed. So that we might again return to normal. This bounce back ability is related to another term that is often used along with resilience of ‘path dependency’ referring to how decisions we take in the moment often restrict alternative decisions further down the line. Today, the most obvious example is that we are path dependent on economic growth despite the warnings to get off this path; the latest of these warnings comes from the Dasgupta Review re-iterating the need to move away from economic growth to halt biodiversity loss. For flood management we might say there has traditionally been a path dependency on hard-engineering measures that build walls and dykes to ensure water can’t escape the channels that have been imposed on rivers. This however is a vicious circle as there is then a need to sure up these defences higher and higher to keep with the rising flood levels each year. This restricts our ability to think differently about how we live with flooding. During this pandemic then, the desire to return to normal, to get back to these paths, is seemingly the single focus of politicians and many journalists. This desire also defines reactionary politics that seems set on a world that seemed to work in the past (even if that world seemed better than today’s).

So what should we talk about instead of resilience? John Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering in their book ‘the Politics of the Anthropocene’ talk about reflexivity rather than resilience. By reflexivity, they refer to governments and institutions ‘self-critical capacity to change itself after its own successes or failures’ (pg.35). This process involves recognition (listening, monitoring, anticipating), reflection (learning, rethinking values, envisioning possible futures) and response (re-articulation of values, reconfiguration of practices). This more reflexive approach to governance starts to seem a better fit for the ever changing, complex socio-ecological systems we live in today. So let’s bear this in idea in mind, whilst we briefly explore two other themes that will be prominent whilst we live with the current pandemic.

Relational worldview

Traditionally flood management is considered a simple matter of keeping water away from land, separating wet spaces from dry spaces. However if we take a more different view of the world, that is, if we look at flood management differently we see that there is actually a complex web of relations not simply between people and water but a wide array of things; concrete, river banks, soil, project managers, becks, spreadsheets, trees, houses, engineers, money, flood barriers, insects, councils, grassland, drainage pumps to name but a few. It is when all of these parts interact and relate with each other that we start to see the impacts of flooding; a river overflowing with none of these other relational aspects would hardly be considered a flood at all. In a similar way, Covid-19 is not simply a virus affecting us all equally, it is a crisis that has been formed of all the different relations that we have both with each other and the natural world. For example access to healthcare, provision of income and basic needs such as food and shetler and the globalised networks of travel that have developed, have all highlighted how basic relations with each other can have huge impacts on how the virus affects us. Similarly with our relations with the environment; we have seen how people of colour in USA and the UK have been systemically more affected by this crisis than white people, one of the reasons being the long-term exposure to air pollution stemming from environmental racism; our access to local blue or green spaces has become crucial for our mental health during lockdown; and lastly it has been demonstrated that destruction of our biodiverse ecosystems makes the outbreaks of future pandemics even more likely.

When events like Covid-19 happen, we are forced to confront the reality of these relationships that exist in the world around us. These crises are a time to reflect on the ethical question of how we relate to one another and to the social and ecological systems we are embedded within. It is a time to reflect on our values, to ask what really matters in these times. Navigating these complex webs of relations calls for new approaches to living with extreme weather as well as disease where we move away from making decisions simply based on costs versus benefits and towards wider conversations about values. In this way we can start to think more about how systems are designed around us and, importantly, how we might be able to change them and envision better possible futures to improve everyone’s quality of life.

Responsibility

Lastly, the notion of responsibility. Responsibility is key to political systems and decision-making processes. Yet it is difficult to attribute blame, or on the flip side, it is easy to shift blame, when events happen that seem to be outside of our sphere of control. Since the Covid-19 outbreak occurred, responsibility, and the associated blame, has shifted around the world as fast as the virus itself. Governments have rightly been called to account regarding how they have responded to crises such as flooding and Covid-19 owing to a responsibility to protect their citizens. However, as with climate change, governments have all too often during crises allowed the discourse to shift responsibility back to individuals. We have seen this in the UK, where the government, after issuing a lockdown late on, criticised the public for not obeying the rules. Similarly in USA, Trump, in what might be considered his least controversial statement, replied ‘I don’t take responsibility at all’ when asked about his response to the Covid-19 crisis and the lack of testing provided.

The difficult question however that lies at the heart of these debates around responsibility is that of who has agency to act. Traditionally we have only considered this agency to be a thing humans possess, as thinking beings. This approach has laid the ground for the separation of nature and culture, which has developed a philosophy that both treats the environment as a set of resources for our consumption and as a wilderness that needs controlling. When it comes to living on this planet, diseases, pests, storms, droughts are part and parcel of this natural world we are embedded within. While these phenomena were once attributed to the agency of God, and blame and responsibility was felt by all, in the world today, things have become a bit more complex. Our natural and cultural systems are entangled with one another to the extent that agency becomes a slightly fuzzier concept.In learning to live with Covid-19 we will be asked, as we are in learning to live with water, to acknowledge the inevitability of these events, yet we have not adjusted our understandings of where responsibility lies in these complex processes.

Thinking of this as a moral question, it is important to ask who can we hold to account? Who is ethically responsible for when things go wrong? We might for a moment look to Donna Haraway who would ask us to think about the practice of response-ability. Rather than responsibility being attributable to humans alone as possessing the capacity to think, we can understand response-ability as simply the capacity to respond. In this way, being response-able in times of these crises no longer becomes one of blame and combat but becomes one of practicing empathy, listening to other voices or perspectives, human and non-human, and being open to change. We are accountable according to how we practice that ability, to how we respond. This is not to say we can only be reactive, far from it, it means listening early, to science, to communities, to ecosystems.

These three themes are not diffuse, separate ideas or wishes for some better future. They are based in trying to understand the complex reality of the world we live in today. A reflexive approach recognises the relations and systems around us and provides a guide as to what response-able practice might look like

Despite pandemics being recognised as the greatest threat to society, and even within the UK, a preparation exercise (Cygnus) was carried out highlighting how unprepared the UK would be for such an outbreak, the UK government did not respond before and, further still, were extremely slow to respond when Covid-19 was discovered. It is little surprise the public have drawn comparisons with political responses to climate change. People have increasingly referred to the geological epoch that we are in as the Anthropocene owing to how disruptive and impactful humans have been on the planetary systems. It is now hard to think of any ecological processes taking place without human intervention or impact for good or bad.

We have to now confront reality that we are inextricably a part of and therefore dependent on the world’s ecosystems for our survival. In learning to live with the likelihood of more pandemic diseases and extreme weather, what is clear is that we need to start exercising response-able practice and transition to reflexive systems of governance. This means we cannot return to ‘normal’, we need to recognise what’s happening in the world around us, reflect by rethinking our values that drive socio-economic systems and respond by reconfiguring our relationships across society and with the more-than-human world.

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