When this winter’s severe flooding was confined to the Somerset levels, we could feel that it was at a safe distance, in an already vulnerable part of the country, so that it had no further implications for the rest of us. But now that flooding has come to the Thames valley and elsewhere, we are beginning to think again. Indeed, ‘winter’ in my first sentence is palpably the wrong word; there has been no recognisably wintry weather for the last three months or so, just the unending rain and the ever-rising floods. Winter-without-winter: if that’s not climate chaos, it’s hard to know what would be.
But what are those ‘further implications’? Whose narrative is going to win out as we seek to interpret this national disaster? The first step – as all the green groups and spokespeople and even the occasional mainstream politician like Ed Miliband are telling us – is that this is manmade climate change in action, that these are the dire practical consequences (arriving very much earlier than we had ever dreamed) of throwing unthinkable amounts of carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere. Hopefully, that key first insight will get through. We probably need a much sharper terminology in these matters: of corporate ‘climate criminals’ who – like war criminals – will one day face justice for their irresponsible actions.
But what drives all this relentless carbon dioxide emission in the first place? Here comes the second interpretative step, which no mainstream and very few Green politicians will ever take. With its ruthless desire for the maximisation of private profits and its imperative of unending ‘economic growth’ on a finite planet, capitalism as a globalised economic system disrupts our climate and other eco-systems, with the disastrous consequences we are now living through. We must ‘name the system’, as that 1960s political slogan so aptly put it; but we must be able to name the alternative too, and here William Morris, with his own deep attachment to the Thames valley, is a precious resource. For until we are clear that it is for a Morrisian green communism that we are fighting, capitalism will continue to dominate the terms of economic debate and climate chaos can only deepen.