Climate change and the future of cities

First published in Communist Student no.3

by Laurie Smith

In the wake of the widespread flooding in June and July of this year, the worst on record, the government’s announcement that it will continue to approve applications for building on floodplains came as a shock to many. It is estimated that the number of people at risk from flooding in the UK could rise from 1.6 million to 3.6 million by the 2080s(1).

Of course, it is the poorest members of the working class who have suffered most from these effects of climate change – those without insurance and the money to get other accommodation. In today’s capitalist society, the burden of the random destruction falls on the working class individuals affected and is not absorbed by society as a whole. And in the absence of a strong labour movement, the government’s planning for the swathes of new homes to be built in flood-prone areas falls woefully short of ensuring adequate protection.

Capitalism in its short-termist and ruthless strive for profit has, of course, played a major part in bringing about climate change and the increased flooding that goes with it. This system is actually incapable of solving the crisis it has produced. But it is by no means the case that we must be at the mercy of extreme weather – our technological capability, in this sphere as in many others, far exceeds our social system’s ability to use it to satisfy human needs.

Capitalist governments elsewhere have been forced, through a combination of geographical circumstance and pressure from below into providing decent measures of protection. Implementing them requires massive state investment – something communists should insist upon.

About half of the Netherlands is only a metre above sea level, and the Dutch state has had to find solutions to flood risk. One obvious technique is to build houses on stilts. Dutch boffins have also invented the ‘amphibious’ house, which literally floats on top of flood water as it rises. While this solution may provoke cackles at first, I know I’d rather be above the deluge than below it. Electricity, gas and drinking water are supplied by flexible cables and the system can be adapted to support 10-storey blocks. So it is not beyond human ingenuity to adapt to such conditions. And an approach which goes with the flow rather than against it leads to less problems later on and bulwarking rivers can simply shift water elsewhere.

We must also address urban sprawl, a major cause of flooding and a waste of agricultural and wilderness land. The solution in urban areas is to build upwards, not outwards. But high-density living, where necessary, could surely be a more enjoyable prospect than it is today, when the only motivation in residential building is to get away with spending as little as possible, resulting in the tower block monstrosities familiar to us all. If the effort and creativity we currently invest in producing extravagant luxuries and weapons of war were directed instead at satisfying human needs and creative impulses, our cities would be inspiring places truly fit for human beings.


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