‘Won’t Wash’ or: ‘high and dry thinking in a wide, wet, world’


An edge of the Mississippi floodplain in high summer, Minnesota 2012

The thoughts that follow here stem from the convergence of two circumstances – the first is the Government response to the flooding on the Somerset Levels; the second my starting to work on a large grant-funded academic project. These thoughts form part of my own personal and on-going concern with the increasing unreal, and thus profoundly counter-productive, nature of our political and intellectual orthodoxies, and so with trying to find ways to fundamentally re-frame our thinking about the world.

The first circumstance is the way in which the odious Eric Pickles – currently the British Government’s Communities Secretary – lost no time in publicly criticising the Environment Agency for its lack of expertise in relation to flooding, and in making it very clear that he believed its chairman Lord Smith should resign. Pickles has been oscillated between naked aggression (when he thinks there is political capital to be made from miss-representing other people’s difficulties or misfortune), and telling blatant lies (when even the Prime Minister thinks he’s gone too far). Indicative as Pickles’ behaviour is in terms of a viciousness and contempt endemic in the higher reaches of Government, it  also masks something even more disturbing.

I was looking at the arguments against the Government’s proffered solution to Somerset’s flooding – namely dredging as a technical ‘quick fix’ ( http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-somerset-flooding/ ) today. With Pickles’ and the Government’s delays and oscillations still on my mind I came across the following, written by Ola Holmstrom, UK Head of Water at the consultancy firm WSP. She writes:

“Flood risk management should be based less on focusing on rivers and rather the catchment as a whole.  I was present at last week’s Somerset Water Management Partnership and there was much discussion over the ‘catchment-based approach’.  However, politically this is seen as inaction and that the dredge would solve immediate issues and answer the communities’ cries [italics mine].  However, given the huge cost of ‘the big dredge’ there must be quantitative proof that this will benefit both the upstream and downstream communities.  Catchment based schemes would be significantly cheaper and more sustainable than dredging; they must be given a chance even if the political pressure is on, for the good of the environment and communities throughout Somerset in the future”.

“We need to consider why the rivers are silting up in the first place and to devise ways of slowing down the movement of water both overland and under the ground and finally accept that we will need to flood some areas to save others.  Unfortunately there simply is not enough space to protect everything.  A National Trust experiment near Minehead has involved farmers allowing their land to be flooded once river levels rise to reduce the amount of water passing downstream.  Now, to ask farmers to deliberately set aside land to flood is both controversial and unfair without Government subsidies to cover loss of earnings.  However, in areas such as the Levels where there is so much water, is it a debate to be had”?

“Surely, there is now a need to seriously consider allowing land that hasn’t previously flooded to act as flood storage areas for the benefit of the wider community.  In this setting dredging may be appropriate to ensure that water reaches its intended locations but not as a tool for passing flows downstream.  Dredging will virtually never be the silver bullet, and the economic and ecological cost coupled with its short-term nature make it unpalatable to many”.

“Unfortunately with increasing urbanization and climate change the question of flood risk management in Somerset is not going to go away.  Rising sea levels may eventually mean that draining water from the system naturally becomes almost impossible and so someone will need to make some tough decisions in the future. For the benefit of those currently flooded and those whose livelihood depends on the land, it would be best if this happens sooner, rather than later.”

All of which makes a great deal of sense. What is deeply disturbing, however, is that part of what she writes might be paraphrased as follows: ‘politicians will say and do whatever they think will appeal to their party’s voters in the short term. In doing so they duck the hard but vital middle-to-long-term decisions they are elected to address and, in consequence, the situation in Somerset will continue to get worse’. Considered generically, this situation is pretty much replicated in variation globally when it comes to facing difficult socio-ecological problems and, thanks to the virtual disappearance of fora essential to a genuine working democracy – independent and critical journalism and the practice of critical education, for example – is likely to get worse.

But why is our Higher Education system increasingly failing to draw attention to this situation – in short, to educate active citizens able and willing to ask the difficult questions requiring to get our political representatives to take the root causes of our socio-ecological crisis seriously? I’m afraid at least part of the answer lies not with Government but with academics themselves. Those substantively caught up in research are now for the most part complicit – whether willingly or otherwise is obviously a critical point here – in its deepening malaise. They choose or are coerced into riding a similar gravy train to the politicians (that is one involving winning grants rather than elections). In consequence their language increasingly reflects a disturbing ‘forgetting’ of the basic responsibilities and practices of critical education.

Can I justify this claim? You must make up your own mind. Below I’ve taken a core statement from the research bid referred to above and, after each section, added thoughts in both italics and square brackets.

The project bid claims that, over a period of three years, it will address: “issues central to the Community, Culture, Environments and Sustainability agenda by deploying multi-partner, arts and humanities-centred interdisciplinary research (AHIR) in 3 intersecting ways”.

[To write this presumes two things – that there is an agreed understanding of the meaning of the terms ‘community’, ‘culture’, ‘environments’ and ‘sustainability’; and that the ‘agenda’ linking them is both shared and explicit. Neither presumption is sustainable within the academy, much less within any geographic region of Britain. This statement can only be read, then, as tacitly signalling conformity to whatever official agendas are currently being pursued by those in authority using these ‘power words’. So what, then, is actually meant by the phrase: ‘multi-partner”? Is this perhaps intended to signal engagement with knowledges and understandings held locally within specific communities? Or simply a clutch of universities? The answer I suspect, at least at the level of academic realpolitik, lies in the phrase ‘arts and humanities-centred interdisciplinary research (AHIR)’. In short, the agenda – preset according to the assumptions of those in power – will be framed by specialists whose professional knowledge is embedded in disciplinary discourses that are, for the most part, inaccessible to the specific local communities to which the bid then goes on to refer. Specialists whose continuing employment is increasingly predicated on coming up with the types of bids (and thus with the findings – since these now have to be identified in advance of the research itself being conducted) that conform to the expectations of the status quo. (Or, if they do not, are subject to the same attitude of aggressive contempt so perfectly exemplified by Eric Pickles)].

 1, “by investigating how local communities are embedded in the hydrosphere (the totality of interconnected water forms, cycles, systems, issues, conflicts), and using AHIR to explore and develop community resilience in eco-social terms. The project addresses multiple, interrelated water issues (floods, drought, water quality, biodiversity, ground water, catchment management) considered within community contexts. Interconnected water issues are some of the most challenging in the UK and beyond, particularly in the context of climate change”.

[While it may be possible to intuit what, theoretically speaking, the term ‘hydrosphere’  refers to – “the totality of interconnected water forms, cycles, systems, issues, conflicts”, etc. – to actually evoke this in terms accessible to a lay community geographically located is something no arts and humanities-centred ‘inter-disciplinary’ team can realistically do over a three year period. If that were possible in such a time frame there would be no current socio-ecological crisis because the population at large would by now have grasped and acted on its causes. Any such evocation requires, at the very least, setting aside the automatic assumption of explanatory primacy embedded in specialist academic discourse (whether explicitly disciplinary or otherwise). This is necessary so that academics learn to ‘hear’ – without intellectual prejudgement – the voices of other, non-professional or emergent, constituencies and their stories. Not as a ‘standing-reserve’ for academic research but as authoritative narratives in their own right. Yet it is on intellectual prejudgement that all research bids are predicated and submitted. In this way the fundamental framings or lenses upon which our entire epistemology and pedagogy – and the notion of professionalism these underwrite – depend remain unchallenged and unaltered. It is thus deeply ironic that the bid should then go on to refer to just such “lenses”].   

 2, “through these lenses, interrogating a series of questions about communities, citizenship, rights and conflicts. Interconnecting water issues offer powerful exemplars of connections within communities (e.g. shared flood risk, shared water assets); and connections between human (and non-human) communities (e.g. upstream-downstream communities in catchments, supply and waste systems). Frequently these connections manifest themselves in terms of conflict, disconnect, fragmentation and relative advantage/disadvantage. There is a need to foster greater interconnected social and ecological resilience through enhanced understandings of the eco-social production of communities, envisioned as multiple, interleaving formations of practice which combine topographical (place) and topological (network) spatialities”.

[Leaving aside the question: ‘in what sense can non-human beings be regarded as any kind of citizen?’, there is a sad irony in academics identifying “connections” as manifesting themselves in terms of: “conflict, disconnect, fragmentation and relative advantage/disadvantage”. One that flows from lack of any acknowledgement that their own institutional and professional presuppositions help perpetuate this situation. While it is manifestly the case that “there is a need to foster greater interconnected social and ecological resilience through enhanced understandings”, surely the first and most appropriate response to that very real need is for research professionals to undertake a deep-seated critical review of their own intellectual presuppositions and discursive habits? To do so would, however, precisely risk undermining their own privileged status and intellectual authority, and thus would potentially damage their ability to make future financial contributes to their institutions (for which research is primarily an issue of income generation). So research-oriented academics are now in a position – by choice or otherwise – analogous to that of politicians who, to serve their own self-interest, simply duck the hard questions so as to benefit from the existing system. Academics (like most professional people in our culture) are thus willingly or unwillingly complicit in ensuring that our collective socio-ecological situation worsens – quite possibly irretrievably so.That academics still feel able to write of “leading” in this situation – see below – is highly indicative. Until academics learn to work imaginatively (and where necessary against the grain of their own professional self-interest) so as to undertake a genuine re-integration of their thinking, feeling and physical ecologies, and put this relationality into practice (not simply in terms of the ‘hydrosphere’ but of all ecological, social and intra-subjective spheres of relationship) – in short lead by example and in practice – ‘study’ through research in this context will remain a shorthand term for perpetuating the status quo. In this context, and without that fundamental existential commitment to embodying a lived ecological praxis, the claims that follow below are, sadly, largely meaningless (however well intentioned); little more than a string of ‘power words’ and name-dropping].

3, “by using innovative AHIR co-working procedures and showing how they can lead in reshaping eco-social formations in community contexts, by enabling participating groups and individuals to reflect creatively on how they imagine and practise their relationships with the water environment and with their various neighbours (human/non-human). We will test and reflect upon how AHIR can study questions of cultural value, community identity and practices of place; unearth and reflect on local history and heritage; and frame critical, layered, narratives of these. Participatory creative arts such as performance, storytelling, visual art, creative social design, film and other media will be used as vehicles for engaging communities and reflecting existing understandings, and for engineering new affective relations and possibilities (e.g. mobile performances moving along river catchments to highlight upstream-downstream connectivities across socio-economic boundaries). We will develop exemplary practices for co-productive working between communities, academics and governance actors; using AHIR to address the challenges posed by environmental change; and the development of sustainable eco-social practices. This will be achieved through a matrix of themed project elements across four research areas. Building on previous research (CCs and related) (section 3) and discussions held in the development workshops (section 3.6) the project develops innovative methods for enabling community-located eco-social stewardship that can feed into discourses around cultural services developed in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA); the LWEC agenda and other national water governance / research frameworks (e.g. the Environment Agency’s (EA) emerging ‘river stewardship’ agenda; Flood and Water Management Act 2010)”.

My views above may appear unduly critical of a system and a situation in which I was inevitably deeply enmeshed as Director of PLaCE. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone working in an English university today – I cant speak for the rest of the UK – can escape difficult and sometimes unsavoury compromises and negotiations. It is possible, however, to so engage with eyes open and applying the same critical understanding academics expect of their students. Speaking personally, I have done all I can to learn from and think critically about my own experience of such academic compromise and complicity and have always tried, as I hope the assorted texts and projects on this web site make clear, to maintain and pass on to my students a praxis grounded in genuinely critical educational values.


One thought on “‘Won’t Wash’ or: ‘high and dry thinking in a wide, wet, world’

  1. Pingback: The politics of ‘flood defence’ – land management and social justice | Iain Biggs

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