And no sooner than I had uploaded the previous post, lo, my prophecy was proved correct. Eric Pickles’ rant about the Environment Agency at the weekend betrayed such fundamental ignorance that one commentator (a Professor of Water Engineering, no less) suggested that Pickles would be “more use as a sandbag”.
The words of Liddell-Grainger and Pickles lead me back to a book I read last year, called “Nudge”. Nudge theory is the idea that people can be persuaded to make right decisions by simple changes in how choices are presented to them. It was touted as a way of reconciling a libertarian political outlook with responsible government, by-passing the “Nanny State” in the process. Interestingly, the authors of Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both economists from the University of Chicago, pick out the environment as one area of government where “nudge” may be able to play a significant role.
Part of the reason Thaler and Sunstein were looking at the environment in this book was their perception that much environmental management adopted a “command-and-control” approach to regulation that did not fit with their own libertarian outlook. Were there, they wondered, opportunities to encourage people and businesses to make more enlightened choices? They give some examples of where this might be the case. However, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who chaired a House of Lords inquiry into “nudge” was more pessimistic. In many cases a “push” or a “shove” is needed, not just a gentle “nudge”.
Nudge may work where individual choice is significant but the issues underlying the current problems associated with flooding and severe weather will only be solved by collective action. And this is the problem for Conservative politicians: they argue against big government and for reducing the government spending but flood defence requires massive investment and co-ordinated action across several branches of the public service. It will also – whisper this quietly – require “red tape” if developers and businesses are to be warned off inappropriate use of flood plains. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a grim warning of the dangers of ideology overriding common sense in flood defence management (see “Black Swan #2: McEcology and Steve Earle”)
But there is a bright side: I recall my visit last year to a flood alleviation scheme in east London masquerading as a “country park” (see “Things we’ve forgotten to remember”). This was not high grade habitat but it was a vital green lung for local inhabitants and, once or twice a year, it provided flood relief for the surrounding area. Interventions to prevent flooding can have wider societal benefits, but it does need to take place in a planning framework where experts from different disciplines can work together and, in some cases, over-ride short term and purely financial interests. That’s the challenge that the Conservatives have to face over the coming months as flood waters recede and the usual bickering about public spending takes centre stage again.