A Tidal Wave of Inertia

Sometimes, the public mood in Britain can appear to shift very quickly in favour of greater protection for the natural environment. Every now and then, something stirs up an innate sense of right and wrong; something that cannot easily be greenwashed away. It tends to be short-lived without the required response from government or the private sector, but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away, or that people have given up and accepted compromise and fudge.

This is especially so when it comes to the ongoing controversies surrounding the widespread pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams in Britain; particularly in England where the problem is most acute. My last post, at the end of January, complained that media reporting of this important subject was scant, infrequent, and insubstantial. It had been, I argued, left to freelancers to do the reporting in one or two liberal spaces, while the blanket coverage so desperately needed was conspicuous by its absence.

In an interesting coincidence, a flood of news features and media coverage about pollution in UK rivers appeared in February and it’s been flowing steadily ever since. It was, of course, nothing to do with my article on this website. Yet, it wasn’t entirely coincidental either. It can, appropriately enough, be seen as a confluence of ideas and a collective outpouring of indignation at such an obvious dereliction of duty.

The elevated media interest came in the wake of a timely television documentary and corresponding interviews with public figures. The most vociferous among them has been Feargal Sharkey, a long-standing critic of the polluters and government agencies. His ire is genuine, and his persistence is admirable, but his frustration is clear, for neither the British government nor the private sector are addressing public concerns with any sort of urgency.

Environmental conservation depends on the kind of response that is so seldom seen in the UK that we’ve come to think of it as an impossible dream. Instead, we get inertia when affirmative action is needed. We get tokenistic policy tweaks from government when we need to apply a task force mentality and approach in each of the home nations. The connected nature of river systems and coastal waters means properly supporting dedicated agencies and giving them teeth that bite. Turning the tide on pollution will be expensive, it always is. Establishing much higher standards and enforcing them won’t come cheap. The cost of doing nothing, however, is unthinkable because we are dealing with a fundamentally essential natural resource.

Meanwhile, water companies are merely threatened with ever so slightly heavier fines and asked ever so nicely if they wouldn’t mind cleaning up their act. Naturally, they wholeheartedly agree, for they are more than happy to allow pollution to continue as long as they are able to pass on the cost of the clean-up to “their customers”. Meanwhile, raw sewage, runoff from farms, and forever chemicals continue to be discharged into fragile river systems and into the sea, not as a last resort, but routinely. The government’s timeline for restoring Britain’s rivers to full health sounds more like ‘sometime never’, rather than the few decades down the line that is promised.

The hapless wild swimmers of Britain may be neck deep in pollution, but they are also drowning in a tsunami of disinterest from those charged with managing the crisis. It’s almost as if the water companies don’t care enough about water to consider it a crisis at all, much less one of their own making. As for public pressure, this doesn’t depend on the support of the media as much as it depends on stamina. Those who are in it for the long haul know this, but they will be grateful for all the column inches they can get.