Yesterday my life as an eco campaigner reached new heights – or depths. I spent much of the day talking crap – or maybe I should say, about crap. As I crouched next to a sewage outfall under Putney Bridge, I couldn’t help thinking what a very strange thing it was to be pontificating on camera about London’s problem with poo.
Many strategies that make resounding sense in the long term involve short term cost and inconvenience. How many of us agree in principle that something absolutely should be done about Problem X, Y or Z – but just not in my backyard? Without resorting to totalitarian extremes, how do we overcome this common problem? How do we get people out of a narrow nimby mindset to support the greatest good to the greatest number? This is the challenge facing Thames Water and the Thames Tunnel Now coalition.
The issue is that when there is a significant downpour in London, the sewage system gets overwhelmed and a mixture of rainwater and assorted other contents overflow into the River Thames. This happens about 60 times a year, and around 39 million tons of untreated waste goes into the river.
London’s sewage system was the best in the world when it was built by the Victorians 160 years ago. London then was a city of 2 million people. The Victorians were sufficiently forward-sighted to build the sewers with capacity for 4 million people, but now London has 8 million people.
The proposal is to build a huge holding tank under the Thames to hold the overflow until the sewage treatment plants have enough capacity to deal with it. It seems to me that almost any temporary inconvenience would be worthwhile to prevent untreated sewage flowing into one’s local river, the scheme has faced opposition from local residents who don’t want major construction going on in their neighbourhood.
Yesterday’s press call was organised by Thames Tunnel Now – a group of bodies interested in seeing the Thames restored to health and cleanliness. We had rowers, kayakers, birdwatchers, sailors, conservation groups, politicians, historians, conservationists, and even the great-grandson of the engineer who designed the original Victorian sewers, Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
I spent the afternoon paddling around in a little yellow rowboat, pulling up on the foreshore of the Thames to inspect an outflow for the benefit of the cameras. Fortunately the weather was dry, so although the underside of Putney Bridge was not the most scenic place to find myself, at least there was no gushing sewage. In the evening we held an event at the Houses of Parliament, involving wine, canapés, and much exposition on excrement.
I attempted to express my love for London and the River Thames, on the upper reaches of which I took my first tentative strokes as a novice rower at the age of 18. I commented on the incongruity of London – still a leading world city in the 21st century city – having a 19th century-style river/sewer.
I am glad it was a friendly audience of the converted. I am not sure how effective my speech would have been in convincing the nimby contingent that the temporary loss of their local park during 5 years of construction is a price worth paying for the health and happiness of future generations.
This is a perennial issue for campaigners. Present versus future. Local versus general. It is in our nature to focus on the immediate and the present. But we need to widen our horizons to the collective and the long-term, to become global, forward-looking citizens if we are to make wise decisions.
I don’t have the answers yet – but for sure I’m thinking about it.
Quotes of the Day:
Zac Goldsmith, MP: “more crap in the river than there is in this place” (indicating the Houses of Parliament)
Alun Rees: “not so much rowing as going through the motions”
Me – suggested marketing slogan as a possible workaround to the problem of overflowing sewers: “if it’s precipitated, make like you’re constipated”