Pathfinders – A walk in the woods

One of the few free pleasures workers in more rural parts of the UK can get is a walk through ancient woodland. There are three springtime features which you can normally expect to see in ancient woodland: bluebells, Lords and Ladies (a type of arum), and wild garlic.

What you wouldn’t expect to see is 30,000 tonnes of illegally dumped and sulphurous waste, tens of feet deep, full of rubble, plastics and sanitary products. But such is the case at Hoads Wood in Kent, a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Or at least it was until the dumpers started showing up in their wagons.

Much understandable local outrage, and politicians falling over themselves to look tough on illegal dumping and ‘bring the perpetrators to justice’. The local police declared that the pollution was ‘shocking and totally irresponsible’, which suggested that the dumpers somehow failed to understand what they were doing when they trucked up to the site, thirty times a day.

Of course they knew exactly what they were doing. They’d been paid – as many dodgy skip-hire firms are – to dispose of other people’s waste, and didn’t fancy paying commercial rates to dump it at municipal tips. It was simply cheaper to dump it where they thought nobody was looking.

TV naturalist Chris Packham took a stern line, calling it ‘a mafia operation’, perhaps something of an overstatement in the UK, though such mafia practices are notorious in the US. It’s not so much mafia as market forces, where profit is what counts, and externalities are somebody else’s problem. The UK Environment Agency provides a handy spreadsheet of all illegal dumping incidents between 2015 and 2023, ranging from private cars to tipper trucks, for construction waste, white goods, tyres, toxic chemicals, asbestos, animal carcasses and domestic black bag waste, dumped on agricultural land, footpaths and bridleways, highways, riverbanks and watercourses. There are well over 2,000 entries and for almost all of them, nothing is entered in the ‘Final Action Taken’ field. No doubt the Environment Agency is underfunded, understaffed and unable to pursue illegal tippers, despite concerns over the health implications of illegal dumping, as described for example in a 2015 paper on the so-called ‘Triangle of death’ region of Campania, near Naples in Italy.

But it’s not just cowboy contractors. UK water companies are currently under fire for massive and repeated polluting of rivers. In one example last month, according to the BBC, United Utilities pumped raw sewage into Windermere, in the UK’s Lake District, at the rate of 500 litres a second for 6 hours, and didn’t report it for thirteen hours. Water companies are only allowed to do this if excessive rainfall overwhelms their pumping stations. But on very many occasions this is not the case, and the dumps are illegal. The company in this case protested that it was ‘an unexpected fault in the telecommunications network in the area, which United Utilities was not notified about’, however an identical incident occurred in November 2022. Nor were local activists impressed, saying ‘Time and time again the same thing keeps happening here in Windermere: United Utilities pollutes the lake and the Environment Agency turns a blind eye to it’.

Then more outrage in Devon when locals were told they’d have to boil drinking water because the local water company had failed to prevent the cryptosporidium parasite getting into the water supply and causing vomiting and diarrhoea.

Even so, this is minor stuff compared to air pollution. Globally, this causes around 6 million premature deaths each year. According to the World Health Organization, just 0.001 percent of the world’s population are breathing safe, non-toxic air. And then there are ‘forever chemicals’, synthetic polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) which never break down, and are found in everything from tea bags to non-stick pans, bottled water to butter. These are now known to cause multiple types of cancer, and class-action lawsuits have already forced giant payouts by DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers, but international efforts to ban PFAS production are grindingly slow.

A PFAS ban might be achievable. Capitalism is not incapable of reacting to obvious environmental dangers, as long as legislation is across the board, meaning that individual manufacturers and states don’t suffer comparative disadvantage. It did this with ozone-destroying CFCs starting in the 1970s, though a global ban did not come into effect until 2010. Even then it couldn’t be globally enforced, with China being pinpointed as the source of a 50 percent increase in CFC output in 2019.

The capitalist system of production is today’s ideological sacred cow. It is supposed to be the best and only way to improve the standard of living for all humanity, yet because its prime imperative is only to make money by any means necessary, the reality never lives up to the hype. With the cow come the cowboys. If we abolish money and markets, along with the political and wealthy elites who protect them, we could then develop a transparent production and recycled waste system that actually worked in humanity’s interest, where no palms would be greased and no blind eyes turned. We need to dump capitalism instead of letting capitalism dump on us. Then people could enjoy an unspoilt walk in the woods and a wild swim in the local lake, without worrying what they might catch in the process.


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