Home Environment Introducing George Monbiot To The Concept Of Cost

Introducing George Monbiot To The Concept Of Cost



It is entirely true that we don’t want rivers of shit to be added to our, err, rivers. That is one of the things that we have water companies for, to make an attempt at preventing this.

It’s also true that at some point, or some times, we do want to have rivers of shit joining our rivers. Because the costs of not having them are greater than the benefits we gain by their absence.

True, we can all argue about those costs and benefits. Those who like swimming in wild waters might place a greater value on the absence of turds than those who have to pay for the clean up but who live in a different watershed. The allocation of costs and benefits will change valuations, most assuredly.

And yet the base problem remains:

Even in the wake of the sentence last week, under which Southern Water was fined £90m, the company’s own maps show a continued flow of raw filth into coastal waters. Same shit, different day. The only occasions on which water companies are allowed by law to release raw sewage are when “exceptional rainfall” overwhelms their treatment works. But the crap keeps coming, rain or no rain.

We all agree than that exceptional rainfall – or other exceptional circumstances perhaps – allow the discharges. Again, we can then argue about what the meaning of “exceptional” is but we all do agree, at least I think we do, that if Noah’s Ark starts to look like something we’ll regret not having built then we’re going to be happy enough that we didn’t overbuild of sewage plants so as to not leak at this point. A once in 8 thousand years event would be over-engineering to a ridiculous extent.

So the pass is sold, the principle accepted. Now all we’ve got to do is define when?

Well, that’s a simple enough problem, we’re looking for the optimal result. Which is when the costs of prevention are about the same as the damages from non-prevention. We can get fairly fancy and add in probability if we wish. But that is about where the line is. The costs of preventing this happening are such and such, the damages avoided by spending this are so, we spend to prevent until such and such equals so.

We’re done.

So, what are the costs of rivers of shit in our rivers? What are the costs of preventing them?

And no, we don’t want to spend more than is saved – that merely makes us poorer.



  1. I was listening to him on the wireless yesterday and wondering how on earth he hadn’t managed to notice what filthy steams of shit our rivers were a hundred years ago compared to what they are today. “This river is like an open sewer” 100 years ago it *was* an open sewer, today we have actual sewers. Before the 1980s many English rivers were poisonous to fish, now they thrive. Bugger off and live in a country that has actual open sewers and then complain about English rivers.

  2. “A once in 8 thousand years event would be over-engineering to a ridiculous extent.”
    Actually, no – in the dam safety world an ‘extreme hazard’ dam (essentially, one whose failure would result in fatalites to a resident population), is typically designed or retrofitted to a 1 in 10,000 year seismic event. That pendantry aside, your point stands. Engineering sewage / water disposal to that standard would be a vast over-investment, since sewage into waterways self-corrects within a couple of weeks after the discharge.
    We’ve had a bit of a heat wave in these parts (Pacific Northwest) that resulted in some heat-related deaths, generally in the elderly. There has been a predictable hue and cry about how we should have more ambulance crews to get those affected to a hospital. aside from the obvious (sitting in a tepid bathtub is effective against heat-stoke, etc), the clamouring classes miss the point. Let’s just suppose government spending and taxation are at optimum levels (HA!) – all those new ambulance crews have to be paid, and their new kit has to be purchased.
    Let’s further assume that an ambulance attendant / EMT makes 1.5x what a teacher makes. Ambulance crews here are 2 persons, on an 3 times 8-hour shift – so each crew requires six new staff, plus holiday coverage; eight people per ambulance. So every new ambulance added to the fleet means 12 teachers get the sack. The capitla sots of the ambulance (and the new or expanded station) mean new classrooms cannot be built – which is fine, since we don’t have the teachers to staff them.
    I don’t pretend to know the correct ratio of teachers to ambulance crews, and I suppose it depends on the demographics of the area. I do know that pretending that we don’t have to make that trade off when braying about how the government screwed up is simply wrong.

      • Retro-fitting A/C isn’t cheap, either – especially (and what I forgot to add) when you are preparing to defend against a once per decade event, at worst – and likely a two to four times / century event. That’s a lot of idle time for expensive resources.


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in British English
expunct (ɪkˈspʌŋkt)
VERB (transitive)
1. to delete or erase; blot out; obliterate
2. to wipe out or destroy

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