Missing the Obvious


There’s a water crisis looming. The Coalition wants us all to be more careful. Hippy conservationists seem to agree that water meters, dual-flush toilets and garden water butts will take the pressure off. Maybe sharing showers or bathwater would help. All of which is nonsense. It’s nonsense because we would actually have more than enough water if we’d limit ourselves to a sustainable population. Climate change, if it proves to be anything more than a corporatist hoax, may make the shortage worse but the real cause is letting folk live where the water ain’t.

Over the past 90 years we have seen a long-term drift of England’s population from north to south. The northern cities, supplied from reservoirs in the Pennines, the Lake District and Wales, are not short of water, just inhabitants to use it. The southern cities, growing unsustainably, depend on squeezing water out of exhausted aquifers and planning new reservoirs on good farmland. Bristol has a clutch of reservoirs supplied by rain off the Mendips yet still has to import half its drinking water from Wales via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. The Thames valley has a significant water deficit, which re-opening of the Thames & Severn Canal may partly relieve. Swindon remains a growth area, despite drawing its water from the Thames and the groundwater source that feeds the Kennet, one of the most heavily abstracted rivers in the country. There’s talk of building a national water grid to redress the imbalance between supply and demand but there are limits to how much the gathering-grounds of upland Britain can realistically deliver, not least because water is heavy and pumping it uphill uses scarce energy.

Obsessed with markets, Ministers seem more keen to allow users to switch suppliers and investors to extract profits than to focus on managing resources sustainably, let alone democratically. (We should never forget that municipal water departments were STOLEN from local folk by the London regime in a series of moves between 1973 and 1989. No compensation has ever been paid: the proceeds from privatisation funded tax cuts for the rich.)

The fact is that we’re all being taken for idiots. The forthcoming shortages are self-inflicted. Pulling together, Blitz-style, to do our bit for water conservation is the kind of script that well-meaning Guardian readers love. Like the mythical slow-boiled frog, they cannot see that the problem can ONLY get worse so long as development in Wessex continues. No doubt they’ll be among the first to offer up their garden shed to ease the housing shortage too.

Freedom cannot thrive in high-density environments. Throughout the history of human settlement, urban areas have always been more tightly regulated than rural ones, because the pressures on resource management are greater. The point is the same whether the subject matter be fire regulations, waste disposal, clean air or congestion charges. Professor Leopold Kohr, in The Breakdown of Nations, warned that density also has direct social consequences: “the police force of communities, to cope with the ever present danger of sudden social fusion, must increase at a more than proportionate rate as the population increases, not because larger cities harbour proportionately more bad men than smaller ones, but because, after a certain point, social size becomes itself the chief criminal.”

The obvious is being missed: that it is always better to have the foresight to prevent problems arising than to panic over what is ultimately the inability to devise any lasting solution compatible with liberty.

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