Britain Through the Looking Glass: My Dead Goldfish Is Now a Certified Waste Disposer | Georges monbiot
IIt’s a tragic story, with a happy ending. Until I was seven I had a goldfish called Algernon. It wasn’t the most exciting pet, but I was pretty upset when I found it floating on the surface of its little tank one morning. This, or at least I thought, was the end of a short and uneventful existence.
But a few weeks ago I wrote a column about the failure of waste disposal regulations in the UK. He showed how millions of tons of waste, some extremely dangerous, are now handled by organized criminal networks, and illegally dumped or burned, posing major risks to our health and to the living world. He showed how the Environment Agency in England and its counterparts in the rest of the UK have lost control, as anyone can now get hold of officially licensed as a waste eliminator, using false information which can go unchecked.
Some people have found it hard to believe. But coincidentally, at that precise moment, the spirit of my dead goldfish spoke to me. With a clarity he had never shown in his life, he explained that he wanted to be registered as a higher level transporter, broker and waste trader. This would ensure that whoever paid him to dispose of the waste could be sure that he had met the required standards and that he was not the kind of shady operator who would take your money, dump your waste illegally, evade the tax. landfill and potentially land you, the involuntary head of the household, with a fine of £ 5,000 for failing to exercise your “duty of care”.
Perhaps motivated by a feeling of guilt, as I had neglected in life, I sought to make his wishes come true. On the Environment Agency website, I claimed he was an, um, an independent trader and had no unspent convictions. I gave its name as Algernon Goldfish, of 49 Fishtank Close, Ohlooka Castle, Derby, and paid the required fees. It took less than four minutes. A month later my long dead goldfish stay on the register as a bona fide top level waste dealer. If you want your waste to be removed safely, no job too big or too small, Algernon is your man. Or your fish.
Already, in other words, the system has collapsed. The government says: “We are committed to reforming the licensing system for waste carriers,” but this has been going on for a long time and the situation is likely to worsen. Last month, the Environment Agency circulated two memos to its officials. They explained that while reports of pollution, illegal dumping and other types of damage are on the increase, subsidies for incident management have been reduced in real terms “by 90% in 10 years”. The only events to which it can still respond are those for which it is specifically funded to investigate, that is to say incidents at “regulated sites” (such as places handling radioactive waste, certain types of illegal waste and those involved in flood control) and water companies.
The memos asked staff to “not systematically spend time” on anything other than acute disasters caused by other companies. Members of the public reporting incidents at unregulated sites should be “reassured that their report is useful in helping us prioritize our work”, and indeed advised to do justice themselves, by reaching out to directly to the author. The agents of the agency are then responsible for “closing the report”.
In other words, unless you run a regulated site or are a water company, you can do what the hell you love. Notice, as a constant stream of trash suggests, if you’re a water company or a regulated site, you can also do the damn thing you like. Everything is fishy now, except our rivers.
There are two categories of crimes in this country: those for which you can expect to be prosecuted and those for which you cannot. There is no consistent relationship between the seriousness of the crime and the likelihood of prosecution. Bag thieves who steal a few hundred pounds a week are more likely to be arrested and charged than fraudsters emptying senior citizens’ bank accounts. Carrying around a few grams of cannabis is more likely to get you in trouble than throwing away hundreds of tons of hazardous waste.
According to one estimate, aside from the bogus companies registered on the Environment Agency website, there are more than 250,000 unlicensed (i.e. outright illegal) garbage disposals in the UK. The number of crooks involved in the vulnerable people scam and white collar fraud must also be high. According to the latest report from Crowe UK auditors and the University of Portsmouth, in 2020 fraud cost people and businesses in the UK £ 137 billion. Their estimate has increased by 88% since 2007. Yet only 0.4% fraud would result in a criminal sanction.
Several tens of thousands of people are likely to be involved in industrial-scale money laundering, tax evasion, shell companies, corruption and the concealment of assets in the City of London and its satellites, and the UK property market. Many of them organize coercive labor rackets in agriculture, car washes, nail bars, restaurants and other businesses. In total, it would not be surprising if over a million people in the UK are involved in the type of organized crime that rarely leads to prosecution.
That’s what you get from 40 years of deregulation. As good citizens are bound by increasingly oppressive laws, “the market”, according to neoliberal theory, should be freed from regulatory coercion. Deregulation is a euphemism for destroying the effective ability of the state to protect us from chancellors, crooks and criminals. Empowered to cut corners, shady companies win out over responsible companies, and we begin to move towards an organized crime economy.
As crime syndicates expand their reach and increase their wealth, they become politically powerful. Finally, the mafias integrate into public life. This is what happened in the United States during Prohibition. You can see it at work today in Russia, Italy, Mexico, and Lebanon. There is no obvious mechanism to prevent this from happening here.
When Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon announced his goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative statePeople were horrified. But in reality, this has been happening for years, on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s just that they do it subtly. Our government could not just shut down the Environment Agency: people would rise up. Instead, it hacks the budget and creates an institutional culture of demoralization and failure. The same is true for other regulatory bodies. Probity, integrity, trust? They sleep with the fish.