Just before Christmas I had an idea for a story: a group of campaigners battling to save the last polluted river in the country before the evil utility company ceased to pour in their effluents and a unique and unusual ecosystem was lost forever. It was, obviously, not a very serious topic but there were serious ideas behind it. There are also precedents, with some former industrial land now protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of its distinctive flora.
The thinking behind the story was that the factor most likely to lead to widespread reduction in pollution is not better regulation but the profit motive. A few months earlier, I had watched a TV news story whilst in a hotel room, describing how Thames Water was able to extract phosphorus from sewage, process it into fertiliser then sell it to farmers. Much of my professional work addresses the better regulation of phosphorus in the environment but I also know that there is a global shortage of phosphorus, which has stimulated considerable commercial interest in recovering phosphorus from sewage effluent. The market, in other words, may ultimately play as large – or even a larger – role than legislation in controlling phosphorus releases to the environment.
I ran with this idea a little further: suppose utility companies found other ways of making money from sewage? This is already happening on a small scale, with capacity to store and use methane released during the decomposition of sewage. The limiting factor, as in most aspects of waste disposal, is economics. Imagine, however, that the costs of energy were to shift dramatically … suddenly the opportunities presented by the huge quantities of sewage – which is just a semi-liquid form of the cow pats that half a billion Indian farmers traditionally used as fuel – look more attractive. How might utility companies react?
So I needed a plot device that pushed up the price of energy and, in the process, stimulated utility companies to invest in energy production on sewage treatment plants, along with the infrastructure to connect this to the grid. Suppose, I speculated, relations between Russia and the West deteriorated, threatening the huge natural gas supplies on which central European countries such as Germany depends? This, in turn, would create greater demand for other sources of energy and push up prices to the extent that alternative sources of fuel might look more attractive.
All I needed was a geopolitical scenario that would create this east-west tension and my plot synopsis would be complete. On cue, the crowds gathered in Kiev to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych and suddenly my bright idea for a work of fiction looked a whole lot more plausible …