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George Monbiot fights for the planet
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“We want to live in a country governed by empathy, respect, justice, kindness, fun and love.”
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27 April 2018

George Monbiot fights for the planet

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography: Elmore

Livia Albeck-Ripka on George Monbiot

On BBC’s Newsnight in 2015, George Monbiot skinned, hacked up and cooked a squirrel. Earlier that day, George—a veteran environmental reporter and activist—had been attacked on social media for admitting he ate roadkill. “Meat comes from animals… which have heads, they have tails. It’s not very nice,” he said, “but meat production isn’t.” The host, biting into the tough meat, grimaced: “We tend to forget that, don’t we?” If anyone could make this gruesome reality seem wholesome, it was George. “My job is to tell people what they don’t want to hear,” George has written of himself. He has been doing it for decades, and along the way become a persona non grata in seven countries, sentenced in absentia to life in prison, shot at, shipwrecked, stung into a coma by hornets, and tortured by police in Brazil.

Once a zoology major at Oxford—where he studied under the guidance of Richard Dawkins, Bill Hamilton and John Krebs—George struggled through his undergraduate, alienated by the institutional culture and escaping during the holidays to work outdoors. After hounding the BBC for a job during his final year, 22-year-old George landed a position as a wildlife radio producer. He went on to make investigative programs for the media giant, but when—during Margaret Thatcher’s reign—the “brave, dynamic organisation became a cow’rin, tim’rous beastie almost overnight” he quit and left for Indonesia. There he covered the forced migration of thousands of people and later became lost in the West Papuan forest, eating insects and rats to stay alive.

Many years later, he would be loading the dishwasher in Wales, wondering how he had come to exist so disparately from the natural world. While George does not romanticise or advocate a return to pre-civilisation, he argues that when nature is allowed to resume its path, destruction can be reversed. In his latest book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, The Sea, and Human Life he writes of wolves who have returned balance to food chains, deciduous trees that have re-sprouted after destruction and humpback whales repopulating the seas near Britain.

His other books, Heat, Captive State, and The Age of Consent—in which he lays out his vision for a “new world order”—are among his proliferous work on the intersection of politics, society and the environment. His documentaries, radio programs, articles and columns cover everything from religion to hunting and corporate power. When George isn’t fighting environmental devastation or writing anti-neoliberal manifestos, however, he is probably kayaking among dolphins, reading Russian literature, wading in a rockpool, pruning or watching Bill Hicks. One day in June 2016—after devastating environmental policy changes in Britain and Australia—we chat over Skype. George is in the middle of drafting a new kind of constitution.

This story originally ran in issue #49 of Dumbo Feather

LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA: You’re up against a lot in England at the moment—Brexit, the firing of environmental ministers in the UK and Australia.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, well, it’s not that we don’t have an environment minister. We no longer have a climate change department. And in some ways, it’s even worse. We have the worst environment minister there could be: an extreme neoliberal demagogue who wants to rip down the protections that society and the environment have against corporate power. Her mission seems to be to destroy environmental protection in this country. So we’re in a perilous situation here for a lot of reasons. The overwhelming reason is that far from seeking to address our greatest predicament—which is ecological collapse and earth system collapse—the government here, rather like the Abbott Government that you had in Australia, is determined to exacerbate that problem.

It reflects a broader global problem at the moment, doesn’t it? This exploitation of fear to enforce damaging policies—especially with Trump. We seem to be heading to a very dark place. How might we claw our way out of that?

Well, some of us have been warning for many years that democracy and common purpose are being eroded by corporate power and by an economic system distorted by neoliberalism, which is effectively a self-serving racket: taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich, shutting us out of the democratic process. Reducing the scope of the state to the extent that we can no longer expect government to improve our lives or to help us when we get into trouble is leading to widespread political alienation. Just as we’re seeing widespread social alienation, which comes from very similar causes, we’re also seeing this widespread political alienation, where large numbers of people see politics as a conversation taking place above their heads. All they hear is people yabbering, saying things that are of no relevance to their lives because it’s not going to lead to an improvement. And the options that might have led to an improvement in their lives have deliberately been shut down through the application of neoliberalism. The result is that they look elsewhere. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, fascist movements don’t attract people who are politically active. They attract people who are politically inactive; people who’ve been shut out from politics, who don’t see the ordinary scope of politics as offering them anything at all. So,

This story originally ran in issue #49 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #49 of Dumbo Feather

when people feel that politics is not offering them anything, the political process itself—debate, reasoned argument, drawing on evidence, using that to make democratic choices—becomes repulsive.

If the whole political process is something which is alienating and repulsive, you go for antipolitics. And if the anti-politics speaks to you without reason or evidence, but with slogans and symbols and sensation that, “You are great,” “You can be on top,” that “There are people inferior to you and we will crush those people because we are the superior group,” then that can be extremely appealing to people in that alienated position. That’s what happened in the 1930s and that, terrifyingly, is what seems to be happening again today.

You don’t sound very hopeful.

Well, there are different things going on here. I mean, that is a terrifying trend in itself, right? But what it reflects is a rapid political, economic and social collapse that is, if anything, even more frightening. Our times are fraught with a whole series of crises. But also, with a series of opportunities, because it’s not as if the system we had was working. It’s not as if the system we had was something we would want to preserve. There were elements of it which we’d want to preserve, particularly the surviving democratic elements, which were getting thinner and thinner as time went by. But the system as a whole is simply not working for people or other species. So in this collapse there is an opportunity to start thinking about better systems and better ways of being, which is why I’m so busy at the moment.

You wrote of a potential better system back in 2003, in The Age of Consent, saying everything’s been globalised except our consent. Is that manifesto still applicable 13 years later? Or do you have different ideas?

Of course your ideas move on and evolve. I’m working closely with a group of about 20 other people at the moment—a really interesting bunch spanning quite a wide range of professions and interests—almost to start from scratch and to say, “Right, let’s stand back,” tell ourselves that there is nothing to begin with, that we’re starting with a blank slate. The questions we are asking are: “What does a good life look like? What does a good society look like?” From there we seek to write a set of fundamental principles that describe that good life and that good society. And then begin to develop policies arising from those principles. It could well be that some of the stuff in The Age of Consent comes out as some of the policies, but I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m not assuming that I’ve got anything right in the past.

And what are some of these fundamental ways in which a good life looks?

I can read you a few if you’re interested.

Absolutely.

So I’ll just go through a few of what we’ve come up with so far: “We want to live in a country governed by empathy, respect, justice, kindness, fun and love.”

“We want to live in a country in which everyone’s needs are met without harming the living planet or damaging the prosperity of future generations.”
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“We want to live in a country in which the fruits of the work we do and the resources we use are fairly and widely distributed, in which shared prosperity is a national project and the purpose of economic life is universal wellbeing.” “We want to live in a country and a world in which all people have equal rights in practice as well as in theory.” It goes on. But there are 13 basic principles we’ve come up with so far. So you can see the broad tenor of what we’re trying to do.

It’s interesting. As you read them out to me, it sounds like something very old in a way. Are we just back at square one defining these ideals? Or have we made some progress?

Well, it sounds old because the idea of setting down broad constitutional principles is an old idea. It’s a deep-rooted idea. But what we’re trying to do here is to think afresh. Obviously, we are products of our environment. We can’t entirely detach ourselves from what has gone before. But we’re trying not to look at our constitutions and old lists and fundamental principles, but to try to think of them from scratch. There are going to be limits to that process of course, because we’re all collections of memories. But we hope that we’re coming up with something that is in some ways fresh.

Perhaps the freshness comes through the way that these things would actually be implemented?

Well, our purpose at the moment is simply to feed into a public conversation, to try to get people focused on positive propositional approaches rather than just saying, “We don’t like this.” Part of the problem the progressive movements have had worldwide is they’ve been very reactive. They’ve been protesting against stuff much more than they’ve been protesting for stuff. To be effective you have to have a new story. You cannot take someone’s story away unless you’ve got a new one with which to replace it. So, we need a new positive and propositional story, which says: “This is what a good world looks like. This is what a good life looks like. This is how we would like the world to be.” Rather than: “This is how we would like the world not to be,” which is what we’ve been much better at articulating so far.

I want to ask you about the telling of those stories. There are so many rapid changes in the way that we’re consuming information—in the way that journalists are working and the way that the public is distributing its own information. What do you think the best way to tell these new stories is?

We need to tell the new stories through new media, because most of the old media is systematically corrupt. And a big part of the problem.

And the new media? I mean Facebook, Google, they are new. But are they not, in the way that they collect our data and control our newsfeeds, in many ways equally corrupt?

Well, for a start, you’re talking about platforms rather than outlets. But it is often hard to distinguish between the two. I’ll start by saying not all the old media is completely corrupt, and there are pockets of resistance within it which we can continue to use, although they’re few and far between. Number two, we have to develop our own media and, you know, you’re doing this with Dumbo Feather, that’s great. We need new outlets like this, and to use the tremendous potential that the internet gives us to develop those outlets. We haven’t done so to the full yet, we really haven’t. It’s amazing the extent to which the old media still dominates political debate. That’s something we need to be much cleverer at challenging than we have been so far. But we also need to remember that actually the most powerful medium of all is this one [George points to his mouth]. It’s word of mouth.

If you really want to reach people, you’ve got to talk to them face-to-face. You’ve got to meet people. You’ve got to work within your own communities and you’ve got to engage people directly, as well as just putting messages out to the world in general.

I was also thinking that one of the problems with media—even on digital platforms—is the way that our public discourse and news is still divided. The environment is the biggest crisis that we’re currently facing, yet we still have a silo dedicated to environmental issues that’s separate from the political and separate from culture, sports et cetera. What do you make of this categorisation? Could we somehow develop a more holistic way of distributing information—a “re-wilding” of our digital spaces, if you like?

Yeah. There is this real problem of organisation. This idea that, “We can appoint someone to deal with environment, and we’ll completely marginalise them and almost forget about their existence, but we can tell our readers or our viewers, ‘We’ve got an environmental correspondent, what’s the problem?’” Environmental consciousness is completely siloed. It exists in a different place, where it doesn’t impinge upon the rest of the news agenda.

So in all the economic reporting, growth is good, anything which impedes growth is bad, that’s never challenged as a basic concept because there is no holistic environmental approach to the news agenda or to the issues that we face in general. So yeah, in developing our own media, we have to be conscious of all the things that bear upon the decisions we make. One of the most important things, possibly the most important thing of all that bears upon those, is the impact we might have on the living world. Because without healthy and functioning living systems, everything else is a waste of time.

What you’ve said is actually the reasoning for the next decision that I’ve made in my life, which is to study environmental journalism at Columbia—I just started feeling that other stories paled in comparison. The thing is, I read your “career advice” after I got in, realising how institutionalised I’d been, thinking, Is this what I really want? Should education ever cost this much? Maybe I can go my own way here? You talk about not having a very good time at Oxford; the failure of institutional thinking. What do you think our universities and great old institutions are still worth? Should we constantly be forging our new paths through existing problems, or should we be looking to history, to the wisdom of what’s come before us?

Well, there’s a difficult balance to be struck because there’s still plenty that we can learn from higher education. I would be loathe to dismiss all higher education as being a waste of time. In many areas—particularly in economics—it’s worse than a waste of time because it’s miseducation. Most economics departments lie consistently to their students and create an entirely misleading impression of how the world works, continuing to teach doctrines which have long been disproven. But in most other disciplines there is plenty of useful stuff to be learned, and even in some economics departments there is change taking place in a generally positive direction.

So I would in no sense dismiss higher education. It’s a question of what your other options are. It’s something you’ve got to approach strategically and judiciously to say, “Right, what is my ultimate objective here? What am I trying to do?” I hope that the ultimate objective is to make the world a better place. So how does this particular option advance that objective? Or does it slow it down? If I weren’t spending these years studying, what might I be doing instead? And in the long term, would I be more effective doing that other thing, or am I more effective going on that course?

Right. I want to ask you a little bit more about your personal life. You talk about this moment you had in Wales: you’re loading the dishwasher and the “mundanity” of life suddenly becomes overwhelming. But you said you had to sort of reconcile these feelings of wanting to reconnect with nature with a life that you couldn’t abandon. I think many people are faced with that struggle. I’m wondering, how can we embody our wildness without being selfish? Without going up onto a mountain and dismissing the world, dismissing the people who are important to us?

The first thing to say is, I don’t blame people for going onto a mountain and leaving it all behind. Sometimes, and for some people, that’s what makes most sense. And if you want to run away from it then that too is a legitimate response. Because—

—is it not a selfish response?

Well we can’t all be fighters, it’s just not in everyone’s makeup to be able to campaign effectively. Some people are just not well suited to that. We can’t all pretend to be the same person, I mean we just aren’t. I would say that as long as you’re minimising your impact: your negative impacts on the living world and on other people, I don’t think it’s a selfish decision to do that. It’s not nearly as selfish, for instance, as carrying on and working for a destructive industry (which for many people might be the alternative). If that industry is banking, or fossil fuels or advertising or corporate law, for example, you will be doing a better thing by going to live in a cave on a mountain.

But, if you do have a capacity to campaign and to contest the way in which the living world and society are being damaged, then I feel you do have a moral obligation to exercise that capacity to the greatest extent possible. And we need many, many people involved in this struggle, putting in as much of their time as they can.

And how does one know if they have that capacity?

By testing it. You only know by trying it out. And it’s possible that you can develop the capacity even if you don’t have it to begin with. But I can think of one or two people I know who have tried and it just doesn’t work for them, and so instead, they’ve just tried to minimise their impact on the planet and to live as lightly as they possibly can. That is a legitimate response.

And what about yourself?

Well, I was always a fighter. Whatever happens, my response is always to start thinking strategically about how I can be most effective, how I can intervene in the debate to try to change things.

There’s never been a shadow of doubt in my mind that my best option is to stand and fight.

Do you remember a moment when you first felt like that?

It’s been there since early childhood. The first time I ever took environmental direct action was when I was eight. There was a man on the common outside our house who wanted to cut down a dead tree which had woodpeckers nesting in it. I clung onto the tree to try to stop him. After a few hours, I went home and then he came back and cut down the tree. I learned from that: you don’t go home. So it was always there in me. Never any doubt in my mind about who I was in that respect. But for a lot of other people it’s not so clear.

And then you went and had this time as an investigative journalist living overseas—shot at, shipwrecked. Now you’ve come back to a much more “regular life,” let’s say. You are still fighting, but the fight looks very different.

Yeah. I realised after a while that there are not many things I’m good at, but one thing I can do is read and process vast amounts of information. I’ve got a very retentive memory. I’m good at understanding complexity and at making sense of reams and reams of very boring material, and then trying to get an overview of it. I realise that this is my primary strength. So this is what I should concentrate on. Trying to produce analyses which are clear and concise from a great welter of complex and confusing information, trying, in writing them, to reach parts of the mind and spirit that most analyses fail to reach: that’s what I set out to do.

Some scientists say that, according to theories like Gaia—which see the world as this self-regulating organism—if we don’t solve what’s happening now, potentially we’ll just go extinct as a species. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t see the most immediate danger as human extinction, not by any means. I think we’ll be almost the last species to go down. The danger is that we end up living in a very dull, grey world, which loses its wonders, which loses its benign character as far as its capacities to sustain us goes. And the loss of that character will cause great conflict between people and great deprivation and suffering. But we are a highly robust and resilient species. We will keep going even if we destroy everything else.

Will we still be human if we live in a world like that?

Yeah, we’ll still be human. In almost all respects, natural selection among human beings has ended. So our basic characteristics are unlikely to change very much. We will just live in a world which is much poorer and much bleaker and much less interesting and delightful than it has been.

What about tech, like Pokemon Go for example, that’s actually bringing us back, encouraging interaction in public spaces again?

I really hope you’re not asking me for an informed comment on Pokemon Go.

[Laughs].

’Cause you’re going to be sorely disappointed! [Laughs].

I’m wondering what you make of it, as someone who’s described the time we’re living in as the Age of Loneliness. Are we finally exploiting tech in a way that might benefit ourselves and the natural world?

I feel we’re living in the Age of Alienation. An alienation on several levels. One, from each other. This age is remarkable in that we are more desegregated than we’ve ever been before, and yet we, these supremely social mammals, are living in unprecedented isolation. We are faced with a remarkable paradox of seven billion people and an epidemic of loneliness. How is this possible? Well, it’s possible partly because of slow burning social collapse, as the old civic institutions fall apart. Some of them deserve to fall apart, there were a lot of oppressive and destructive institutions which crushed people’s individuality and denied them free and fair choices in life.

But a lot of it is driven by deliberately constructed political forces, which try to recast us as consumers rather than as citizens and find it very convenient to have an atomised society where people—instead of getting together to discuss their common problems and to address their common problems—seek satisfaction through consumerism, shut down their political sensibilities and blame themselves for their problems.

How can we push back against those negative forces? Is it a shift in mindset or collective action that’s needed?

The act of coming together creates its own momentum. Once you start to re-establish social contact, the process can begin to snowball. I believe that both political and environmental engagement will not come primarily from political and environmental meetings, but from social and cultural gatherings. We should seek to rediscover what the old labour movements knew so well; that unless you establish an effective social environment for your political campaign, it will quickly wither. They used book clubs and bike clubs, rambling societies and football clubs to bring people together and keep them together. We need to seek the 21st Century equivalent, which is one of the reasons for my latest project, an album I wrote with the musician Ewan McLennan called Breaking the Spell of Loneliness. We are designing our performances to bring people in the audience together. It’s our intention that every gig should end with a party in the nearest willing pub.

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And so, with all this in mind, in all the work and campaigning you’re doing across society, environment, politics, what gives you hope?

One thing has unquestionably improved over the last 50 years: parenting. The cold, detached, authoritarian parenting style that dominated many societies is giving way to a more attached and loving model, in which children are permitted more autonomy than before, in which daughters are valued as much as sons, and in which fathers are both more engaged and less prepared to resort to either physical violence or violent language. It is hard to estimate the impact of this shift, but I suspect it will ramify through just about every issue we have mentioned here. Kinder parenting makes kinder people. As the stern father model fades, all sorts of possibilities, social and political, begin to develop. That gives me hope.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography: Elmore

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