George Monbiot: National Columnist’s Man Wilder

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PHOTO//TED Conference
PHOTO//TED Conference

Sean Scoltock interviews Guardian columnist, writer and producer George Monbiot.

“We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again”, George Monbiot.

If not literally feral, George Monbiot, the figuratively rabid Guardian columnist, by trade menacingly encircles cosseted elites. A self-described “unreconstructed idealist” with the self-assigned task to “comfort the afflicted, [and] afflict the comfortable”, Monbiot is renowned for holding those in power to account, from his early path-breaking travel journalism, up to his recent accusation that the Government Chief Scientific Advisor has “disgraced himself and disgraced his office”. Few good causes have not benefited from his involvement; many disreputable ones have suffered on the same account.

Being only figuratively rabid, though, George is bored. He sometimes feels as if he’s “scratching at the walls of this life”, one in which “loading the dishwasher present[s] an interesting challenge”. He goes on to say, in his new book Feral, that “I am sure I am not alone in possessing an unmet need for a wilder life”. It might be thought this need will be more keenly felt by those who spent their youth variously exploring exotic idylls, conning corrupt bureaucrats and being shot at, but the point is well-taken nonetheless. Modernity is dull.

Dullness isn’t to be abated in Oxford’s second largest Costa Coffee – the scene, nevertheless, of our meeting on a sunny May afternoon. Carrying what looks like camping equipment, Monbiot greets me affably, setting up only a pair of sparkling waters between us. Perched on imported wood, sipping from a Polyethylene container, and speaking into a Sony voice recorder – against a background of till-ring and coffee bean Muzak – Monbiot laments that “we are in a situation of what could be described as extreme civilisation.” Among other things, “we have insulated ourselves so effectively from the vicissitudes of life, from risk, from contingency, that we have made it too easy for ourselves. We’ve gained a great deal in providing ourselves with a life that lacks much of the uncertainty that any previous generation faced, but we’ve lost something as well: that something is the excitement of a contingent life”.

What is one to do in this predicament? This is Monbiot’s current obsession: “from my point of view, what I would like to see most is a much more self-willed natural world, full of the large creatures that we’ve extirpated, and I think through that we can discover something that’s missing in our own lives.”

It is also the central message of Feral. By re-introducing past native species – as well as no longer suppressing those artificially curtailed – and then stepping back, our ecosystems will be thereby set on a path of greater diversity along which the ‘ecologically bored’ can find excitement, surprise and delight. The term is ‘rewilding’: both of ecosystems, by “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”, and of, well, us – the enabling of “a life richer in adventure and surprise”.

Any self-respecting columnist knows how to write for effect; Monbiot the author intersperses deliberately edificatory passages – one, of a kayak trip into Cardigan Bay, where he “feel[s] a kind of peace he never feel[s] on land” – with arguments for the reintroduction to Britain of elk, grey whales, bison…and elephants. “It was such a shock for me to discover that we had a megafauna [large animals] so recently, and I wanted to convey that surprise and amazement and delight in that finding, and especially that our ecosystem still shows strong signs of adaptation to the presence of those large beasts”.

Still, though, elephants? Isn’t he just trying to stir up publicity? “It does wake people up, to start talking about elephants, rather than our more familiar wildlife”, he concedes. “I want people to start thinking big – you don’t get much bigger than an elephant”.

And it isn’t enough, for Monbiot, that there are twice-daily flights from Heathrow to Tanzania: “why should we have to travel halfway round the world to see the kind of wildlife that we used to have? To be able to experience astonishing wonders of the natural world on your doorstep is something which should almost be a basic human right. It’s part of our history, our evolutionary experience, and it should be, if we choose, a part of our lives today”.

The colour of his outlook is patent in the enthusiasm with which Monbiot discusses “trophic encounters”, “self-willed ecosystems”, and “the return of wolves, lynx, moose, wolverines, wild boar, and beavers of course”, as well as in his reasons specifically for letting nature go its own way. He explains: “For me, what I find most thrilling about nature is its capacity to surprise. If we manage it, it can’t surprise us anymore. We prevent those dynamic processes from happening which are constantly throwing surprises as to what successional states they might create, which species become dominant, what can suddenly arise in an ecosystem which wasn’t very visible before: all of those things which I find utterly delightful and fascinating.”

Effect is indeed what Monbiot after. Invariably expressing himself in grammatically well-formed sentences, which express points rarely unaccompanied by illustrative hand gestures, his has been a consistent and loud voice on the scientifically respectable side of the climate change debate. A few years ago, the incessantly repugnant ex-US diplomat, John Bolton, was less-than-affably greeted by Monbiot at a literary festival with an attempt at a citizen’s arrest, on account of Bolton’s role in the Iraq war. From the manufacturing history of smartphones to the ethics of nuclear power, his column issues weekly challenges to its readers, complacently sheltered by their surroundings and in their beliefs.

But strident iconoclasm only sometimes comes off. Does he feel he has changed things for the better? “On a very small scale, I think I made a contribution to reversing the government’s plan to start killing buzzards” – his remarks are best read in light of his modest disposition – “and I’ve had some impact on certain aspects of climate change policy. It’s more about generating debate in places where there wasn’t debate before, and then you don’t really know what your impact is going to be. So, on the bigger issues, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to keep open one bit of political space which would otherwise close up, and to just hold open a few little cracks of light. It’s a minor role, it only makes any sense when lots of other people are acting on the same issues and making use of those cracks that I’m trying to keep open. I suppose what I’m trying to do is to show: here is a potential way forward, don’t give up, don’t despair, because there are possibilities here”.

It’s not, however, only modesty; few of his campaigns have in fact achieved their stated ambitions. I ask him how he maintains optimism in the face of such recalcitrance. “I suppose I keep going because I’ve never quite been able to give up my innate optimism. And I know that madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, but I guess what I’ve tried to do is to do a slightly different thing every time, approach an issue from a different angle, bring in new information, challenge different interests, and hope that one of those will allow me to find a way in to it which will be effective. And, very occasionally, not very often, I can see some impact that my writing has had”. His optimism speaks: “It’s very hard to measure, but I do believe it has some impact, and that’s worth fighting for. And I don’t want to give up.”

His is the sort of optimism necessary to keep dreams alive, and it is a rare sort. If one were, for instance, told it was a “waste not to follow one’s dreams”, it would typically sound either disingenuous or naïve, depending on the age of the speaker. But Monbiot defies this tendency. With him, there is no discrepancy between authorial spirit and embodied demeanour.

Nor between words and deeds. Upon leaving Oxford with a degree in Zoology, Monbiot briefly worked in the BBC’s natural history unit – welcomed with: “you’re so fucking persistent, you can have the job” – and the World Service, before embarking on an enviably self-willed journey. With only a small advance from his publisher, he travelled to Indonesia, having spent much of his time at the BBC “cruising, while I learnt Indonesian and researched the book I was intending to write”. There, he reported on the intra-migration of urban Javanese to the comparatively undeveloped West Papua. Having gathered information first-hand from starving migrants, disaffected missionaries, and soon to be displaced tribespeople, he exposed the crimes of the Indonesian government in his first book Poisoned Arrows.

Monbiot had at that point a quite definite purpose. “I used the fact that I was free and uncluttered, without family, without a mortgage, without any necessity to pursue a particular career, to go to places where other people weren’t going, and do things that I believed were important even if no-one else in the world believed they were”. In contrast with the majority of journalism, including – he implies – his own, “I had as much time as I wanted. If I wanted to spend two years in a place until I got to grips with what was really happening there, then that’s what I did”.

From Indonesia to the Amazon, spying a similar unreported crime: this time corrupt Brazilian officials and the irrationality of their policies, which were – and are – exacerbating the already too rapid deforestation there. Not dissuaded from such endeavours by being shot at by Brazilian gangsters and beaten up by policemen, it was to Kenya next, and the delicate fate of the tribes of the Maasai and the Kikuyu (where he succumbed to an almost fatal case of cerebral malaria). The respective published accounts are at once celebrated travelogues and impassioned pleas for change.

“I’m very glad I had those experiences”, he says, as we both, in different ways, vicariously enjoy his earlier adventures. “And I’m very glad I didn’t have anything stopping me. I didn’t have any constraints on my freedom then, and that was a wonderful thing. I could be as irresponsible as I wanted to be, and that was brilliant”. It’s just as great a waste to not follow one’s dreams as it is “when young people who have got endless capacity for irresponsibility become terribly responsible. And I would always choose to make use of that level of freedom again”.

I wonder where he might go now, if he had such a choice: “Ecuador, given the conflicts over the oil industry there[…]similarly in the Arctic[…]I’m intrigued by some of the things going on in West Africa at the moment – Mali would be a place I’d be drawn to[…]I would still go back to Indonesia[…]Oh, and Malaysia”. Not that he’s thought about it much.

It’s not just with (lots of) people in (lots of) other fields with which Monbiot (intends to) find himself at odds. His website includes a full account of his personal finances – down to the nearest complimentary cup of coffee – but only a handful of other journalists have followed his example. I ask why this might be. “Some people are embarrassed about having so much, and other people are embarrassed by having so little.” I was expecting more trenchant criticism. “But that’s allied with the fact that journalism is a profoundly corrupt and corrupting industry; and that most people’s financial affairs in journalism would not withstand proper scrutiny, because people are paid by the interests they are supposed to be reporting on. Not necessarily bribed in an obvious way, but people take all sorts of perks from corporations”.

If Monbiot stands in the thematic tradition of Thoreau and Ruskin, then, in his palpable energy and determination, he might also be grouped together with Isaiah Berlin and Christopher Hitchens: both never lost the verve of youth nor the felt need to appeal to youthful hopes. And for those who don’t want to hand over their idealism with their gown and mortarboard, Monbiot illuminates one onwards route: “If [journalism] is going to be a fulfilling and satisfying and honest profession, then you have to be quite predatory in finding and grasping any opportunities to create a bit of space. Because, really, it’s about creating some independent space where you can speak for yourself rather than having to speak for other people, where you can establish yourself sufficiently not to be bullied, not to be told what to do.”

“For me”, he continues, “the sole purpose of having power within the industry is not to have to do what I’m told by anyone, and that’s a wonderful place to be. If you can get yourself into that place, journalism is wonderful. If you can’t, it’s total shit”. Not fancying the latter, I’m told a more hygienic career path requires “a great deal of persistence and bloody-mindedness”. It takes “knocking on doors and being rebuffed, and coming back again for more”, he adds, in the tenor of the sore-knuckled.

Monbiot assures me that he’s “been very lucky, very lucky indeed”, and I believe him – but I get the sense that Feral has been in gestation for some time. As a young man he envied the feckless Brazilian gold-miner and the carefree Kenyan tribesman; he stood awestruck at the forests of West Papua. This is his solution to the Problem of Dull Modernity.

Rewild nature, and we rewild ourselves, he tells me, shortly before decamping onto Queen’s Street. With that, I finish my now flat sparkling water, check the dimmed screen of my voice recorder, and set out onto the pavement divided up by early-evening shadows.