“It’s clear that Governments need to govern, that people want them to govern, and that they need to make these important decisions.” – In Conversation with George Monbiot
George Monbiot is a journalist and writer, most known for his regular column in The Guardian and his various books on environmentalism in which he advocates for an end to intensive meat farming and other initiatives such as rewilding. He received the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2022 for numerous articles written for The Guardian, including one entitled ‘Capitalism is killing our planet- it’s time to stop buying into our own destruction.
MH: Do you think we have learned any lessons collectively from the Pandemic, if not then why?
GM: I think there are some lessons, but whether or not we’ve learned them is another matter. So one of them is that for the past 40 years or so we’ve been told that Governments shouldn’t govern. That people don’t want them to govern, and that the Government’s only role is to get out of the way and let this unexamined concept called the market make the crucial political decisions. What happened in the Pandemic is that some Governments, like ours, tried to resist action for as long as possible, and as a result we had excess deaths and a terrible mishandling of the Pandemic, until eventually they were forced to accept the logic that Governments have to govern.
What we discovered then is first of all that only the Government can introduce the necessary policies and secondly, when we feel that we are genuinely all in it together, then people are prepared to make astonishing changes to their lives. Now environmentalists like me have always been told that people are not prepared to put up with the changes which we are talking about and are really small changes in comparison to those which we were required to make during the lockdowns. But the great majority of people did put up with that, of course there were some who didn’t and resisted it, but the vast majority just accepted that in these extraordinary times we need extraordinary responses and we have to accept certain restrictions and privations. It’s clear that Governments need to govern, that people want them to govern, and that they need to make these important decisions.
What happened in the Pandemic is that some Governments, like ours, tried to resist action for as long as possible, and as a result we had excess deaths and a terrible mishandling of the Pandemic…
MH: Would you say that the paradigms have shifted so to speak, that we will see this refutation of neoliberalism reflected in an election in the near future?
GM: An election is a very crude means of testing such a proposition, because so many issues are brought into an election and also it’s not like we’re being presented with a clear choice between neoliberalism and something else. I don’t think that is going to give a clear signal of people’s acceptance or otherwise of these ideas.
MH: Why is it that humanity is so prone to misinformation about health, whether it be our own personal health or the planet’s health?
GM: I puzzle over this everyday. I think there is a suspicion of expertise. It was George Bernard Shaw who said “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity” and there is a small amount of truth in that. In many professions, there is a closing of the ranks and a defence of the profession against outside forces. But that’s very weak in science, I mean science is possibly the most open of all professions in terms of its preparedness to be challenged. There is, particularly in the UK, a very strong strand of anti-intellectualism. In a way there’s a backhanded compliment in there, with a recognition that knowledge is power.
I also think that fear is a major driver here, that if people were to accept the fact that, for instance, we have a virus that can kill many people and also disable many, that’s a much more frightening idea to take on than the idea that a bunch of crooked people have whipped it all up to control us. Similarly, this is even more the case with climate change. Accepting what the scientists are saying, that this is moving faster and further than we predicted, is less frightening than saying they’re making it all up. I do think that fear is a very major driver of human behaviour and much of that fear is subliminal.
Accepting what the scientists are saying, that this is moving faster and further than we predicted, is less frightening than saying they’re making it all up.
MH: Are the challenges of greed and selfishness, which are so present in our current society, surmountable or insurmountable?
GM: One of the tenets of neoliberalism is that we’re primarily greedy and selfish; that these are our dominant values and characteristics. But there has actually a very wide range of study in neuroscience and social psychology which show that while we all have some selfishness and greed in us, for the majority of people those are not our dominant characteristics. Our dominant values are community feeling, family feeling, altruism, empathy, benevolence, but we are constantly told that we are primarily greedy people. Often the people who are telling us that, do tend to be primarily selfish and greedy. Broadly speaking, we are a society of altruists governed by psychopaths. Part of our misapprehension about human nature is that the people we see on the telly all the time are primarily selfish and greedy, and they are continually trying to justify their own traits and portray society as if we are all like them.
MH: Why do you think there is a lack of forward thinking and future planning among the elites of the world?
GM: The great danger is that we hit political cliff edges, because the Government is constantly procrastinating. A classic example of this is what’s going on in the Netherlands at the moment with the nitrate crisis, that governments in the Netherlands were warned since the ‘80s that there was a nitrate crisis and they needed to deal with it. Had they started dealing with it then, they could’ve dealt with it gradually with little political friction or major opposition. Instead they delayed until there was a state council ruling in 2019 saying that nitrate levels breach EU laws and they have to be brought down very sharply. They hit a cliffedge and they had to suddenly do what they should’ve done over decades. As a result, it became politically explosive and then they ran into massive opposition, first from farmers and then from the far right. We’re doing exactly the same climate breakdown, with ecological breakdown, by pushing it on and saying that this is the next Government’s problem. We’re piling up pressure which will eventually be felt in a direct conflict between whatever Government is unlucky enough to be standing without a chair when the music stops.
In principle, in the UK we have a plan that commits us to the long view, which is the 2008 Climate Change Act, saying that you have scaled down greenhouse gas emissions by x amount every year and that every Government has a responsibility to do that. What we have actually done is to deal with the easy stuff first, primarily electricity generation which is really politically easy because no one thinks much about electricity. Everything else is politically difficult, when it comes to transport issues or heating your home or the food you eat; all of these require that people are engaged in that decision making and that they themselves have to make choices. One of the very few Governments to have this forward planning is the Welsh Government, with its Wellbeing and Future Generations Act, brought in by Jane Davidson and now being actually applied, which is one reason why they’ve abandoned all new road building projects in Wales.
We’re piling up pressure which will eventually be felt in a direct conflict between whatever Government is unlucky enough to be standing without a chair when the music stops.
MH: You have written extensively about how our habits of consumption are causing climate breakdown. Is there a possible way that we can, at least from a Western perspective, mould our habits to be more sustainable?
GM: I would slightly reframe the question to talk about Earth systems rather than just climate change, because there is a danger that we just talk about climate without recognising that this is one component of the environmental crisis. It’s quite right that we should be putting a lot of energy into changing our impacts on the climate, but sometimes if we focus on that at the exclusion of everything else it could have perverse impacts on other Earth systems.
The only way we are going to get through this century is a radical change to our engagement with these Earth systems. Firstly, we need to stop seeing ourselves as consumers and recognise that we’re most powerful and effective as citizens, despite the fact that we’ve been told relentlessly that we’re consumers. It’s interesting how our language is constantly trying to atomise us, for instance when we talk nowadays about “individuals” rather than referring to people. Then there’s also this term “personal”, and some people can’t finish a sentence without referring to something “personally”. What we’re reflecting, is a cultural hegemony.
What is being encouraged all the time is that we could be better consumers. These changes make marginal differences if they make any difference at all. In terms of environmental impact, studies show that there is almost no difference between someone who is an ordinary consumer and someone who sees themselves as a “green consumer”, the difference is in income level, so if you’re rich you have a bigger impact on the planet than if you’re poor. It’s not that we have to consume differently, because obviously we do, but most importantly we have to be different, we have to work differently together and we have to demand and fight for political change.
MH: What makes you most pessimistic and optimistic about the world?
GM: I’m pessimistic about what we do, and I’m optimistic about what we are. Going back to that research showing that we are primarily unselfish, it tells me that we have a great potential to behave better than we do and that we’re driven into patterns of behaviour by damaging political and economic systems. But because we haven’t realised our true human nature, I’m optimistic about the better people we could be and that if we change the circumstances, political and economical, then we can respond in much more prosocial ways than we are driven to behave at the moment. On the pessimistic side, those economic and political forces are very strong and to usurp them, we have to act in a very determined way. Good things don’t happen by accident.
I’m pessimistic about what we do, and I’m optimistic about what we are.
MH: Is my generation lucky or unlucky?
GM: We exist at an extraordinary moment. The chances of any of us being alive are so tiny that as long as our lives aren’t completely miserable, we are all astonishingly lucky to be alive. There was one estimate that even if you only look at hominin evolution, the chances of your own parents meeting and being attracted to each other and having a child and then that child being from the particular egg and sperm that made you, already you have several zeros. Then when you think that every one of your ancestors has to have reproduced successfully. Anyone here is incredibly lucky to be alive, so let’s just pause on that a moment because it is so extraordinary that you and I exist.
Here we are at an even more extraordinary number, that we happen to be alive now at this moment of extraordinary intersection, where on the one hand we are among the first generations to have a pretty clear idea of what’s coming down the line. Because of the work of so many brilliant scientists, we can forecast broadly what is going to happen if we take this course of action or another in relation to Earth systems. We don’t know exactly where the tipping points are, but because these are complex systems they have tipping points.We are at an extraordinary moment of cognisance, but at the same time a recognition that we are among the very last generations that can do anything about it. That makes it both a terrifying moment, and a moment of great privilege.
I feel terrible for you, knowing what the future is like. I’ve reached the point where I don’t really care anymore about myself, I’ve led a pretty full life and it’s been fascinating and amazing, but if I got snuffed out tomorrow it’s no big deal. For people who have their whole lives ahead of them and are facing the prospect of the collapse of Earth systems, that is just a horrifying prospect. I was asked recently, “If you were 20 again now, what would you be saying to other 20 year olds?”, and I just said that I am in no position to answer that, because the situation was so different when I was 20 to how it is today for people like yourself. Your experience and your position on Earth now is radically different. I’m 60 now so this was exactly 40 years ago, and you could plunge into life then with a sense of abandonment and just do what you thought was interesting and fun. But now there’s always a shadow following you around.