Interview: George Monbiot

George Monbiot appears to be a man with all the answers. If you were to ask him, say, how to prevent an impending ecological collapse brought upon by man-made climate change, whilst retaining the highest living standards possible, he could whip out a copy of his book Heat and tell you. If you wanted to know how to go about reversing the destruction of the natural world, through the mass restoration of ecosystems, he could pass you a copy of Feral, pretty much explaining that to you. In terms of the environment, Monbiot has become a modern-day oracle — that is, a man frequently found pontificating about what we should be doing rather than whatever course of destruction we are currently pursuing. 

But something Monbiot is guilty of, which can be said of a lot of the environmental lobby, is failing to move people to take the necessary action on climate change. The odds aren’t exactly stacked in their favour, but the fact remains that even those who fully accept that we are facing a massive ecological disaster behave in a way that seems inert despite this knowledge. So my first question to Monbiot is, how can the environmental lobby get people to meet the threats posed by climate change and planetary destruction with the same commitment and sacrifice that drove people, say, to the beaches of Normandy to fight fascism?

“We’re engaging people on the level of policy and not on the level of values,” begins Monbiot. “But policies shift and move on — you can take a consumerist approach to them, and come next year you’re fighting completely different ones. However, without those policies being rooted in a bed of values it’s very hard to get people to make that lifetime commitment.

When you look at organisations that have actually managed to get people to make that lifetime commitment to their core values, they’re religious organisations. I think part of the reason they’ve managed to do that is that they’ve approached people on the level of value, rather than on the level of policy.”

It’s intriguing to hear Monbiot speak favourably of organised religion, which many would consider in opposition to his own progressive ideals. But he is quick to explain himself. He says, “Progressives have very good reasons for being suspicious of religions — in many cases organized religion has horrendous consequences, but at the same time there are a lot of lessons we can learn.

“It’s a highly successful model. Sometimes it’s hard to see that in this country, perhaps one of the most irreligious on earth, but when you look at many of the world’s religions they’re fantastically strong; stronger than they’ve ever been.”

In fact, values remain a theme throughout the course of our interview. My next question — is the environmental lobby guilty of being too white, male and middle class, and how could it go about changing this — is answered with a further appeal to the success of the religious model, “Again, the very people who have got it right are the churches; you look at the evangelical churches. They have a complete cross section of humanity in their congregations, they’re far more diverse than our campaigns are, and again I believe this is because they are appealing to values which are fundamental to all people, in principle at any rate.”

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“In reality many of the churches stand for hierarchy, oppression, the concentration of wealth and power. But what they preach are fundamental human values. Whereas what we preach are complicated policies — you have to actually be quite interested in the subject to become involved in it. It’s quite alienating if you’re already not part of the culture of environmentalism. So we tend to appeal to people like ourselves, and manage not to appeal to people with different life experiences. And that’s a real liability.”

Of course, this isn’t to say the environmental lobby shouldn’t discuss policy, insists Monbiot, “But values are the bed on which policies can grow and at the moment we’re growing our policies without a foundation, so the moment there’s any shift in circumstances they keel over and die because they’ve run out of nutrients.” 

Our conversation turns to rewilding, a project championed by Monbiot in his latest book Feral, which calls for the reintroduction of native species to their habitats in order to restore these habitats to their natural uncultivated state. I raise the objection that without an appeal to the humanist dimension of environmental destruction, whilst only discussing reintroduction of obscure rare animals, that public perceptions of more serious environmental issues might be diminished?

“Of course there’s that danger” he replies. “But I feel rewilding might be a good way of re-engaging with those serious issues. We tend to expend most of our energy fighting the things we don’t like, and there’s an awful lot that people should be fighting. But we don’t have a chance of making the world better, rather than a little less worse, until we start having an agenda of our own, concerning the change that we wish to see.”

So why hasn’t Monbiot gone into politics? It is a fair question to ask someone who has spent much of their career commenting on how society should be run. “I am in politics. I have been all my life”, he replies bluntly. “When you say ‘in politics’ you mean parliamentary politics, but what I do is politics, just a different sort. One of the ways we have — to an extent —been brainwashed, by its constant repetition in the media, is the belief that politics begins and ends in the Westminster.” 

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Is he apolitical? No. “Unlike Russell Brand I don’t think we should give up voting or that there is no longer a need for representative politics. But we pay far too much attention to 600 people and far too little to 60 million.” Anticipating my next question — why he hasn’t gone into representative politics — Monbiot is keen to dismiss the idea. “Partly because I’d be crap at it, partly because I enjoy what I do, and partly because I believe real influence lies in the margins.”

We’re sitting on a bench in Jesus College, when a couple of students strut past carrying freebies grabbed from the careers fair. I ask Monbiot what he makes of the emphasis on the City at Oxford, and graduates from the University who walk straight into careers in corporate finance.

“What’s the point? We only get one life and you want to hand it over to the financial sector? Ploughing into the City just to make money? What a fabulous waste of life that is. People are horribly let down by their career advisors. There’s a macho determination to put people on the course of a clearly defined career which will gain them position and wealth, rather than satisfaction and excitement, and a wealth of life.” 

Monbiot’s enthusiasm is contagious: that evening as I write up our interview I feel a new-found urge to work for public good rather than my own personal gain. But the next day the idea passes; precisely exemplifying the phenomenon Monbiot described. Sustaining public interest by an appeal to ‘values’ is only to give the suggestion of a solution. The environmental lobby desperately needs an overhaul. It must broaden its appeal, make new converts, and convince people that necessary action is overdue — before it’s too late.