An Interview with George Monbiot

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on September 24, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Democracy,Economy,Environment,Green Party,Interviews,Labour,Respect,Tories

George MonbiotI’m a Guardian reader. Middle-class, well educated, long-haired and liberal, I don’t exactly dispel the stereotypes associated with the paper whose readers think they ought to run the country. Nor, as one of those lefty, anti-war, environmentalist types who grew up worrying about the state of the world, should it come as any surprise that the Guardian columnist I’ve always had the most time for is George Monbiot. And with the state of the world looking more worrying than ever, in the midst of an economic crisis and on the verge of an environmental one, it’s only natural that the fifth in my series of interviews for The Third Estate should be with the man who made print journalism and saving the world seem an attractive career path to me. So, on the eve of the most crucial climate change conference the planet has ever seen, as world leaders struggle to implement a strategy to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2C, I caught up with the author-activist to ask him for some happy news.

“The chances of preventing a two degrees rise in global temperatures are now pretty slight and diminishing rapidly,” Monbiot says in the way a schoolteacher might tell a naughty child who has just failed all his GCSEs that he has no one to blame but himself. I realise, at this point, that happy news isn’t looking very likely. “It’s partly because of a long period of inaction and denial and delay and obfuscation on the part of the world’s governments,” he tells me. The G8 finally pulled their heads out of the sand earlier this year to agree an 80% emissions cut by 2050. Is this not enough, I ask? “Not only is it not enough, it’s an irrelevant measure,” he says. “What counts is the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Simply because it’s so long-lived. We’ve produced so much greenhouse gas, that when you strip away the aerosols, like for instance sulphate pollution, which are shielding us from the full impact of the greenhouse effect, then it looks as if we’re already committed to two degrees of warming.”

So what’s the solution? “We need to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, never mind by 2050. We need a 10% cut in the coming year. And then a 10% cut in the following year. Otherwise the cumulative emissions will push us above two degrees and more without any question. The idea that the G8 nations can carry on producing an absurd amount of carbon and then bring down emissions later and bring down global temperatures later as a result, it simply does not work like that.”

Naturally enough, Monbiot is a supporter of the 10:10 campaign to bring about exactly the kind of cuts he is talking about. But is there a danger that, although the campaign will be grabbing headlines in 2010, it could go the way of Make Poverty History by 2011? “Yes,” he laughs. “Maybe we’ll need an 11:11 campaign the following year. The purpose of it is to shame governments into acting, ideally at Copenhagen, by saying so many people have pledged to make this cut, the only people holding things up are governments.” I can see a glimmer of hope emerging at this point, but Monbiot is quick to dash it. “Ideally we’d see such a good result at Copenhagen that all the following years would be taken care of. As we know, in reality, that’s not what’s going to happen.”

The Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference in December will bring together 183 nations to tackle arguably the most serious issue of our time. But with China and America together producing over 40% of global CO2 emissions, only two countries at the table will really matter. Are they on course to make the necessary commitments? “Of course not,” Monbiot says without a second’s hesitation. “Those countries are holding out against the kind of cuts that are necessary. If you look closely at the Waxman-Markey Bill, which the US hopes to found their cuts on, and which hasn’t even been gutted by the Senate yet, effectively it means that there will be no substantial cuts until 2050. By which time it’s all over. As for China, it’s both the greenest and the dirtiest country on Earth. Greenest because of its vast investment in alternative energy, but the dirtiest because of its vast investment in coal.”

China’s reluctance to implement a radical reduction in carbon emissions stems largely from the belief that it is Western nations that are responsible for the current climate crisis, and that they should not be denied the opportunities Europe and America have long enjoyed. Convincing the developed world to slash their emissions would seem, then, to be only the tip of a very rapidly melting iceberg as the rest of the developing world looks towards growth. I ask Monbiot how one can possibly convince some of the poorest nations on Earth that they cannot afford to follow the model of rapid industrialisation that lifted so many millions in the West out of extreme poverty. “I fully accept that the poorest nations need industrialisation,” Monbiot says. “We have to make it easy for them to do it without the mass pollution which accompanied our industrialisation. That means major investment in alternative energy, which has to be supported by the rich nations.” The best approach to this, Monbiot believes, is outlined by Oliver Tickell in the book Kyoto2. “It’s a sophisticated cap and trade system. The huge amounts of money generated by putting a price on carbon emissions, probably somewhere between $1-3 trillion per year, could be used to sponsor alternative energy in poorer nations and to help them adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.”

Peak Oil

George Monbiot’s concerns go much further than climate change, however. In his debate with Paul Kingsnorth, who seems to embrace the coming apocalypse of resource depletion and environmental devastation with fatalistic satisfaction, Monbiot says: “for the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so.” But, I ask, does he in all honesty think that there’s still a chance to prevent the societal crisis that many Peak Oil theorists believe will result from the collapse of the resource that almost single-handedly drives the global economy? The answer to that is probably not. “As Robert L. Hirsch noted, you need a run up time of between ten and twenty years to substitute other forms of propulsive energy for the oil that’s running out. And if, as the IEA suggest, we’re looking at oil peaking between 2020 and 2030, we are already almost out of time to address this issue. If we leave it any longer, and no politician seems to be taking it seriously, then we are going to see total economic collapse.”

Monbiot’s hitherto professional optimism has been replaced by a brutal kind of candour. But surely there must be some positives in all of this? Could Peak Oil actually be a crucial driving force in convincing governments to replace fossil fuels with environmentally sustainable sources of energy? In the words of the nodding dog from the Churchill adverts, oh no, no, no! “Some of the measures that Hirsch proposed are even worse than using petroleum,” Monbiot says. “For example, he talks about using oil shale and tar sand and turning coal into liquid fuel, all of which are extremely polluting activities. Instead of addressing Peak Oil in a long-term, measured and environmentally friendly way, we could see governments panic and start exploiting every type of liquid fuel, no matter how destructive and damaging it might be.”

There are few, now, who would disagree that something urgent needs to be done. But worrying about the world is the easy part. It’s much harder to agree on a common solution. Chief amongst the thorny disagreements for even the most ardent of environmentalists, is the issue of nuclear power. In an interview with The Third Estate last week, Caroline Lucas made her opposition quite clear when she told me “nuclear power is hugely costly, and carries major safety and security risks.” I ask George Monbiot, who was once awarded a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement by Nelson Mandela, what his position is now. “I don’t care anymore,” he says with all the blunt urgency the situation warrants. “I just want solutions. And as long as they can be delivered in the right timeframe, and as long as they’re not going to be particularly damaging to other aspects of the ecosystem, or to social justice and human rights, I don’t care what those solutions are. If nuclear power can be used safely, and if waste is disposed of safely, then I no longer have any major objection to it.”

Unsurprisingly, Monbiot has come under fire from leading members of the Green Party for these views, not least from former London mayoral candidate Siân Berry, whose quite bizarre and surprisingly sexist blog post attacked his gender, his age and even his hairstyle, but offered very little explanation as to why she felt he was wrong, aside from the fact he looks like a WW2 fighter pilot. The headline on Monbiot’s damning response in The Guardian read ‘Berry’s nuclear fallout has lost her my vote’. I ask him if that’s really the case. “I was being flippant about that,” he says. “I did think it was a ridiculous post.” I laugh and can’t help agreeing with my interviewee. It was actually incredibly silly. “I don’t think I actually said that I wouldn’t vote Green anymore,” he points out. “The headline suggested that, but it’s not actually my position.” That said, Monbiot tells me that he has finally found his spiritual home. “It’s Plaid Cymru,” he says. “I went to their conference this month and I was absolutely delighted by the positions they were taking on just about every issue and I felt that these were extremely sensible, switched on kinds of people who were trying to put into place many of the issues that I feel most concerned about.” Monbiot briefly supported Respect in 2004 in the hope that they could “forge a genuine red-green alliance.” When that turned out not to be possible, he pulled out. Now he says, “I have finally found the party that I feel very comfortable with. That’s not to say I feel uncomfortable with the Green Party, on the whole I support it, but I feel even more comfortable with Plaid.”

If there’s one person Monbiot definitely won’t be voting for, however, it’s Gordon Brown. In an article earlier this month, Monbiot argued that Brown’s failure to regulate the banks at the G20 meant that no one this side of the Atlantic now bears as much responsibility for ensuring that the economic crisis can be repeated than the Prime Minister. But surely crises are inherent to capitalism anyway, and the idea of boom without bust was a delusion from the start? “Yes,” Monbiot agrees, “I believe that’s true. And I believe it’s the job of government to defend us from the predations of capitalism. And the government has singularly failed to do that. Government exists to defend its citizens from all sorts of threats, including the greed and ruthlessness of capitalists. Instead of doing that, it has encouraged the risk-taking that has thrown so many people out of work.” Monbiot believes that government has a choice. If they’re going to sustain the capitalist system, rather than any other kind of economy, then they have to regulate it in the interests of their citizens. “They’ve consistently failed to do this. In fact they have argued again and again for deregulation, even as the impact of this is plain for everyone to see.”

"Labour has become a supine monoculture wholly committed to a neo-liberal, neo-conservative vision without a single radical cell in its collective body"

Monbiot ends his article with the question: ‘why was Brown permitted to remain in power?’ But does he believe there’s anyone in the Labour Party who could successfully replace him before the next general election? “I think the problem is that all the feisty people in the Labour Party have been purged,” he says. “Through the selection of MPs, preventing any interesting and independent minded people from entering Parliament, and through the gradual freezing out of the older MPs, Labour has become a supine monoculture wholly committed to a neo-liberal, neo-conservative vision without a single radical cell in its collective body.” Monbiot’s voice never once betrays a hint of anger, but listening to him deconstruct the failings of a party that once called itself progressive, it’s not hard to picture the moment last year when he attempted a citizen’s arrest on the arch neo-con John Bolton. “There are no more Robin Hoods in the Labour Party,” he says. “Or rather those that are left, like Alan Simpson, are about to leave Parliament. The party has been so comprehensively purged that there are no means by which it can be renewed.”

Labour will be due another purge in next year’s general election. And with a Conservative government looking pretty close to a certainty, I ask Monbiot if things are likely to be markedly different. “A Tory government is going to be a disaster for Britain,” he replies. “It’s going to be disastrous for the poor, for the environment, for foreign policy, and it’s going to be just the same, in almost all respects, as a Labour government. In other words, the current disaster continued.” Monbiot’s distaste for the Conservatives could not be clearer. But could he ever see himself voting Labour to stop them getting in? “No,” he says. “As much as I dislike and am disgusted with the Tories, I think you have to vote for what you think is right. And if you cling onto something bad for fear of something worse, no one will end up with the government they want.”

Naturally, that begs the question, what is the alternative? With so much public hostility directed towards the bankers and the financial institutions that brought about the current crisis in capitalism, and following one of the greatest mass movements in history taking to the streets to oppose the invasion of Iraq, why, I ask Monbiot, is the left weaker than ever before? “I don’t know,” he says quite honestly. Then he laughs. “It’s interesting that you ask this, because it’s exactly the question I’ve been asking myself. I’m trying to get to the bottom of it at the moment. I think part of the problem is that we have nowhere to turn. The Labour Party was the focus of left-wing opposition when the Tories were in power, but it is as unconcerned about the issues as the Tories are now. I think also, we have been lulled and lulled in a constant void of television and celebrity and events that are peripheral to our lives, which seem to take centre place. And I think we have forgotten the lessons of history. But beyond that, I’m not sure what’s going on and I intend to try and find out.”

It is, perhaps, symptomatic of our confusing post-modern condition that even George Monbiot – Guardian columnist, bestselling author, hardened activist and forty something alpha male with a WW2 fighter pilot’s haircut – has no answer.

I ask him for some happy news.

But he just smiles and turns away.

www.monbiot.com

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Reader Comments

Sarah

This is a great interview, Sal, I really enjoyed it.

#1 
Written By Sarah on September 24th, 2009 @ 1:40 pm
Roland McCall

Sal this is a great interview, in fact your best yet! Maybe I just like the content. Well done

#2 
Written By Roland McCall on September 24th, 2009 @ 2:09 pm
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