In times of crisis, there are many figures we turn to for answers and for hope. For me as an environmentalist, one of those people is George Monbiot, author and Guardian columnist. I spoke to him about the current state of affairs in Britain regarding climate change, the media, and how we can turn things around. His response is immediate: “There’s a political issue and a cultural issue.”
The political issue is that we did not get here by accident, but through a steady takeover of the media by the Westminster administration, which has resulted in the downplaying of serious issues like climate change. Since the 1980s, public broadcasters have become much more under the thumb of the government, Monbiot says. The BBC, which he used to work for, is now “an organisation dominated by fear”.
BBC Nature series, Dynasties, which does “the classic thing that most wildlife programmes do and is useless – ‘Oh, by the way, it’s all doomed.’ This is bad environmental communication.” Instead of ending with points suggesting how we can fix the environmental issues it raised, the show left viewers with “nowhere to go and nothing to do”.
For many seasoned environmentalists, solutions often appear from the grassroots, such as the recent rise of Extinction Rebellion, which echoes many powerful movements in its approach of direct action, from the Suffragettes to road protests in Britain and the American civil war. Monbiot echoes this, stating that people engaging in this kind of “radical, disruptive action” are taken seriously: “It’s a very exciting movement… It recognises that there’s been comprehensive institutional failure.”
This is echoed in Monbiot’s article at the end of last year criticising Sir David Attenborough’s apparent downplaying of environmental issues after Attenborough said in an interview with the Observer that sounding the alarm too much over environmental issues could be “a real turn-off” for viewers. This may come as a surprise, since Attenborough recently filmed the powerful episode of Blue Planet II depicting the extent of the world’s plastic pollution, which rallied many people to take action, but Monbiot argues that this is a structural matter: on environmental issues and Brexit, “the BBC is nowhere to be seen”.
NGOs, he tells me, work “only as a part of a movement. They are unlikely to be the leaders of that movement. They offer institutional capacity – staff and resources – but are
“There is a massive public appetite to respond to what’s happening to the living world”
very seldom the leaders of campaigns.” He gives the example of the RSPCA, which is behind change in the way we treat animals, but slow to support more grassroots animal campaigns like veganism. “Society is like an amoeba – it moves from the margins and not from the centre,” Monbiot says. I ask him whether
The other half of the problem, Monbiot tells me, is cultural. This relates to the people setting the media agenda, who he says he believes are predominantly “North Londoners… People who are arrogant enough to believe that they represent Britain.” These are a “small handful of politicians who almost never discuss environmental issues, because they don’t crop up at North London dinner parties”. Due to living in a bubble of wealth and privilege, this faction of society is “slow to respond to social currents, missing all the big stories… Only when a story involves those who have already been deemed dramatis personae, who are on the stage that is chosen by journalists for political drama, only then does it become an issue.” While I was writing this article, a social media maelstrom emerged over an email sent by a former editor of Waitrose Food magazine in which he joked about “killing vegans” to a freelancer who had suggested a regular feature on vegan cooking. Monbiot makes a strong case for how such comments, which seem unbelievable and abhorrent to most of us, are seen as insignificant in the bubble. “The media is still dominated by wealthy privileged white men,” he tells me. Monbiot is also of this category, but he has spent his life rejecting and rebelling against the status quo it supports.
This brings us to the issue of Sir David. Monbiot is adamant: “There is a massive public appetite to respond to what’s happening to the living world… He’s the only person who had the power to break that dam,” as has been demonstrated by the many initiatives that have sprung up in the wake of the episode on plastic pollution. Monbiot refers to the latest continued protest will get us anywhere, and he thinks for a moment. “We have to hold open that space by using it. Nothing worth doing is easy.” Monbiot calls this process of rising up “the restoration narrative”, which can also be found in the Bible and across popular fiction such as the Lord of the Rings books and the Harry Potter series. He describes this narrative as when “disorder afflicts the land working by nefarious forces, which are confronted by a hero, against the odds,” and explains that every major political and religious transformation has made use of this particular narrative structure, which has been crucial to its success. This is the story of our time – the “narrative we are waiting to hear”.
“Disorder afflicts the land in the form of neoliberalism, which tells us that there is no such thing as society,” Monbiot says. “We are told that there are no structural problems, but nefarious forces are at large… They atomise and rule… But we, the ordinary people of the land, against the odds will overthrow them by creating a politics of belonging, and through big organising, through solidarity, we will bring order to the land.”
It’s a narrative we all want to believe in, and finally I succumb to that search for answers and ask Monbiot, is there hope? He refers me to a recent article he wrote on ‘electric food’, a potential new venture that might tackle the environmental impact of current agriculture by producing food without animals or plants. “There is always hope,” he tells me, “even if it comes from strange places. And an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.”
Zion Lights is the Contributing Editor of JUNO magazine, a TEDx speaker and the author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting. www.zionlights.co.uk
Resurgence & Ecologist