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George Monbiot on Environmentalism: “I Cannot Abide Bullshit”

George Monbiot is a British writer known for his environmental and political activism. He is a columnist at The Guardian, and author of the bestselling books The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, among others. His latest book is Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the ­Frontiers of Rewilding, which tells the story of his efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living.

I sat down with Monbiot to talk about why he keeps up his activism, where he differs from other environmentalists in areas such as nuclear power and why climate change deniers do what they do. Below is the second of our two-part conversation.* Read the first part here: George Monbiot: Climate, Junk Science and Zombie Myths.

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James Hoggan: Are you discouraged by the kind of chaos that seems to come out of the climate change debate; the deniers and the arguments among environmentalists themselves? Why do you continue to do what you do?[view:in_this_series=block_1]

George Monbiot: It is a good question. There are several reasons why I carry on. One, I cannot abide bullshit.

There is something that just drives me mad about seeing other people getting away with talking rubbish and not being corrected on it. And that applies to a lot of fields. This is why I’ve got into so much trouble with other environmentalists over my position on nuclear power because I realized after a while, that the mainstream environmental story we’ve been told about nuclear power was complete nonsense. And that all this stuff about a million people being killed by Chernobyl, and the peculiar dangers of internal emitters and all the rest of it, had no scientific grounding whatsoever and it was as poorly based in science as anything we hear from the climate change deniers.

Now, I have absolutely no interest in alienating half of the environment movement, which is what I’ve succeeded in doing, but it was just seeing bullshit and bullshitters out in the open without any effective correctives that just made me see red. I felt I had to do something.

JH: We have all this evidence that says we should be doing something about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we’re not. Do you think environmentalists are part of the problem?

GM: Well, I still regard myself very much as being part of the environment movement. I think it’s the only show in town. It’s the only thing that stands between us and some pretty nasty stuff. I think, in some respects, most environmentalists have got it wrong about certain issues for the same kind of reasons as other people get things wrong, that people believe what they want to believe, what’s convenient to believe, what doesn’t conflict with their other beliefs.

The world is a complex place and it’s very hard to have a set of consistent beliefs without any internal conflicts because actually, there’s lots of countervailing forces and lots of conflict out there. Nothing is very straight and cut-and-dry in this world. Sometimes, I think we can be an impediment, but by and large, environmentalism is the only thing that stands against the Exxons and the Koch Brothers and other such people.

JH: What can we do about climate change denial?

GM: The first thing we have to recognize is that denial is not confined to any particular issue. Denial is a fundamental part of the human condition. It’s a necessary survival strategy because we’re the only species that knows that our death is coming.

I believe that knowledge could destroy us if we weren’t adept to denial, to pushing things out of our minds so we can carry on with our day-to-day lives. Otherwise, we will just sit there like puddings waiting for a train to try to hit us. We would succumb to total despair, which would be crippling. This is a huge psychological burden to bear, the knowledge of our own death.

George Marshall, who is an effective climate change activist in the U.K., has made an interesting comparison between climate change and death. He believes that, for both, it’s seen as something that is a long way off. Even though climate change is happening now, the connection between our action and the reaction, the implication of that, is drawn-out over a long period. So, you can smoke like a chimney today and won’t die today as a result of that, but you might well die in 30 years time.

That distance allows you to forget the fact that that smoking is going to kill you.

Climate change is very much like death. That’s why we’re very adept at not seeing it and not dealing with it.

JH: What gives you hope that we might reach some kind of collective awakening to address this big environmental issue of climate change?

GM: I’ve seen three phases of environmental interest and activism.

The first one was in the late 1980s, between about 1987 and 1989-1990. The second one was immediately following Hurricane Katrina, which lasted for about nine months or so. The third one was between about 2007 and 2009. We weren’t able to sustain any of them.

There was a massive flush of enthusiasm worldwide for doing something about environmental issues and yet, it was gradually crushed and pushed down by the interests of the 1%, by the oil companies, by the Koch Brothers, by these people who really did not want to see any action taken to protect the environment because that would impede their profits. What we have not learned is how to sustain those actions, to keep them going and that’s what we desperately need to work on.

We need to find a way of turning that great wave of enthusiasm, and anger, and hope into something that carries on year after year after year, and trumps the short-term issues which blind us to the massive importance of the long-term issues.

The human failing is that we’re pretty short-term in our approach. If we’re well fed now, or if we see a particular issue coming at us right now, that’s the thing we concentrate on.

How do we change that?

I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to change human nature, not to the degree that we can actually turn ourselves into being creatures that prioritize the long-term over the short-term.

To me, hope lies in the political dimension, in our effectiveness as citizens and our rediscovery of the motives that drove our political ancestors – the people who created the mass movements which got us democracy in the first place, which ended slavery, which ended colonization and imperialism and all the other things which have been great advances for humankind. If we could do it in the past when life was much more oppressive, and we had far less leisure time, and we had far less money and all the rest of it, we should be able to do it today.

Read the first part of this interview, George Monbiot: Climate, Junk Science, and Zombie Myths.

* This is an abridged version of the interview

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