George Monbiot’s essays are a valuable and stimulating exception in the mainstream media where dissenting voices are rarely heard, argues Ian Middlebrook


George Monbiot, How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (Verso 2016), x, 342 pp.

Independent news media is vital for any rational understanding of the world. One useful role of social media is the possibility it offers for the dissemination of studies and articles to challenge corporate perspectives. ‘Progressive change requires mass mobilisation’ (p.6), as George Monbiot reminds us in his introduction; but before this can happen people must have accurate information. There will never be unanimous agreement on solutions; however, an informed population can unite around ideas that matter to a healthy democracy. Society is organized to keep people distracted, isolated, working hard, and competing against each other: ‘the only roles for society that market fundamentalism permits’ (p.17). There are atomizing forces at play to prevent communities from creating the change so many want to see.

George Monbiot is one of the few voices in the mainstream press to offer a corrective lens in a media that seems happily content to contribute to the disintegration of our communities and the destruction of the natural world. If you ask people what they care about they will discuss things that are now being systematically eroded – education, employment, equality, and the environment. Monbiot writes intelligently about these diverse subjects, offering compelling and illuminating detail to support his arguments on everything from world politics to rewilding (the mass restoration of ecosystems).

Media outlets, argues Monbiot, are corporations that predictably promote ideas that forward their interests. Journalists are complicit, Monbiot observes, not because they actively wish to support the interests of multinationals but rather becasue significant silences occur when ‘journalists […] discover which positions and arguments secure your advancement, and which compromise it’ (p.2). In fact, there is a deeper human impulse journalists must resist:

‘Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure […] Creating a silence requires only an instinct for conflict. It is a conditioned and unconscious reflex, part of the package of social skills that secures our survival’ (p.154).

Environment matters

Monbiot has written eloquently and passionately about environmental issues for many years. In part three, ‘The Wild Life’, he laments that ‘… the world has lost 52 per cent of its vertebrate wildlife over the past forty years […] To love the natural world is to suffer a series of griefs, each compounding the last’ (p.88). He is not only a fierce advocate of rewilding but offers expertise on ethical farming and food production, dispelling myths and investigating issues that would otherwise go unreported. One such issue is the astronomical waste of government money in agriculture: ‘farm subsidies, which remain limitless as a result of the Westminster government’s lobbying, ensure that every household in Britain hands £245 a year to the richest people in the land’ (p.276). He also advocates protecting our soil, proposing credible solutions to reduce land degradation and wasteful expenditure on disastrous flood ‘defence’ schemes.

In ‘Wilding the Child’, Monbiot writes movingly on keeping children in touch with the natural world, and the benefits this brings to the mental and social wellbeing of young people. There is cutting criticism of the discrepancy between government statements and the reality of massive cuts to local authority funding for outdoor education. This article ties in with social concerns raised in the first section of the book, for example, in ‘Dead-Zone’ (widely credited with altering the bill it discusses) on the privatization of city centres and oppressive mechanisms for controlling behaviour in urban space.

This section, ‘Lost Youth’, also has important things to say about disastrous urban planning, its role in the marginalization and exclusion of youth, and the ongoing decimation of communities. Why, Monbiot asks, after offering a very reasonable proposal for more inclusive community planning, ‘can’t we all shape the places that shape our lives?’ (p.47). There is also an excellent piece on the reasons so many bright and hopeful graduates are absorbed into ‘pointless and destructive jobs’ (p.48).

Monbiot includes in this collection the first article in the mainstream press calling for fossil fuels to be kept in the ground (11 December 2007). In it, he discusses the impact of extracted coal on CO2emissions, and draws attention to the hundreds of millions in government spending on coal mines since 2000, suggesting we all take seriously ‘supply-side policies’ to prevent runaway climate change: ‘If you want to discourage a harmful trade, you must address it at both ends: production and consumption […]. Continued production will always overwhelm attempts to restrict consumption’ (p.153). Monbiot goes on to explore the contradictions that beset governments with ‘environmental pretensions’ (p.157).

Monbiot can be uneven in his political judgement, however. And so, there are two misguided pieces in support of nuclear power. Economies, Monbiot suggests, will revert to fossil fuel, causing a switch from nuclear to coal. This is a defeatist assumption, when renewables could actually supply all our energy needs. The mining, milling, and processing of (finite) uranium rich ore goes hand in hand with the destruction of ecosystems1; and there are severe consequences for aquatic life when nuclear reactors are operational.2

Costly nuclear power contributes only 5% of total global energy needs. The technology is far from carbon neutral, with emissions of CO2per kilowatt-hour, in some cases, predicted to reach levels equivalent to a natural gas power plant (emissions are set to increase over time due to declining grades of uranium ore).3 Monbiot, admittedly unenthusiastic in his support of nuclear power, focuses on Fukushima and health data, but there are unstated externalities he is certainly aware of, including biodiversity loss and land degradation, not to mention future generations saddled with the risks and costs of nuclear decommissioning and waste management.

Monbiot is right about the dangers of coal. Children in the US are dying from pollution from coal plants, but we hear nothing about it. Air pollution in northern China has reduced average life expectancy by five and a half years (p.171). The statistics Monbiot presents on premature deaths resulting from air pollution in the US and Europe are deeply disturbing. The health costs of coal are enormous and, Monbiot argues, with global use of coal to increase by 65% by 2035 (according to The International Energy Agency), we are displacing our fears onto atomic energy while there is a much ‘bigger, nastier and more embedded’ cause of destruction with which to contend (p.172). Yet there are powerful arguments against nuclear power that Monbiot does not address, and this particular position sits uneasily with his other critical analyses of our current system.

Neoliberalism (and a future society?)

As part of this investigation into the mess we are in, Monbiot has included a succinct piece explaining the history of the myth that poor relief reinforces poverty by destroying the work ethic and productivity (‘Curb your Malthusiasm’). Essays in this collection touch on the origins of this destructive view. From Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population(1798), through to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the neoliberal project today requires the poor be blamed for their poverty and ‘urged to overcome their moral failings through aspiration’ (p.183). All the while, state investment and intervention are scaled back in the name of market freedom. In the article that gives the title to this book, Monbiot observes:

‘The conditions that neoliberalism demands in order to free human beings from the slavery of the state – minimal taxes, the dismantling of public services and social security, deregulation, the breaking of the unions – just happen to be the conditions required to make the elite even richer, while leaving everyone else to sink or swim’ (p.219).

The role of the media in this process is of particular significance: ‘It is through the newspapers and television channels that the socially destructive ideas of a small group of extremists have come to look like common sense’ (p.221). We are everywhere confronted by an advertising industry that reinforces insecurity and selfishness; and, for reasons Monbiot touches on, ‘a good deal of reporting looks indistinguishable from corporate press releases’ (p.222). The right-wing shift that began with Margaret Thatcher and continued under Blair and Brown, ‘emphasizing the virtues of competition, the market and financial success’ (p.287), has eroded our sense of community.

Journalism of integrity is a crucial aid to the development of debate and organisation around matters of vital importance to democracy. And there are many important issues covered in this book, from global populationto drone strikes in Pakistan. Most of the articles in this collection resonate, and work in combination, to interrogate specific areas of injustice.

George Monbiot is that rarest of things – a journalist working in the mainstream media who regularly writes on vital issues affecting the survival of our species. Numerous articles in this collection transformed the public discourse on key social and political issues, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). According to his website, Monbiot is now working on a book about how to get out of the mess we’re in. This will likely emerge from the series of articles he has recently announced in his weekly column proposing, with the help of reader suggestions and comments, to ‘develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story that might be matched to the demands of the 21st century’ (‘The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in’, Guardian, 13 December 2016).

There are great challenges ahead: the changing role of technology and what this means for capitalism, work, wages and profit (not included in this collection on equality, nature, and the environment); there will also be the challenge of migration due to changing global climate; and big questions to answer about the production, distribution, and affordability of food. It is hoped the issues covered in this book will inspire more people not only to join the conversation, but to organise productively around inclusive, sustainable, and just proposals for change.

1 Joshua M. Pearce, ‘Limitations of Nuclear Power as a Sustainable Energy Source’, Sustainability4.6 (2012), 1173-1187 (p. 1177); Pdf available online.

2 Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘Got Water? Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Water Needs’ (2007); Pdf available online. Quamrul Haider, ‘Thermal Pollution of Water by Power Plants’, 14 September 2013.L. Gunter, P. Gunter, S. Cullen, and N. Burton, ‘Licensed To Kill: How the nuclear power industry destroys endangered marine wildlife and ocean habitat to save money’, Nuclear Information and Resource Service(2001);Pdf available online.

3 Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen, ‘Nuclear Power and Global Warming’, in Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming’,eds. Frank Barnaby and James Kemp (London: Oxford Research Group, 2007), pp. 12, 40-44; Pdf available online.