Tag Archives: George Monbiot

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!

The Joy of … Big Numbers; the Simpsons, Hype Cycles and George Monbiot

Here’s 3 quotations about energy provision. They’re from 1973, 2001 and 2010. Skim, don’t ponder. I’ve put the relevant bits in bold. The tl;dr is that politicians like Big Numbers (duh).

“Project Independence was an initiative announced by U.S. President Richard Nixon on November 7, 1973, in reaction to the OPEC oil embargo and the resulting 1973 oil crisis. Recalling the Manhattan Project, the stated goal of Project Independence was to achieve energy self-sufficiency for the United States by 1980 through a national commitment to energy conservation and development of alternative sources of energy. Nixon declared that American science, technology and industry could free America from dependence on imported oil (energy independence). He called for the construction of 1,000 nuclear power plants by the year 2000.”

Wikipedia

and

“For the electricity we need, we must be ambitious as well. Transmission grids stand in need of repair and upgrading and expansion. The demand for electricity is vast, but it also varies from place to place and from season to season. An expanded grid system would allow us to meet demand as it arises, sending power where it’s needed from where it’s not. If we put these connections in place, we’ll go a long way toward avoiding future blackouts.

“But that will only work, of course, if we are generating enough power in the first place. Over the next 20 years, just meeting projected demand will require between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants. The low estimate is 1,300 new plants; the high estimate, 1,900 new plants.  That averages out to more than one new power plant per week every week for the next 20 years.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, April 30, 2001”
Annual Meeting of the Associated Press,Royal York Hotel, Toronto, Ontario

and finally

“With reference to an energy scenario featuring high levels of global coal use, the International Energy Agency CCS Roadmap recommends an ambitious roll-out in which 100 CCS projects are operational by 2020, rising to 3,400 by 2050 (IEA 2010).”

Mander, S., Gough, C., Wood, R., Ashworth, P. and Dowd, A-M. (2013) New energy technologies in the media. A case study of carbon capture and storage pp.225-6. In Roberts, T., Upham, P., Mander, S., McLaclan, C., Boucher, P., Gough, C. and Abi Ghanem, D. (eds) (2013) Low Carbon Energy Controversies. London: Routledge.

Geroge Monbiot makes a similar argument about the attraction of new extractive industries. You get to pose in a hard-hat and be, well, thrusting. And there’s the whiff of technophilia there, far sexier than insulating houses (which can end badly – see the Australian Governments pink bats experience.)

“So we miss part of the story when we imagine it’s just about the money. It’s true that industrial lobbying often defeats a rational assessment of our options, especially, perhaps, when Lynton Crosby has the prime minister’s ear. But cultural and psychological factors can be just as important. Supporting shale gas rather than the alternatives means strutting around with a stiff back and jutting jaw, meeting real men who do real, dirty things, shaking hands and slapping backs, talking about barrels and therms and rigs and wells and pipelines. It’s about these weird, detached, calculating, soft-skinned people becoming, for a while, one of the boys.”

George Montbiot, “What is behind this fracking mania? Unbridled machismo” Guardian, August 19th 2013

One helpful way to think about this is via “hype cycles”.

Now, that classic Simpsons episode “Marge versus the Monorail” is great, but it will only get you so far. You need to clock this.

Hype Cycles, as developed by the IT research and advisory firm Gartner.

Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg
Hype-Cycle-General

There are criticisms of the theory of hype cycles, but rather than cut and paste a slab more of wikipedia, I’ll give the final word to an anonymous UK journalist, interviewed in Mander et al. (2013, p. 231) about Carbon Capture and Storage;

“[It’s] really interesting over the last five to six years is as far as I can see, there has been no improvement or demonstration of the technology at all and yet the idea has moved from the fringes to very much in the main stream.”

Why advertisers make us look at animals

We miss animals. We don’t hang around with them so much any more (1). George Monbiot has written with his customary brilliant synthesis of fact and theory about the costs of this.

So, on the stepper at the gym this morning, halfway through an excellent article called “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence and the Study of Politics”, I looked up and caught three adverts on Granada TV (0823-ish).

The first had an animated koala telling people that a brand of toilet paper was something special

The next had some guy with a cold being given an anti-congestant by a big red bull that burst through the living room wall.

The final one was for various pieces of tech that help people feel good and connected. The first was a big curved TV – and what was that TV showing? A tiger lying down in some snow.

So, we miss animals. And advertisers seem to think (presumably with some market research to back this up) (2) that this will get us buyin’.

The three adverts fall into two categories. The first category is “animals are part of God’s plan to help us live the lives we do now” (where “God” might be an old white guy with a beard, or capitalist technoscience. It doesn’t matter). The koala clearly can’t bear the idea of us not having tidy anuses. The bull thinks the idea of a bad cold isnot funny.

The second category is that mournful “look at what we have left behind (last chance to see)”. (And perhaps for some a vague thought of “By watching this documentary we are expressing our solidarity with the natural world. Aren’t those dark people in Africa – those poachers- just awful? Why can’t they live in harmony with Nature like we here in Europe do.”) (3)

What is to be done? This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for kids having unstructured play in natural settings (which, btw, is distinct from a litter-pick or two) and wring my hands about nature-deficit disorder. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for media literacy classes, so everyone can become a decoding advertisements ninja. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for a ban on advertising on TV at kids, like they have in Sweden.

But you know what? It’s too late. We’re like the psychotic monkey in the Harry Harlow experiment. Deprived of crucial mothering, its own child had to be removed because it just didn’t know what to do.

Except there’s no-one to remove anyone to anywhere. So it goes.

Footnotes

  1. Which makes the occasional getting-eaten-by-a-shark so newsworthy perhaps. We have come to see (and be) ourselves at the top of a food pyramid, rather than part of a web.

  2. As I recall, Fast Food Nation has stuff about how psychologists discovered that kids dream of animals A LOT until the age of six. And so cereals get marketed with ‘baby’ (big head to body ratio, big eyes) animals. Welcome to the free market.

  3.  I shouldn’t have to add the disclaimer, but this is the Internet – I do not advocate this position. I am adamantly opposed to it.

To (re-) read

Barbara Ehrenreich Blood Rites [Who did I lend my bloody copy to? I’d like it back, thankew]

Donna Haraway on Simians, Cyborgs and Women and all her other stuff (she’s a freaking genius)

John Berger Why Look at Animals (short excellent essay which I’ve nodded to in the title)

George Monbiot Feral Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding