George Monbiot is one of the world's
most influential, original, and courageous environmental journalists. A
regular columnist with the British newspaper The Guardian, and a regular
presenter of documentaries on the BBC, he’s the author of seven books
including his 2006 book, Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning, which he describes as “a
thought experiment” designed to see whether Britain could achieve a ninety
percent reduction in carbon emissions without economic or social
catastrophe. To test, in other words, whether his own ideas are nonsense…a
form of courage that very few of us can claim. This interview with Monbiot
by Silver Donald Cameron was recorded in September of 2012.
I'm driven by a strong sense of
injustice, a strong a sense that time is running out, that we live on a
wonderful, precious, unique, and beautiful planet, full of wonders of all
kinds, and we are trashing it without hardly any cognizance of the damage
that we’re doing. I just can’t stand by and watch that process take place
without doing everything I can to try to stop it.
And of course at the same
time as we’re trashing the natural wonders of the world, we’re destroying
the lives of countless people now and in the future. We’re allowing
governments and corporations to do enormous damage to people’s lives and to
their livelihoods. You simply cannot stand by and let that happen without
doing what you can if you’ve got any sense of empathy, any human values. You
can’t just watch that process take place. And, I am in a privileged
position. I am a middle class Westerner with a good education, with a lot of
confidence, with media skills – not to use all that when we are in this
period of extraordinary global crisis, not to use it to stand up and to
speak out about these things, would be a profound moral dereliction.
Silver Donald Cameron:
I agree with you. But of course,
traditionally as a journalist, you’re supposed to be objective, right?
You're not supposed to be taking sides, but you do this routinely. You study
something, you arrive at conclusions, and you’re not shy about expressing
Silver Donald Cameron
I think you can draw a distinction
between objectivity and impartiality. I am not impartial, I’m partial. I am
very partial to protecting the environment. I am very partial to human
rights. I am very partial to social justice. But in trying to determine what
needs to be done and in trying to analyze where the problems are coming from
I try to be as objective as possible. I try to sift the facts, to go the
source of the information all the time, to look for countervailing sources
of information, to try to work out who’s speaking rubbish, who’s providing
straight facts, and to try to work out whether I am on the right side of the
issue or not and then if I am on the wrong side of the issue, to switch
Heat as a thought experiment. Tell me what that experiment was for
those viewers who have not read the book.
Well, the thought experiment was to
take a large post-industrial economy – namely the United Kingdom – as my
experimental model and to see whether we could engineer a ninety percent cut
in greenhouse gas emissions without turning us into a third world country.
That was the challenge which was effectively set to me at the beginning of
the exercise when I was asked at a public meeting what this county would
look like if we did introduce that massive cut in greenhouse gases that I
was calling for. And, at that time, which was several years ago, I hadn’t
really thought about it, but sitting in the front row there was a great
climate expert, Mayer Hillman, and I said, “Well, that’s such an easy
question, I’ll give it to Mayer to answer,” and he stood up and said, “A
very poor third world country.”
I thought, well, if we tell people,
you’ve got to give up just about everything that you’ve become used to in
order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they’re not going to buy into that
program. It’s just not going to happen. So the challenge I set myself was to
say, “How are we going to engineer this massive cut, a ninety percent cut,
which is required in the rich nations if we're to have any hope of staying
within two degrees of global warming? How are we going to do that without
causing that massive destruction of living standards?” So that was the thing
I set out to do with Heat. I think
I was able to show that, yes, we can do it through some clever and subtle
means of demand reduction and substituting other sources of energy. It takes
political will, it takes some courage to do it, but economically,
politically, socially, we can do it, and we can afford to do it.
The response to Heat is that it seemed to cause a lot of talk and a lot of concern,
and I think you’re right, I think you did show that it’s possible –maybe not
to ninety percent – but you can make a huge, huge reduction in greenhouse
gases. But nothing happened. And in fact, we went backward.
You know, “nothing happened” is a
pretty fair summary of the past twenty years of policy in environment. Not
just on climate change but right across the environmental spectrum: Nothing
happened. The governments of the world at the moment are entirely incapable
of rising to this challenge. It’s not just this challenge; they’ve
effectively become incapable of government. What they’re there for, it seems
now, is to manage the transition to a fully corporate economy and a fully
corporate political system. And they act on behalf of big corporations and
the individuals with an awful lot of money and their aim seems to be
effectively to engineer a transition from democracy to plutocracy: to govern
by money and the monied classes.
There’s also a kind of suicidal
character to all of this too because the plutocracy is not going to survive
a fried planet, either, right?
Paradoxically, of course, the people
driving the problem, more than any others – the executive class, the
plutocratic class – they are the last to get hit because they can always buy
their way out of trouble. They can move. They’ve got the money to insulate
themselves to a far greater degree than anyone else. But eventually it’s
going to affect them in one way or another.
Within the scientific literature
now, there have been several prominent papers published showing that pattern
is now well established. That we’re looking at a far greater frequency of
extreme events than we saw in the past. But in the popular perception, it’s
like, “Oh, the weather has always changed, there have always been records
set in one place or another,” but it’s the number of records, the frequency
with which those are being set, the number of extreme events, the number of
droughts and floods and storms – that has changed. It’s changed profoundly.
One of the themes that’s come out of
this majority Conservative government in Canada is something that we’ve been
calling “the death of evidence.” The government is basing its decisions…it’s
closing down all the sources of information, all the research, all the
science, and so on, that would threaten its ideological world-view.
Yes, I saw a few very powerful
articles about how you’ve got a government which is deeply hostile to
hearing the scientific evidence and as you say is shutting it down. It’s an
extraordinary thing to witness from this side of the Atlantic: to watch
Canada, this highly sophisticated, liberal, outward-looking nation, turning
into a thuggish petro state. To see it succumbing to the resource-curse in
the same way as Nigeria or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, where you
basically have a group of oligarchs who control the fossil fuel revenues and
end up controlling the political system.
Normally, countries go through a
transition the other way. They start off with primary production: mineral
extraction, agriculture, and they move to secondary production in industry,
they then move to tertiary production going more into the knowledge economy,
service economy, and the rest of it. Canada, very rapidly, is going the
opposite way down that slope. It's going from being a very sophisticated
tertiary economy back to being a primary producer of the dirtiest mineral of
all, which is tar sands, with horrendous environmental consequences. And
that is changing the entire nature of that nation. It’s changing its
political character in deeply frightening ways and it’s turning into a giant
Texas, or a giant Alabama. [Laughs] It’s really scary to see how, in some
ways, [Prime Minister] Harper has taken it to a far more extreme level of
neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism even than George Bush contemplated.
To see this full one-hour interview (in video, audio or
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The site offers more than sixty in-depth interviews with environmental
giants from around the world. Silver Donald Cameron, host and executive
producer at The Green Interview, is one of Canada’s most respected authors
and broadcasters. The Living Beach, his classic book on the ecology of
shorelines, is published by Red Deer Press.