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George Monbiot: Never-Ending Growth Cannot Be Sustained on a Finite Planet

Author George Monbiot discusses his new book, what brought the climate to a crisis point and what we can do about it.

George Monbiot. (Photo: Verso Books)

Part of the Series

Corruption, systemic injustice and an obsession with growth and profit at all costs have put our planet in serious jeopardy. Drawing on decades of powerful journalism, in How Did We Get Into This Mess? George Monbiot explores the consequences if we continue down this path, and suggests solutions for building a better future. Get your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!

George Monbiot. (Photo: Verso Books)George Monbiot. (Photo: Verso Books)George Monbiot, author of How Did We Get Into This Mess?, discusses how Western neoliberal policies, colonialism and the privatization of the public commons have brought the environment and climate to a crisis point, and what people can do about it.

Mark Karlin: Your compilation of essays is so compelling in offering insight on how we have come to such a crisis point in civilization. First, however, I wanted to ask you a cross-Atlantic question. To what extent have the US and UK neoliberal policies and their political alliance helped “get [us] into this mess”?

George Monbiot: It would be wrong to blame only neoliberalism (sometimes described in the US as market fundamentalism) for every element of the mess we’re in. It would be wrong to blame only capitalism. For example, a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the living world began with the widespread use of coal, particularly at the beginning of the English Industrial Revolution (which became the template for industrialization in many other countries). It permitted the continuous economic growth that eventually improved the living standards of many people, while simultaneously enabling the conquest and repression of others. But it also set in train an environmental conflagration — in both capitalist and communist nations — that continues to rage today. I see coal as a more important determinant of human history than either capitalism or communism.

However, neoliberal ideology has greatly exacerbated the predicament of both people and planet. By ripping holes in the social safety net, shutting down organized labor, privatizing and degrading public services and deregulating predatory capitalism, it has reversed many of the gains in human welfare that took place between 1945 and the 1970s, spread precariousness and financial crises, and enriched the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the rest. One result is that inequality, which declined steeply in the mid- to late 20th century, has now risen so swiftly that in the US and UK it is heading toward the extreme levels of the 1920s.

At the same time, by insisting that corporations should regulate themselves and that governments should not intervene on behalf of the public interest, it has accelerated the environmental crisis and constrained the options for responding to it.

In terms of climate change, you argue that “everything is connected.” How so?

As we learn more, evidence appears that at least some elements of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis appear to be correct. At first, I was highly skeptical of his claims. But we are beginning to discover some of the extraordinary ways in which ecosystems and the species they contain help to regulate the earth’s systems. For example, by bringing up nutrients from their feeding zones in deep water and releasing them (through defecation) into the upper layers of sea (the photic zone), whales fertilize the growth of algae. The algae, in turn, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Then, as they sink into the abyss, they remove that carbon from circulation, sequestering it for thousands of years.

One hypothesis contends that the Younger Dryas (a brief ice age that commenced 12,800 years ago and lasted for 1,300 years) could have been triggered by the mass extinction of large mammals in the Americas after the first humans arrived there, as the methane formerly produced by large herbivores such as mastodons, mammoths, ground sloths and giant bison no longer entered the atmosphere. Another contends that the Native American genocides — that were followed by mass reforestation across much of the Americas — drew sufficient carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help trigger the Little Ice Age between the 1500s and 1800s. While these hypotheses are highly speculative, they do suggest that the gas fluxes caused by changes in animal and plant populations are sufficient to cause planetary-scale impacts.

Economists and business schools tell us that the successful exploitation of resources depends upon isolating and commodifying them. This ethos has crept into almost every aspect of our engagement with the natural world, especially with the spread of the natural capital agenda (which I see as disastrously misconceived). But the more we know about how ecosystems function, the clearer it becomes that they cannot be safely disaggregated.

Can you expand on “the process of dehumanization so necessary to the colonial project”?

Colonialism often claimed to be a civilizing mission, whose purpose was to teach the natives English, table manners and double-entry bookkeeping. In reality, it was robbery with violence: the state-sponsored theft of land, labor and transportable resources. Where local people resisted this piracy, they were killed, often in large numbers. For all this to happen, you must persuade yourself that the inhabitants of the places you are invading have no rights, that, unlike you, they are not entitled to remain in their homes and on their land, to decide how, where and for whom they will work, to own or control the resources their land contains. In other words, they have to be not like us. The colonial imperative explains the racism that still characterizes many of our relationships.

Once you have dehumanized those whose land and labor you wish to seize, anything is possible. The famines the British engineered in India, the concentration camps they built in Kenya, in which so many were tortured and beaten to death, these are almost inevitable outcomes of the dehumanization process. Particularly in the United Kingdom, such atrocities have been surgically excised from public awareness. Those we killed weren’t really people, so we need know nothing about them. We don’t do body counts. We never did.

Does your book end on an optimistic note, when you state, “In asserting our values we become the change we want to see”?

Yes. Every time we tell ourselves “this is impossible to change,” we forget that the systems we confront are made by men and women and can be unmade by men and women, through their replacement with better ones. We appear to be trapped in a situation, imagining that there is no hope of change. Suddenly, almost unimaginably, opportunities we could not have foretold appear, and those who are prepared can make use of them. That’s our crucial responsibility at times like this: to be prepared. To develop the organizations, the narratives, the strategies that can be deployed when the propitious moment arrives. We have missed many such chances in recent years (not least in 2008) because we have not been ready.

Can you discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in the context of the chapter you wrote entitled, “A Global Ban on Leftwing Politics”?

Treaties such as this one are promoted as “trade agreements.” But they do not seek to bring down barriers to trade, at least as they are commonly understood. They seek to tear down the laws that protect people, places and the living planet from destruction, allowing corporations to exploit with few constraints. You could think of it as the next phase of colonialism, with the proviso that this is not based on the exploitation of one region by another, but of all regions by a global elite. Such treaties (and this one is just the TTIP of the iceberg) bypass Congress and parliaments, shifting the locus of power to offshore courts run by corporate lawyers. Through these courts, corporations can sue for the removal of rules that constrain them, rules that have been set by the democratic process.

It’s a classic example of neutron bomb politics. The old democratic structures are still standing, but the political life they contained has been snuffed out. On behalf of a global elite that finds democracy inconvenient, decisions are now taken elsewhere, beyond the reach of parliaments. If democracy cannot be undermined on behalf of financial power at home (and there are plenty of opportunities here too, such as the corruption of the political process through campaign finance), it can now be done offshore.

What is your response to the increasing privatization of the public commons?

It is one of the means by which the wealth of all is enclosed and captured by a few. This too is a long-running process, which also has its roots in English history: the Enclosure movement that started in earnest with the Cistercian monasteries in the 1300s. They were among the first to terminate people’s common rights to land, and declare that the fruits of that land were their exclusive property. The movement spread (particularly in the aftermath of the English Civil War in the 1640s) until landlords were enabled by acts of Parliament to evict vast numbers of people from their home ground, terminate their rights and seize their land. Enclosure was arguably the precursor to colonialism. It required the denigration and partial dehumanization of the rural poor, and the passing of a wide range of laws punishing them for the catastrophe they had suffered and seeking to prevent them from responding: the Vagrancy Acts, the Riot Act, the Black Acts and many others.

Today enclosure takes many forms: patents whose purpose is to transform what belonged to everyone and no one into the exclusive property of the few (genes and seeds, for example); the capture of public infrastructure (often at fire-sale prices) by private monopolists (oligarchs) and the erection of virtual tollbooths in front of them, enabling them to charge outrageous prices for water, energy, telecoms, train travel and other essential services; the privatization of city centers; the mopping up of global fish stocks; the pricing and commodification of nature. This is the age of the chancer: If you have enough money, enough muscle, enough lobbying power and support from the corporate media, you can grab a slice of the public domain and call it your own.

How does our addiction to comfort lead us to becoming “controlled, homogenized, lifeless, strifeless and bland”?

As a result of the expansion of freedom and wealth enjoyed by the middle classes and upper tier of the working classes in many industrialized countries during the trente glorieuses (1945-1975), people encountered opportunities to lead different lives of which their parents could only have dreamt. Some took these up: There was an explosion of creativity in culture, politics, social relations and life choices. But as we became accustomed to prosperity, we seemed to forget what could be done with it. We appear collectively to have slumped into a torpor of passive entertainment and remote social networking. This has contributed to both atomization and depoliticization: fertile ground for the neoliberal capture of politics and the neutron bomb displacement of power.

These, in turn, have allowed the very rich to engineer a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle into their own hands: through rents, elevated prices for essential services, debt (interest charges are economic rent, paid in aggregate to the rich by poorer people), the suppression of wages and enclosure. The liberating nature of shared prosperity has given way to the anxieties of debt and insecurity. Social relations have become characterized by competition rather than cooperation. These too have kept us politically passive.

Why is implacable growth a threat to the existence of life on the planet?

Never-ending growth simply cannot be sustained on a finite planet. The promise of growth is used as a means of deflecting social conflict: If the economy keeps growing, we are told, inequality doesn’t matter, however extreme it becomes, as all will be rich. Well, it hasn’t worked out like that: The rich are now able to capture almost all the increment; wages have stagnated despite rising labor productivity; far from trickling down, wealth is still seeping upwards. But even if it did work, this merely exchanges a deferred political crisis for an environmental crisis.

In the pre-coal economy, industrial growth was repeatedly undermined by agricultural collapse, as both competed for the same resources: land (industry needed it for growing fuelwood and fodder for horses) and labor. So growth kept stalling and reversing. Coal meant that rather than relying on annual productivity (of timber, grass, oats etc.), industry could exploit the concentrated productivity of millions of years. It amplified the effects of labor. It allowed agriculture and industry to live alongside each other, ensuring that industrial growth did not rely on starvation. The economic transformation was miraculous. But it had a number of costs, and by far the greatest, in the long run, was the assault on the natural world.

We are urgently in need of a new, coherent economic model, that provides prosperity without compromising future prosperity, that does not rely on destroying the more-than-human world.

Why will a continuing “shift from small to large farms … cause a major decline in global production”?

There is a long-established inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce. In other words, the smaller they are, the greater the yield per hectare. This observation has been repeated in many parts of the world.

The most plausible explanation appears to be that small farmers use more labor, and more committed labor (generally family members), per hectare than big farmers.

What this means is that farm consolidation (often assisted by international agencies) is likely to be damaging to productivity, and threatening to world food supplies. Land grabbing by foreign corporations and sovereign wealth funds (which brings together the traditions of enclosure and colonialism) is disastrous for the rural poor. It is also disastrous — especially when it results in the replacement of subsistence crops with crops grown for animal feed or biofuels — for global food security.

Make the case for being “deviant and proud.”

Our identity is shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don’t. These norms and values are often handed down from on high: We absorb and replicate the worldview of those who possess power, the phenomenon Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony.

Neoliberalism insists that we are defined by competition, and are essentially selfish and acquisitive. This turns out to be a myth: As a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out, Homo economicus — the neoliberal conception of people as maximizing their own self-interest at the expense of others – is an excellent description of chimpanzees and a very bad description of human beings. We simply don’t work like this. Humans are distinguished from other mammals by an enhanced capacity for empathy, an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare and an ability to create moral norms that generalize and enforce these tendencies. These traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate: We have evolved to be this way.

But the dominant narrative tells us that we are very different creatures. It celebrates selfishness and greed and pushes us to conform to a social and economic model that rewards them. When we are forced into a hole that doesn’t fit, the result is psychological damage. As the professor of psychoanalysis Paul Verhaeghe points out, the neoliberal transition has been accompanied by a spectacular rise in self-harm, eating disorders, depression, performance anxiety, social phobia and loneliness.

So if you don’t fit in, and feel at odds with the world, it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You have deviated from the social norms. You should be proud to have done so.

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