Q&A with environmental activist, journalist and author George Monbiot
Centre Director Dave Robbins talks turf, data centres and eco-anxiety with George Monbiot, whose new book, Regenesis, is published on May 28.
A version of this interview appeared in the Sunday Independent on May 15, 2022.
DR: Why did you write this book?
GM: It came about mostly because of my newfound obsession with soil. I started exploring it largely because I sort of exhausted all my other options for exploring ecosystems around where I live, and I was getting quite seriously ecologically bored.
And then it suddenly occurred to me, there is an ecosystem under our feet and I know almost nothing about it. And as soon as I started digging into it, literally, metaphorically, I became obsessed, absolutely obsessed.
It's just the most extraordinary living system, and one which we have neglected I think probably more than any other major ecosystem, and yet, of course, it's the most important of all.
And as I started reading into it and, like all the things I do, I put enormous effort into it and read a ridiculous amount of material, I began to see that soil science was changing at extraordinary speed.
Studying soil ecology puts you right on the frontier of knowledge and science and that the transformation in knowledge was happening faster than I’ve seen in any other scientific field that I’ve looked into.
And, and that transformation was really changing our view of even what soil is, let alone how it functions and how we could use that knowledge to create entirely new systems of producing food and I became very excited by that possibility and started exploring it. And I mean it's not as if this was the first time I became interested in food and farming, obviously it's been a very long-standing interest of mine and going back, well, I guess, for the whole 37 years of my career.
But suddenly I saw there was a new way in and I see the issue of how we're going to feed ourselves as perhaps the most difficult and serious of all issues. For two reasons, one is not at all clear that we can, through the rest of this century and, two, it's not totally clear that we can do so without completely wrecking what remains of our ecosystems.
And so, as I began to see that there might be different ways of doing it, I thought I just have to write about it. That it was almost as if I had no choice.
DR: What is the audience for the book?
GM: I never, I can never answer that question because I always write it for myself. I never have a target audience in mind. I find it very hard to conceive the mind of other people in that way and so if it's something that I would put on top of my reading pile, then I feel I’ve got to where I want to be.
And I had to say that in researching I was just constantly surprised and amazed and astonished by the things I was discovering and I had a very strong sense of discovery which I hope I’ve managed to convey to readers.
DR: The book has some great case studies and characters. I especially liked Tolly. Did you have a favourite?
GM: Well it's definitely Tolly. He is an extraordinary person. You know, he had no qualifications, when he left school he had no money, but he's really found a way of delivering high yields with low inputs. And very, very few people or projects fall into that category. There's plenty of farmers delivering high yields, there's plenty of farms with no inputs, but to do both based on an entirely new principle of agriculture which actually anticipates soil ecology, I mean he was like 20 years ahead of current developments in soil science that that's one of the most remarkable achievements by anyone I’ve ever come across.
And he's also a lot of fun and he's honest. Blunt, and funny. Brutal about himself. And so he's a great subject.
DR: What was your most surprising discovery?
GM: Some of the aspects of complex systems and which, which incidentally are just so fascinating and should, I think, be at the centre of the school curriculum because our lives are entirely dependent on complex systems and we are never taught anything about them.
We talk about them, if at all, as if they were simple systems, but they’re completely different things, and they operate in totally different principles, but some of those weird emergent characteristics, particularly of soil, I mean the development of the rhizosphere around the plant’s root, and the way it operates almost exactly as the human gut does, I mean I found that fantastic.
Other discoveries were the story of the “Angel’s Glow” - the nematodes infecting the soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh, or the way in which such a high proportion of rainfall in East Africa comes from irrigation in South Asia.
In terms of exciting new developments, I’m very inspired by the Land Institute and its perennial crops. [See https://landinstitute.org/our-work/perennial-crops/]. Some of these are already being commercialized; with others, we've got a long way to go, but I think in terms of actual practical scientific progress towards where we need to be in terms of agriculture. And that's just thrilling. I mean we're talking again about a genuine paradigm shift there, just as we are also with the farm free-food being produced through precision fermentation.
DR: Is it fair to describe your writing journey as being one from documenting problems to focusing on solutions?
GM: Well, I’ve always tried to incorporate solutions, even when I was documenting these massive human rights abuses and destruction of ecosystems in Brazil and East Africa. All the time I was trying to say, well things could be done completely differently. If you want economic development, there are totally different ways of doing economic development that is not self-destructive. Let's see who's driving these destructive and, in some cases genocidal policies, let's see what we can do to stop them.
The older I got, the more I became focused largely on solutions, and so I wrote a book called Heat in 2006 which was looking at how we could decarbonize the UK. I looked at what a 90% carbon cut would look like while trying to maintain what we think of as our quality of life.
So I guess that was the first of my sort of largely solutions-based books and then I’ve written one or two more since then. For instance, Age of Consent (2003), looking at how to rewrite the global rules and to sort of shift towards the globalization of democracy, and bring democracy into global governance.
I guess my most recent proper book was Out of the Wreckage, looking at how you could a much more community-based politics and much more participatory democracy, so I have focused for quite a while on how to deliver solutions, often on quite a large scale, but I think, certainly in terms of the mass, the sheer quantity of reading, this is probably the most detailed.
And it was exhausting. I mean it was absolutely shattering. I was typically starting at four in the morning and working till six in the evening and just going straight through. I mean there were times I went into this this weird, almost fugue state, and I was reading 50 scientific papers a day some days. It was crazy.
Every chapter I began, I thought: ‘I can't do this, this is not possible, it's not humanly possible to read and process this amount of information’, but somehow I was just so excited by the project that somehow it happened.
When I finished writing the book, it genuinely felt like recovering from a serious illness. It took me three or four months until I felt I was back on my feet.
DR: What pushes you to that kind of level of effort?
GM: Well, I mean it's in cases like that, it is intellectual excitement, more than anything, it's the thrill of the chase of seeing that there's a line of thinking, a line of discovery that hasn’t been pursued in quite the same way before. And for myself, finding out a vast range of things that I never knew. And I find that so exciting that, even with the short amount of sleep I was getting, I was sort of waking up halfway through the night and my mind was straight back on it.
And there is also always this tremendous sense of urgency that we have so little time to turn things around now. And my own personal urgency is heightened by having cancer, four years ago. Yes, another brush with death, but it does concentrate the mind somewhat, but the sort of sense of global emergency, the sense that we are going so badly wrong so quickly now, and we’ve so little time to pull out of this spiral, and to avoid what could be the collapse of one or more of the complex systems on which our lives depend.
That, more than anything else drives me on and drives me to work these ridiculous hours.
DR: How did you do your research?
GM: When I wrote Feral (2013), I decided that I would draw some principles for my writing. And my writing was too planned, it was too structured and, as a result, I was shutting off potential avenues. I decided I needed to ‘rewild’ my writing.
In that spirit, in writing that and all subsequent books, instead of saying “this is what I want to find out”, I said “this fascinates me, so where does it lead?”. So, yes, it was references backward, citations forward on any paper that interested me. And that's where I started to stumble across some of the really extraordinary mind-blowing things that I hope I’ve managed to convey in this book.
DR: In the other books, you might have had the destination in mind, but this was more like the journey?
GM: Yeah, very much so. I mean, at the beginning, I really didn't know where I was going. I just spent a very long time reading soil ecology and reading massive textbooks, which to begin with, I found very difficult to read, because, even though I have got a background in science, it's a long time since I did my degree. I have been reading scientific papers throughout, but this was largely a new discipline to me.
I mean, there were certain ecological principles which I retained, which were useful, but actually most of it I had to pretty well learn from scratch, because you have to understand the physical nature of soil, as well as the ecosystem, which builds it. And, and there were a lot of complex new concepts, so I really stuck with it until I felt I had a pretty good grasp if it. It was out of that reading that the different directions of the book began to sprout - appropriately enough.
DR: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist who writes, or a writer who is concerned with the environment?
GM: For convenience, you’re constantly trying to sort of explain who and what you are, but I really think of myself as a naturalist who has somehow to convey the urgency of what's happening to the world. But then, of course, I stray into politics and social issues and cultural issues as well.
I mean, it’s always been a frustration that your book has to be in a certain place in the bookshop. They'll file it under a category, so when I wrote books about other countries, it would go into travel, or it was investigative journalism or it was politics. And nothing I do ever quite fits. It doesn't sort of slip snugly into any preordained slot. Which can be frustrating, but I quite like being in that indeterminate zone.
DR: If there were no climate and biodiversity emergency, would you still be writing books?
GM: I would, but it would be novels. I have been sitting on one. It is half finished for 20 years, which is ridiculous. I know exactly what I want to do with it. I mean, it's a great story, it's really a powerful story, but I just can never find the time to finish it. Everything else seems more urgent, it's never the top priority. And as usual, I say now that I have finished this, my next project will be finishing the novel.
DR: Do you have a specific moment when you connected to nature and the environment?
GM: It was there from a very early age and I'm told that, when I was in my pram, I would just follow the birds around with my eyes. I was absolutely fascinated. And for my third birthday present, I asked for a subscription to Animals magazine, which became Wildlife and is now BBC Wildlife.
Everything I loved was outdoors and every moment I spent indoors seem to be wasted to me. Now, of course, I spend time staring at a computer screen and reading papers.
DR: Your parents were active in Tory politics. How does your family react to your politics?
GM: Well, interestingly, neither me nor my sister have ever had any interest in those conservative politics at all. Quite the opposite. We found them almost incomprehensible. Why would anyone want to pursue those politics? Surely they're wrong, even as children, it was like, surely this is wrong.
And my mum, who actually passed away just under two months ago, was very contradictory in that sense. She had a very strong social conscience and she'd worked as a social worker when she was young. She was very much involved in what you would call good works, I suppose, but you're getting a lot of respect as a counselor and sitting on lots of ambulance trusts and school boards and other prison boards. Doing really excellent work.
But those institutions which she supported, some were being savaged by the government that she supported. And I could never understand that. It just seemed incomprehensible to me. It was as if she was in two different spaces at once, and everything she saw, everything she’s experienced, everything she wanted to see happen in life, she made happen to a great extent because she was a proud pillar of the community. She was contradicted by her politics and to me and my sisters that seemed obvious.
She wanted to support a rich civic life and wanted the best for people and never wanted to see homeless people on the streets, and you know, wanted everyone to be well fed and well housed and the rest of it. Why would you support a government which stands effectively for the opposite? It was always something of a mystery to us as children.
I guess, I learned to debate as a child, it was a political education. But I think you learn something else too, which is that you can have a role in politics. It’s not just for other people. It's something that you can legitimately take part in. And that is important because a lot of people feel so alienated from it that they can't find a way in. So, I feel lucky in that respect.
DR: Do you think if you become active in environmentalism you inevitably move towards the left?
GM: In this country we've got quite a large thing called the Conservative Environment Network, which is really active and has shifted government policy in some respects, and I know a few of the people in it and they're utterly genuine and sincere in their environmentalism.
And it comes from different places and leads to different places to my environmentalism, but there's quite a lot of crossover. There's plenty of things that we all support, and I think I will find allies among conservatives when this book is published just as I did with Feral, which most of my books don't attract.
There is some common cause to be made there, even if there isn't in most of the rest of the work that I do, which gives me a degree of hope. But yes, I think to have some long-term embedded policy, it does have to involve strong regulation, strong monitoring and strong enforcement, otherwise people with the power take the piss. It's as simple as that.
DR: In Ireland we're having a debate at the moment about banning the sale of turf. There's a lot of resistance to it on the basis that it's part of our heritage.
GM: They [the Green Party] are totally right to be calling for that. I mean, of course, our way of life is always contingent and it never goes back as far, or is as consistent, as you believe it to be. So much of what we assume goes back millennia, and we've always done it this way, was basically invented in the 19th century.
So often the tradition and culture are used as excuses for destruction, and traditions and cultures change all the time, and they can change for the better, and there is nothing good about cutting turf and burning it or selling it for potting compost for gardening.
Turf is amongst the most important of global carbon stores, it's absolutely critical as a water store as well. And it sits at the heart of an absolutely crucial ecosystem. Causing it to burn is quite similar to cutting rainforests to burn the wood.
What I'm trying to say is the benefit you get is in no way commensurate with the harm that you do.
DR: We are also debating the energy used by data centres. What are your thoughts on this?
GM: It is a very tough one, isn't it? Because right now, you and I are part of this [talking via Zoom]. There’s scarcely a person alive in Ireland or in the United Kingdom who's not contributing to that energy consumption.
I mean, I think there's some aspects of this, particularly in terms of cryptocurrencies, where there is a need for much stronger regulation of energy use.
In other respects, there's no question we will not stop using our computers and will not stop making Zoom calls. So it's just essential to completely decarbonise and switch to zero carbon energy sources to supply that electricity.
DR: Do you have an example or something that struck you as a really good piece of climate communication?
GM: Well, I think you might be able to guess what I’m going to say: [the movie] “Don't Look Up”.
I know that it's divided audiences quite strongly, and some people really hate it, but for me it just perfectly captured the madness of this moment, and the way in which serious issues are drowned out by trivia, and the media's profound bias against relevance above all.
There's lots of different forms of media bias, but I think the biggest form is a bias against relevance, and the way in which frivolity and banter is used to suck the meaning out of life and suck the meaning out of the most serious issues of all. Even after they've been marginalised and put at the bottom of the schedule.
In particular, the first scene in the TV studio where Jennifer Lawrence character loses it. It just felt so familiar to me. Where you're just waiting for all the celebrity gossip to pass until they get to this issue of ‘oh I don’t know, the survival of human beings’ and then it's covered in the most inauthentic and trivial and irrelevant way possible.
And I did lose it myself, just after COP 26 when I’d had a pretty miserable experience at the summit and just really felt we're just not on top of this at all. Unless we turn things around very quickly indeed everything is going to slide. I was on Good Morning Britain and trying to explain why we're so screwed if we don't turn things around, and I lost it and burst into tears, and it was pretty mortifying. I felt a very strong connection with that character in the film because I thought yeah I’ve been there, that I understand exactly where you are right now.
DR: I don't know if you saw Richard Madeley talking to one of the Just Stop Oil campaigners. That was a similar moment in a way.
GM: It's a constant theme now in programs like that, where you can almost predict what they are going to say. And Richard Madeley was literally attacking this young woman for wearing clothes. And, and of course, they're not remotely interested [in the issues]. It's just a way of shutting people out, of silencing people who are trying to draw attention to our most urgent predicaments.
And, of course, if you came in without clothes they would attack you as well. If you wear leather shoes they're calling you a hypocrite, and if you wear sandals they call you a hippie. If you were living naked in a barrel, subsisting on dirty water, they would call you a ridiculous lunatic, so you can't win, and that's the point.
DR: Do you have a particular strategy for dealing with the media?
GM: I mean if there were a magic formula, I hope I would have found it by now! I mean what I’ve been trying to do my whole life is trying to find the way to break through, and I think it's fair to say that there isn't one. Not in a sustained fashion, at any rate.
The nearest anyone came was Greta. And until the pandemic, she was having tremendous success in getting the issue into the headlines where it should be.
That there is something about her which captured the media's imagination and, of course, the public imagination as well. I think you have a vulnerability, her small size, her youth - those things which completely transfixed people.
And she is an extraordinary person, a brilliant, really deep and fascinating person. But there was, there was that extraordinary moment when it seemed that we were breaking through.
I’ve never managed to find that myself, because they [the media] don't want to hear, they don't want to know, they'll find every possible means of resisting what needs to be heard on these subjects, and so it's a constant fight.
DR: Are the UK media particularly bad, or is it media everywhere?
GM: It is particularly bad in the UK, but it's similar in Australia and the US. I mean, certainly wherever Rupert Murdoch goes, you'll see a similar pattern. It is a function of billionaires owning the media and to own the media, you have to be at least a multi-millionaire and probably a billionaire to earn a substantial media platform.
And there's an inherent conflict there, because what they want is a better world for billionaires and a better world for billionaires is, by definition, the worst world for the rest of us, particularly environmentally, because billionaires have this massive environmental footprint.
In the case of [Russian oligarch] Roman Abramovich, before sanctions, his carbon footprint was 36,000 tonnes of carbon per year. And the sustainable level which is compatible with the Paris Agreement is two tonnes.
So in environmental terms, but indeed on every other issue you should be interested in, whether it's social justice, whether it's inequality, whether it’s the distribution of resources, whatever it might be, they are directly at odds with us.
And their aim in owning the media is to persuade us that their interests and our interests are one. And that what is good for them is going to be good for the rest of us. And so, in order to do that, they have to lie, not just once, but every day.
DR: What are your thoughts on the Green Parties around Europe?
GM: In the UK, of course, they are greatly hampered by our first past the post system. And they get trapped in this votist dilemma: if I vote for them, because we're in a first past the post system, my vote is almost certainly wasted. And so people are reluctant to vote for them, and you assume that nobody else is going to vote for them, and so on it goes.
I don't think it is entirely wasted, because when they have a good showing, that tends to push the other more mainstream parties to go green. But it is profoundly unfair that we have a system in which you can get in some cases 15% of the vote and no representatives.
Or conversely, in the case of the current government, you get just 43% of the vote and an 80-seat majority. If we had a proportional system, it would be a hung parliament in the UK.
So the Greens will always have a ball and chain around their ankle in a system like that. Elsewhere in Europe obviously, well, including Ireland, we see Greens in coalition governments. Scotland as well. In ecology, we’d call them a keystone species: their impact is disproportionate to their biomass. It’s greater than the biomass alone would suggest.
DR: How do you cope with online abuse and eco-anxiety?
GM: So, as far as the online abuses concern, when I was young man working in in the tropics I was shot at, I was beaten up. A few trolls on Twitter, it really doesn't count for very much at all. In the wider scheme of things, when you look at what's happening to environmental activists say in Mexico and the Philippines and Colombia, where large numbers are now being killed every day, it's really nothing to get too worried about.
Taking a bit of abuse, of course, you know it can lead to violence, which is a different matter altogether, but strangely, I mean, perhaps because there's a bit more scrutiny now, I get far fewer death threats now than I used to. I used to get death threats every week.
And in fact there was one guy who sent me a death threat literally weekly for several months. Eventually I wrote back to him, saying I think this is something you need to discuss with your probation officer.
And he wrote back: “Oh have I offended you?” I said “Threatening to kill me every weekend, I wouldn't quite call it offending but certainly I wouldn't put it in the category of being a silver-tongued chevalier”, and he said “Oh I’m sorry” next thing I got from him was a birthday card.
If they're sending you death threats, they’re probably not going to do it, that's my attitude.
Eco-anxiety is much harder to deal with. That’s the thing which I do find very difficult to process. I mean it's so huge, what we're looking at, even in the best-case scenario, that large parts of the world are becoming effectively uninhabitable.
And when we're talking about hundreds of millions of people either having to move, or being unable to move because no one's allowing them in, and we're talking about the possibility also of having the life support systems flipping…
This is what I struggle to convey to people more than anything else. People expect the change to be linear and gradual and steady, and of course that's not how pressure operates within a complex system. It builds and it builds, and it's absorbed by that self-regulatory, self-stabilising system up to a certain point, and then it suddenly flips, it passes a tipping point and it crashes into a completely different regulatory state.
What the science of complex systems tells us is that, as a system is approaching that tipping point, its outputs start to flicker. And we saw that, for instance, in the approach to the 2008 financial crisis, we saw wild fluctuation in equity values, we saw the sudden failure of banks and we thought this system’s just about to tip. And it required a massive global bailout to push it back into a relatively safe state.
And now around the world, we're currently seeing what looks very much like a flickering of outputs: the great heat wave in India at the moment, the recent heat waves in the Arctic and Antarctic, the heat dome over North America, the wildfires, droughts, the floods in Europe and China and South Africa, the coral bleaching taking place right now, all these look very much like a great global flickering.
It looks like we're coming very close to certain critical thresholds within our life support systems and that those systems could quickly tip.
And if they tip, they will tip into a state that is hostile to the life forms that evolved in the current system state. And we have no conception what that looks like, our imagination fails when we try to picture that state.
We have to turn to fiction, to The Road or similar works, to have just some sense of what that might look like and, of course, part of my job, and part of your job is to imagine ourselves into that different state, that different equilibrium state, and what it would be like to inhabit it, and that is almost psychologically unbearable. It requires such a moral effort, as well as imaginative effort, that it is almost too much for a human mind to bear.
And so I guess, like everyone I’m in denial to some extent. I can't go there as much as perhaps I should because I can't cope with that.
DR: Do you have any techniques for just stopping thinking about it for a while?
GM: So I mean I guess my refuge is in two places really: it’s in nature and it's in fiction. So I do a lot of reading when I have time. I’ll get up before first light and get out there and walk and see what I can see. I very quickly become absorbed even in something tiny, but tiny and different and interesting and absorbing, just looking for something that captures my attention. But of course encapsulated in that is the same sadness I’m trying to escape, because as I marvel at the natural world, there’s always the thought that this might go.
DR: Do you have any climate heroes?
GM: Well, Greta definitely comes top of the list. I find her extremely impressive. She has a depth of knowledge, and such a mature grasp of the issues. I find it hard to believe how she could have got there so young.
But she's also a very good strategist. People don't really recognise this about her. She's got really clear about what needs to be done, where she fits in, what needs to be said, when… it's very impressive. But then there's some fascinating amazing people coming on all around the world, very often young people, quite a few now have been meeting and talking to me.
I’ve been doing this little video series called Monbiotosis and interviewing activists from around the world. Principally but not entirely on climate and other environmental issues as well, and a lot of them are just deeply impressive. It does give me hope, I feel, that when there’s people like that in the world, it can't all be lost.
DR: Thank you very much for your time. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour! And just personally thank you for the work you're doing. It was a privilege to get to talk to you.
GM: Real pleasure to talk.