A secular version of Kingdom Come

Environmental polemicist George Monbiot's new book asks why people do not act on their fears of climate change. Good question.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Heat: how to stop the planet burning, supported by its accompanying website, demands to know why the very people that are committed to saving the environment are doing most to destroying it.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot identifies some of the celebrity environmentalists whose own energy consumption – specifically their jet-setting, four-wheel driving lifestyles – are among the greatest generators of greenhouse gases. Monbiot outs Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, concerned about how people ‘treat the planet’, as owner of his own private jet, while one unnamed climate-change campaigner ‘spends her holidays snorkelling in the Pacific’.

Since environmentalists have identified air travel as the most obvious danger, we can all join the sport of naming the jet-setting greens: Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper flew to Malaysia, South Africa, Amsterdam and Nigeria this year, as well as taking his family on holiday to Slovakia; Green MEP Caroline Lucas wants to legislate against the airline industry, but was flying to India at the beginning of the month; Stop the Climate Chaos director Ashok Sinha flew to India and Montreal (1).

Insisting that he has not flown for ‘more than a year’, George Monbiot concedes (so forestalling criticisms) that ‘most environmentalists – and I include myself in this – are hypocrites’. Well indeed. The biographical note on his home page boasts of ‘seven years of investigative journeys in Indonesia, Brazil and East Africa’; amongst many places, Monbiot visited South Africa in 2001, Sydney in 2003. But in 1999, Monbiot was already of the view that ‘flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse’ (2).

As much as Heat tries to present it as a challenge to the status quo, green thinking on climate change has been mainstream since the Rio Summit in 1992, when the leaders of the western world embraced it. In Bournemouth this year, the Conservative Party signalled its transition by embracing a green agenda – they even invited George Monbiot to address them. But then it was Margaret Thatcher’s UN Ambassador and adviser Crispin Tickell who drafted the British government’s first statements on tackling climate change, around the same time that he set up roads campaigner George Monbiot with a special office at his University. Feeling the pressure from David Cameron’s trendy ecology spokesman, millionaire farmer Zac Goldsmith, Labour’s big guns echo Monbiot’s claim that climate change is the most important issue facing mankind.

Given its near-universal acceptance how is it that the belief that over-consumption threatens life itself has failed to impact on behaviour? It is not that people have failed to curb their consumption sufficiently. On the contrary, consumption, and specifically energy consumption continues to rise year on year, individually and collectively. If the leaders of Friends of the Earth and Stop the Climate Chaos are frequent fliers, so are the rest of us: frequent drivers, who leave our televisions on standby and our houses un-insulated.

To George Monbiot, this sounds like hypocrisy, and he is right. But he misunderstands the relationship between ecological thought and consumption. That climate change threatens the planet is not a belief that leads to a restriction in consumption. On the contrary, one could state as a law of politics that the relationship between green thinking and increasing consumption is not contradictory, but complementary. The greater role that consumption plays in our lives, the more we are predisposed to worrying about the planet. Ecology is to the twenty-first century what Christianity was to the Victorians. The harder those patricians blessed the meek on a Sunday, the more viciously they exploited them from Monday to Saturday. Green thinking is the religion of the consumer age. As sure as night follows day, the very people that are most preoccupied with the environment will increase their consumption from one year to the next.

We know this because environmental activism and beliefs are also stronger among the better paid and educated – the very people who command more of life’s resources. The stream of advice on ethical consumerism does not result in restricted consumption, but more complex, which is to say more costly consumption, like the ethical tourism that Monbiot denounces.

The environmental belief pattern fulfils all the demands of a secular religion, elevating the elect few above the common herd of vulgar, unthinking consumers; creating secular rituals, like fastidious eating, and garbage-sorting, as well as a full calendar of public worship, or protest. And like all religions, ecology has its eschatology, its end-time, the belief in the coming apocalypse, or to give it its modern name, climate change.

The motivation for the book is the proposition that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises above the current level of 380 parts per million by 2030, combining with other ‘greenhouse gases’, it will trap the sun’s rays in the atmosphere raising temperatures by two and six degrees Celsius – causing irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Melting polar ice caps will raise sea levels flooding coastal cities and towns; Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean will suffer frequent droughts; grain yields will collapse leading to famine; malaria will increase; species will become extinct.

But Monbiot says he is trying to avoid despair. The world can avoid the disaster if we reduce the carbon given off in energy production and other industrial processes, by 60 per cent, so that each of us produces no more than 0.33 tonnes of carbon by 2030 (with an intermediate target of 0.8 tonnes by 2012). But with energy use highest in the developed world, our target here is a 90 per cent reduction. The book sets out, in broad outline, how the saving can be made, supported with case studies on domestic energy use, the energy industry itself, transport, retail and concrete production.

It is the attempt to realise the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, or to achieve a balance with nature, that is Monbiot’s error. Like religious belief, environmental thinking is not supposed to be resolved. Rather, the belief persists precisely because it is the mirror image of consumerism. Without consumerism, environmentalism would cease to exist. Some Victorian religious sects made a similar mistake, trying to create religious communes in the New World, or sometimes retreating into the forests to escape worldly sin. Generally they ended up quarrelling and destitute. Once realised, all the absurdities of the belief system become writ large.

So it is with George Monbiot’s blueprint. In attempting to show that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions can be achieved Monbiot is forced again and again towards the one likely source of resource efficiency, greater technological development. Hence he is forced reluctantly to concede that nuclear power is a more plausible source of clean energy than biomass; that supermarkets’ internet delivery services, an example of the advantage of industrial concentration, could reduce energy use. Monbiot explains very well that rules on energy efficient house-building would have little impact because the rate at which Britain’s housing stock is replaced is glacially slow – but fails to understand that the low level of new building that leaves us all in energy-inefficient Victorian houses is a direct consequence of environmental constraints on housing developments.

In every instance, however, the ethical meaning of ecology, its romantic protest against modernity, reasserts itself. This is clearest in Monbiot’s predictable hostility to the car, which he associates with a vicious libertarianism, in which motorists perceive society, pedestrians, cyclists, road-humps, as a barrier. But this only illustrates Monbiot’s prejudices. Society is represented by pedestrians and cyclists. But drivers are society, too. Indeed, with car journeys making up 85 per cent of all distance travelled, they are a much greater share of society than cyclists, making up 0.5 per cent. Heat follows the conventional calculation of the costs of motoring unrepresented in the price of petrol, like health care and traffic policing. But it is wholly ignorant of the un-reckoned advantages of motoring, like greater mobility, and sociability.

Though wreathed in statistics, Heat fails to reckon the basic contribution to human existence of consumerism and motorisation, as if these could be tossed away without severely limiting its quality and duration. Take a look inside your fridge: more than nine-tenths of what you see there was delivered to the shop or supermarket by road, as indeed were the goods in your home. The organic vegetables and the spare parts that keep your bicycle moving were not delivered by bicycle, but by a man in a white van. Monbiot worries about declining agricultural yields and pressure on farmland, but fails to acknowledge that motorisation and fertilisers have massively increased output, bringing down prices, and releasing more land every year from cultivation.

Monbiot opens Heat with a quote from environmental activist Mayer Hillman on what a society that cut greenhouse gases by 80 per cent would look like: ‘a very poor third world country’. Monbiot aims to disprove this argument, by showing that reduction could be achieved without reducing us to penury, but he fails because he does not understand the extent to which our quality of life is dependent upon the very technologies that he considers destructive. Monbiot protests at ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg’s economic calculation of how money could be better spent solving world problems than wasted imposing restrictions on manufacturing output. This calculation he thinks is immoral. What price can you put on the subsequent deaths from malnutrition in Ethiopia caused by global warming? But Monbiot singularly fails to recognise that his restrictions would also have a human cost.

Those countries with low carbon dioxide emissions, like Ethiopia and Bangladesh, are also those with high infant mortality, low life expectancy and poor quality of life. To recreate their levels of energy consumption in the developed world would be to recreate their social conditions also. What is more, no across-the-board reduction in living standards has ever been achieved without social conflict and violent repression. Alongside the depressions of the 1930s and 1970s came police brutality. Monbiot’s ideal, wartime rationing, was achieved by terrifying the population with the threat of foreign invasion and militarising society. But Monbiot would reply that all of this is immaterial, because it is not possible to reproduce western standards of living in the developing world, because of the absolute limit of catastrophic climate change.

But even here, despite its welter of statistics, Heat is unconvincing. Monbiot calls his critics climate change deniers, not balking at the comparison with Holocaust denial. Anyone who does not support his linear connection of industrial carbon emissions, to the greenhouse effect, to climate change, ending in environmental catastrophe is deluded. But this is not the language of science, whose findings are always provisional. More to the point, though, even where it can be shown that industrial output has had an effect on the earth’s temperature, the extrapolation from that to necessary ecological disaster is all entirely speculative. All the changes modelled are projected into the future, failing Karl Popper’s test of falsifiability. And while there is a small industry dedicated to modelling the negative effects of climate change, any positive effects are excluded out of hand.

Monbiot accuses air-travellers of killing future generations of Africans, through the Malaria and famine that he says will increase because of climate change. But he ignores the Africans dying of malaria today because environmentalists persuaded the World Health Organisation to ban DDT there (3) or the Africans suffering food shortages already because environmentalists got the United Nations not to fund the use of chemical fertilisers in aid programmes.

The gloomy warnings say more about their authors than they do about the future. We have been warned by environmentalists that by 1997 one-third of the population will be stricken with ‘human-BSE’, that genetically modified organisms will enter the food-chain altering our DNA, even that, as Nature reported in the 1970s we are on the brink of a new Ice Age. The belief in impending disaster arises out of the psychological need for an eschatology, a secular version of Kingdom Come, that will under-gird the grandstanding of moralists like George Monbiot. Like the Dostoevsky character who worries that ‘if there is no God, how can I be captain’, Monbiot has to believe in impending catastrophe so that he can denounce the unbelievers and weak of conviction. But there is a less painful way to overcome the clash between modern lifestyles and environmental thinking, and that is to abandon the latter, not the former.

James Heartfield’s new book Let’s Build! Why we need five million homes in the next 10 years is published by Audacity.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Environment

(1) ‘A green snag they omitted to mention’, Sunday Times, 1 October 2006

(2) Guardian, 29 July 1999

(3) ‘World Health Organisation urges DDT’s reintroduction’, Guardian, 16 September 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today