Monbiot's Partial Epiphany

George Monbiot took us by surprise last week. Reflecting on the housing problems facing many people in the UK, George appears to have realised that putting the environment first can be bad for humans, and that that is a bad thing.

Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders’ Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.

Credit where credit is due, George has finally grasped the fact that human and environmental interests are at odds with one another, and that the consequences of putting humans second are squalor and misery.

I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But – though it hooks in my green guts to admit it – built they must be.

The problem is that in order for Monbiot to do the moral arithmetic, he needs a crisis. In this way, environmentalism will defeat itself… We know that Monbiot isn’t in favour of localised power generation. We know that he is not in favour of biofuels. We know that he is not in favour of atomic power. And we certainly know that Monbiot is not in favour of fossil fuel use. This doesn’t leave us humans many options. We’ll have a real crisis on our hands – an energy crisis, which will certainly produce the squalor and misery and worse that will make the housing situation look like a picnic, and at which point, naturally, we’ll have to put our own interests first.

It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses, help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain’s ugliest inequality: second homes.

But there is another way to look at the problems Monbiot imagines, without crisis. What if it is a moral good – rather than a necessary evil – to build houses? What if it is a moral good to build sufficient houses for everybody so that there are plenty, even if people want two houses? What if it is a moral good to have cheap, abundant energy? Don’t expect George to come round to that one quite so easily. Because if you can only see the future as a series of crises, then you cannot imagine the world ever being a good place.