Monbiotism. Again.

by | Jun 18, 2014

It’s been nearly a year since this blog last took a look at Monbiot’s thinking. He used to be a favourite, epitomising the green movement’s excesses in each of his Guardian stories. But as useful as it is to see what goes on in the fantasy world that environmentalists live in, it is necessary not to credit them with too much influence. Monbiot’s accent, position on a broadsheet newspaper and style is all that separates him from the man wearing a The-End-is-Nigh sandwich board. Catastrophists are, in general, lonely, powerless, paranoid and daft — characteristics which are as much causes as they are symptoms of each other. Catastrophists disappear into themselves. Nonetheless, Monbiot’s ideas get printed in a national newspaper.

Monbiot has declared that ‘Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear‘. This is not Monbiot’s first epiphany…

If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own.

… His earlier turn-around was his grudging acceptance of nuclear power, which he had spent much of his life campaigning against. Like many other greens, he tore into his erstwhile comrades as ‘deniers’. But like his fellow traveller on some kind of road to a nuclear energy Damascus, Mark Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t really able to reflect deeply on the position he once held so strongly. But unlike Lynas, Monbiot wasn’t able to go as far as singing the praises of genetically engineered crops. Lynas was the victim of corporate propaganda, he complained. How quickly greens turn on each other with the terms they used for climate sceptics.

And Monbiot is not the first to realise that environmentalism is better at alienating than encouraging people. Way back in 2008, I posted this little clip of Caroline Lucas, who had suddenly realised that environmentalists lack a positive message.

Yet at the very same event, she couldn’t help but resort to the alarmism she now wanted to eschew in favour of a more optimistic message.

Lucas wanted to sustain her cake and eat it. But you cannot emphasise a positive message while blackmailing people with stories of catastrophe. Either we’re doomed, or we’re not. Without the doom, environmentalism means nothing at all. The point that this blog has made is that it is no coincidence that negative stories about ecological Armageddon seem to dominate a politically-sterile moment of history. Scare stories are how authorities legitimise themselves, and how political arguments are formulated in these inert times. Environmentalists claim to have transcended ‘ideology’, and have grounded themselves in ‘science’, but in fact epitomise the character of contemporary politics: too cowardly to commit to any principles or ideas; too vain to reflect on criticism; and utterly promiscuous with ‘facts’. ‘Science is a fig leaf.

What is it that such traits force people to do in the face of failure? Blame other people… Monbiot, again…

“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?” several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.

It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue”. People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.

This blog is in its eighth year of telling Monbiot that he emphasises threats, and pointing out that he is forced to use the language of threat because he cannot express a positive argument. But rather than listen to criticism from without the green camp, he preferred to sustain the myth of scientists-versus-deniers. So what of this theory, that Monbiot would reach more people, if only he could emphasis the jolly, fluffy and cuddly side of the doomsters’ credos?

Ivo Vegter has an answer.

Monbiot makes it clear: he doesn’t think that “climate breakdown” and “mass extinction” are no longer threats. He still thinks his purpose is “saving the planet”, as if he is some sort of holier-than-thou messiah who can promise us a place in paradise if only we wouldn’t squirm under his gentle, guiding hand.

But he realises he’s been quite annoying about it, which must be why we’re not listening to him. And that is a public relations problem. It is a matter of changing how he and his allies in the environmental movement communicate. Like a priest who feels he’s lost the the youth to dancing and wickedness, Monbiot thinks it’s about “changing the language” to be less “alienating”.

It never once occurs to him that his substance, not his style, might be the problem. Monbiot has on many an occasion been forced to renounce convictions he once firmly held. It is true that someone who is often wrong is not necessarily always wrong, but it can’t help his credibility.

Read the whole response, because it is excellent. I will pick up on just one point:

To Monbiot’s mind, repeatedly being proven wrong by both argument and history couldn’t possibly be why environmentalists lack credibility when they warn about threats. No, he thinks it is because the green left fails to heed “psychologists and cognitive linguists”.

Vegter’s point is spot on. And we should see in Monbiot’s appeal to ‘psychologists and cognitive linguists’ precisely the same impulse as the one that drove Stephan Lewandowsky et al to take issue with the structure of climate change deniers’ brains, rather than their argument.

The psychologising of sceptics in an attempt to explain the failure to ‘communicate’ the environmental message does not allow people in general — not just sceptics — to have made up their own mind. It is not unlike being told in an argument that the position you hold in opposition is not the consequence of your thinking about the matter at hand, but because some emotional trauma prevented the development of your rational or cognitive faculties. In fact it’s worse, because it patronises people who agree with the green premise as much as it patronises those who disagree: it says that all people are stupid, and simply need to be tickled with nice words like ‘tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves’, rather than presented with a substantive argument.

Greens are, of course, the first to stand up for Motherhood and Apple Pie. But it’s only later that we discover that there are too many mothers, they’re having too many babies, that the apples must be ‘organically-produced’, sustainably-sourced, and that the pie cannot be eaten, but must be saved for ‘future generations’. But it’s okay, because by not eating the pie, we won’t become obese, such are the benefits of environmentalism.

As I tried to discuss in the previous post, environmentalists think people are stupid. And they treat people as though they are stupid.

In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.

It is this treatment of people which makes environmentalism unpopular, and which causes it to see the natural world in terminal decline. And this runs throughout environmentalism’s thinking.

Another recent example of Monbiot’s writing shows the same anti-human logic at work…

It’s the great taboo of our age – and the inability to discuss the pursuit of perpetual growth will prove humanity’s undoing.

Monbiot is wrong twice. Scepticism of economic growth is not taboo. Everyone has been talking about it since ‘Affluenza’, and since the government launched various initiatives under the ‘happiness agenda’. And he’s wrong about ‘perpetual growth’, too:

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

It’s such a ‘taboo’ that even super rich bankers are talking about it…

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

And, having discovered the principle of compound growth, Monbiot pronounces:

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created.

On Monbiot’s view, ‘economics’ is just stuff taken from nature. More economic growth is more stuff taken from nature until there’s nothing left. Tim Worstall was on hand to correct him:

Think about GDP for a moment. It’s the calculation of all of the value added in the economy. It is not a calculation of the resources used. We do not say that 1 million tables were made and thus we’re richer by 1 million tables. We say that there 1 million tables made and we’re richer by the amount that a table is worth more than the resources we used to make that table. Value add is economic growth, not more stuff.

Greens are allergic to stuff because stuff is the stuff that the unwashed, unthinking masses are seemingly hypnotised by. On the green view, armies of zombie plebs blindly make their way to shopping malls to buy food, clothes and gadgets that they do not need, keeping the system tipping towards the inevitable destruction of the planet. Again: the point is not really that the planet is in peril; the point is the environmentalist’s contempt for the ordinary people and their needs and wants.

Worstall tells us all we need to know about George’s economics. Economic growth might even mean less stuff is used in the production of stuff as we work out more efficient ways to use more abundant materials. But Monbiot makes a bigger claim about human history.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

Monbiot reduces modernity to a pathology — ‘ideologies are mere subplots’.

The view that Monbiot offers can only be true if the coal dug itself out of the ground in industrial quantities, and forced us to burn it in machines that it designed for us.

It was in fact what Monbiot calls ‘ideologies’ that made the progress of the modern age possible. Coal, oil, and now gas, uranium, and whatever next, may be necessary for sustaining that progress. But industrialisation is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It took social organisation to produce the industrial revolution. Capitalism, in other words.

It was no use just having a coal mine if there was no one to mine it, nobody to work out how to use it, and no way of dividing the tasks between people, rightly or wrongly. The coal had been there for ever, as far as humans were concerned. And Wikpedia claims that coal has been burnt by people since 3000BC. It took almost 5,000 years more human history for an industrial revolution to occur, and for knowledge and for institutions that organise knowledge and labour to develop.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Monbiot hates that history. He sees it as a terminal condition — a pathology. It is only a history of zombies, slavishly dancing to a tune called by coal and oil. Humanity itself is ‘unsustainable’. Beset by some kind of secular, ecological version of original sin, it would be better if we suffered our condition in lives characterised by subsistence, in a ‘sustainable’ natural order.

Far from having to ‘ransack the hidden corners of the planet’ to find resources, we have discovered more and more beneath our feet. Gas in rock. Almost unlimited energy in heavy metals. Integrated circuits in nothing more than sand. Highly resistant crops from the modification of DNA of weaker organisms. But Moniot is agin ’em. He gives humans mere bit-parts in his account of their history, as if he were above it and them, their roles being as inevitable as the unfolding of the laws of thermodynamics.

What better counter to the funk of such a Fall-obsessed fool exists than the author of The Ascent of Man, again, Jacob Bronowski.


  1. Drcrinum

    >>As I tried to discuss in the previous post, environmentalists think people are stupid. And they treat people as though they are stupid.<<

    Quoting Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule:
    “People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it's true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.”

    The Wizard's First Rule is a variation from Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    For the environmentalists to promote their cause under the tenet that 'people are stupid', it becomes extremely important for them to squash dissent, because the the enemy of a lie is the truth. Hence, the truth-seekers or deniers must be silenced.

  2. mike fowle

    You’re on a roll, Ben. I must admit to some anger when people like Lucas talk about people dying in Africa. Yes, because people like her obsess about things that don’t matter instead of helping them and even deliberately denying them the advances available from cheap energy.

  3. Dagfinn Reiersøl

    Matt Ridley almost agrees with Monbiot about fossil fuels and economic growth. “I am about to argue that economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power.” But of course, he comes to totally different conclusions about the future.

  4. Alex Cull

    Here’s a transcript of Caroline Lucas speaking at the World Development Movement event on 8th May 2008, which is in the first video:

    The first thing that Claire said is something that I agree with very strongly. Basically, she was saying that all of this language about the rhetoric of fear and disaster and tipping points is deeply scary and is deeply unhelpful. And I couldn’t agree more. I think that actually that the Green movement as a whole has actually, you know, missed a trick here, that we’re so busy trying to terrify people into action over climate change, because we just think that if we tell people it’s so, so scary they’re going to change what they’re doing.

    That, patently, doesn’t work, it doesn’t work to try and terrify people into action and I think we’ve got to get much better, as a movement, about saying that the changes that we need, in order to tackle climate change are actually pretty positive changes in their own right, you know. Who would be against more public transport, greater fuel efficiency, warmer homes because you’ve got more insulation, for example? We’ve got a much stronger, more positive story to tell, and I think we’ve got to get much better at saying that.

    And here she is, about one and a half years later, speaking at a rally organised by CaCC in Hyde Park just before COP15:

    As examples of Copenhagen-era climate rhetoric go, this one’s a doozy. Positive messages about warm homes and decent public transport are overwhelmed by phrases like “headlong descent into climate chaos”. Here’s a taste:

    And so that’s why it’s so important that we’re here today with our urgent message, which is this: that climate change is a far greater threat than international terrorism, and is itself a weapon of mass destruction. That it is obscene that governments can find money to bail out banks and pay bankers’ bonuses but can’t find the money to stop the planet burning.

    That [applause and whooping from the audience]… That, according to the UN, 300,000 people are already dying every year as a direct result of climate change. And that’s why we say today that governments’ failure to act is nothing less than a crime against humanity. [More applause and whooping from the audience.]

    Paris 2015 will be the next last chance to save the planet – so I wonder, will George, Caroline and fellow travellers resist the temptation to turn the “rhetoric of fear and disaster” up to 11 again, in a year’s time?

  5. geoffchambers

    Great stuff. Time spent attacking Monbiot is never time wasted.
    You say: “Catastrophists are, in general, lonely, powerless, paranoid and daft.” Well, up to a point. As you go on to say, their ideas also “get printed in a national newspaper”. In fact, in all national newspapers, from where they are absorbed and regurgitated by the government, all the parliamentary parties, the Church of England, the International Psychoanalytical Association, the Royal Society, and the Women’s Institute, to name but a few.
    The point about Monbiot is that, unlike many more influential promoters of the End-Is-Nigh message, such as Lord Deben, Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Mark Walport, Monbiot has a functioning brain and a stated desire to seek the truth.
    He got a lot of things right when he was an investigative journalist, for example when, in the wake of the Climategate, he announced that Professor Jones should resign. Then he changed his mind and said he wouldn’t be covering Climategate any more, unless the Muir Russell and Oxburgh reports found something to criticise. Brown-nosing the rich and powerful is one thing, but when a reputed journalist announces his intention in advance to go down on a couple of failed civil servants, you know his career is at an end.

    Thanks Alex for the reminders of Caroline and her efforts to avoid the rhetoric of fear. It’s a bit like Basil Fawlty trying to avoid mentioning the war, isn’t it?
    I note she got in the 300,000 deaths per year, which she attributes to the UN. In fact the figure came from a New York Public Relations outfit, which ghost-wrote a report attributed to retired UN secretary Kofi Annan.

  6. Mooloo

    That, patently, doesn’t work, it doesn’t work to try and terrify people into action and I think we’ve got to get much better, as a movement, about saying that the changes that we need, in order to tackle climate change are actually pretty positive changes in their own right, you know. Who would be against more public transport, greater fuel efficiency, warmer homes because you’ve got more insulation, for example? We’ve got a much stronger, more positive story to tell, and I think we’ve got to get much better at saying that.

    They really, really don’t get normal people, do they?

    Who would be against more public transport? — Everyone who would have to pay for it, but would go by car anyone, because cars are more flexible, faster and comfortable. The assumption remains for Lucas that what she deems the public good — because decarbonising and more “sustainable” — is not what the public deem the public good. They’d rather have better roads.

    Who’s against home insulation? Me, when it costs lots more than just heating my house would.

    Lucas and Monbiot are so wrapped up in their own perceptions of “good” that even if they moved away from alarmism their message still wouldn’t work. Because it doesn’t address the needs of most people.

    Until Environmentalism actually tries to bring what ordinary people want, it is doomed to failure. And that isn’t consumer goods, despite what they think, but decent jobs, decent accommodation and a reasonable assurance that they will keep those into the future. Hence any message which has austerity as its base assumption (over the long haul) is never going to fly.

  7. hunter

    Great essay. The failure of vision and disdain for his fellow humans is indeed a popular perspective these days. It infests the intelligentsia and political classes rather badly.
    Listen to President Obama and his ignorant mocking of skeptics. Look at his actions in wasting billions on financial scams that were known to be bad risks but happened to be green (not to mention run by his political pals). Look at how he unleashes the EPA to impose unworkable regulations to end run the rule of law and which will not work even under the most favorable scenarios.



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