George Monbiot: ‘Young people recognise the systemic flaws in our system’

By Amanda Thain


 George Monbiot, author, journalist and environment and political activist, tells Safia Minney why transgressive thinking is key to tackling climate change.

George spoke to Safia as part of Ethical Podcast series – you can listen to their full conversation here.

System Change

Those familiar with George Monbiot know he is never short of ideas for tackling the climate emergency. But at the heart of these, he says, is a fundamental belief that the biggest problem is capitalism.

“Capitalism has two features. The first of those is the assumption that you can purchase and use as much natural wealth as your money allows you to afford. 

“But you simply can’t live like that without destroying other people’s wellbeing.

“The other feature is that it’s premised on never-ending economic growth. But we’re pursuing infinite economic growth on a planet that has finite resources.

“50 billion tonnes [of natural resources per year] is the theoretical sustainable level. We’re using between 70 and 80 billion already. We’re bursting through the limits that science sets and we can see the horrendous impacts that this is having around the world.” 

Beyond capitalism

Young people, George believes, are rebelling against the status quo because they, more than any other group, recognise its systemic flaws.

“They’re not asking for a better kind of cotton bud. They’re not asking for lower use of plastic bags, or certainly not only that, they are asking for a system which can sustain life on earth including their own lives.”

George believes a different foundational principle is required which is that every generation should have an equal right to enjoy natural wealth.

Political change on this scale can feel overwhelming and impossible but George argues that this feeling is familiar – and misleading – through history.

“People could not imagine it [the Soviet Union] ending… it was inconceivable that this all pervasive, all powerful system could ever collapse. But as soon as it collapsed [we said] ‘oh yes of course it collapsed; it retrospectively, immediately became obvious that that system was unsustainable and it had to fall apart and I feel very similarly about capitalism.”

Big organising

But, he says, the master’s tools cannot be used to demolish the master’s house and those responsible for making change often have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Politicians, focused only on re-election, are failing on climate change, he argues.

George Monbiot is an advocate of mobilisation, or ‘big organising’ which has been seen through movements such as the Youth Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion as well as in elections around the world such as that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 midterm election primaries in the US.

Such tools swap fundraising for stirring public enthusiasm and peer-to-peer training of volunteers. 

“You create this massively proliferated, dendritic system where it can just grow exponentially from a small nucleus of volunteers to a mass political movement.”

Quick wins

However, within the existing system, George sees some clear areas to be focused on that could have a dramatic impact on carbon emissions.

The first is rewilding on a much larger scale than happens currently.

“You’ve got these incredibly impoverished bare places that support almost no life and store a tiny fraction of the amount of carbon that they could otherwise store.

“If we’re going to stay within 2 degrees of heating, we are going to have to deal with historic emissions that are already in the air. By far the best, quickest, cheapest way of doing that is through ecological restoration. Allowing forests to come back, peat bogs to reform and so on.”

Switching to a plant-based diet and stopping flying are also quick wins would also have an impact.

“Flying is by far the biggest, worst of the activities we might undertake. A one-way flight to New York uses up your entire carbon budget for the year. This binge flying, this remarkably careless use of aeroplanes by people, that’s just got to stop.

“Also, switch your surface transport. There’s no excuse for driving a car in a city unless you’ve got a disability. If you’re able-bodied you should be walking or cycling or taking public transport.

“We’ve got to change the way we live, but we’ve also got to change the system – that’s the primary task.”