How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature

George Monbiot

Verso, £16.99

Reviewed by Brian Morton

This is a collection of George Monbiot's best and most urgent newspaper columns. The title and subtitle seem self-explanatory, though “equality” might seem more a question of perspective and judgement than the other pair. In a sense, Monbiot has an easy job, though he sometimes makes it sound like a mission of lonely knight errantry. His role is to tilt against every symptom of the heedless neoliberalism (the ideology without ideology) that governs our postmodern world.

His message is best conveyed in an article of December 2014 called Everything Is Connected in The Guardian. Typically, it’s an eclectic mix of biology, ethics and geopolitics, bringing together whale poo, “trophic cascades”, and the evolutionary role of very large predators, of which we have become the kingpin. There is a touch of glibness to his demonstration of some aspects of that connectedness, as when he describes the connection between the whaling industry and the fate of the American condor. It all gets a little close to the infamous “butterfly/hurricane” equation, but it’s a point and it’s well made.

The headline conclusion is that everything has context and consequence and so we might be advised – and this really is radical – to think before we act, in almost any situation. That such an injunction does now seem radical is a token of the kind of steamrollering corporatism that affects everything from economics and international relations to education and the arts. Monbiot’s eclecticism and autodidactic grasp of umpteen disciplines is both his great strength and occasional weakness. When he turns his attention to something as close at hand – our hand – as the parlous state of the Rest and Be Thankful road in Argyll, which is annually threatened with mudslide and avalanche, Presto! he has the answer in a line: remove the sheep, which are economically unviable anyway, and let the scrub and small trees regenerate. But there’s a bigger question, which the everything-is-connected philosophy should have prompted: why is that road there in the first place, and why is there such dependence on that narrow, readily blocked artery?

Monbiot is at his best when he engages with nature. His philosophy of rewilding is almost unanswerable. “Almost” because by definition every curative intervention will have unintended consequences somewhere down the line. Our best course would be to subsist and desist, but we are closer to the angels than that. Monbiot’s turn of phrase is impeccable. When he challenges us with the headline Civilisation Is Boring (if this is a sub-editor’s creation, it is still brilliant) he tops the rhetoric with a lovely line that declares civilisation to be “but a flimsy dust sheet that we have thrown over a psyche rich in emotion and instinct, shaped by the living planet”. Dustsheets tend to be associated with empty houses and unvisited museums, but those are exactly what our collective psyche has built and then abandoned, so the image still works.

Admirers tend to liken him to another George, but the Orwellian strain in these essays is perhaps less obvious than the Swiftian. There is the same gnashing anger at the mess we’re making; the same mobile intelligence and ability to naturalise and apply a difficult concept; and there is the same devastating ability to express an outrageous idea in almost sarcastically bland terms. Looking at a loveless, thoughtless, affectless world, in which the main temptations for young men and women are either pseudo-violence or non-communication of one sort or another, Monbiot offers his own modest proposal: that we should jail or intern the young until the awkward business of growing up is past. It’s a great joke. I assume he’s joking.

The more obvious indices of a Swiftian vision are there as well. Monbiot sees Brobdinagian problems confronted by Liliputian “statesman” and Laputan science, and a civil society run by yahoos or tutted over by Houyhnhnms. This leaves him just one role, as solitary world-traveller, armed with curiosity, intelligence and cutlass prose, who concludes that the bulk of us are (as his great predecessor had it) “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the earth” but concedes us some tolerance, much love and even a little eleventh-hour hope.