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Monbiot’s metamorphosis

Today, environmentalists like Guardian columnist George Monbiot are adding a gloss of ‘scientific truth’ to elite prejudices and fears.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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This article is republished from the June 2008 issue of thespiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and predictor of the world’s end, has undergone a metamorphosis of Kafkaesque proportions in recent years. Never mind poor Gregor Samsa, who awoke one morning to find himself transmogrified into a monstrous insect; Monbiot has made an even more remarkable cross-species leap. Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).

How has this happened? How is it that Monbiot, who still writes the same old apocalyptic nonsense (think Book of Revelations but without the hot pokers or sex), can now pose – more than that, be hailed – as a scientific visionary? His metamorphosis from green-tinted despiser of all things modern to man with a dazzling command of science reveals a great deal about the politics of environmentalism, and how it has added a gloss of ‘scientific fact’ to long-standing middle-class prejudices against mass modern society.

Not many moons ago, Monbiot was looked upon by many people as a green-ink eccentric, who was probably given a newspaper column on the same basis that friends of the Marquis de Sade smuggled scraps of paper and pots of ink into his cell in the Charenton insane asylum: because if he’s kept busy writing, he won’t go utterly off his nut. (The chasm-shaped difference between the Marquis and Monbiot, of course, is that the former wrote some brilliant stuff that nobody was allowed to read, while the latter writes inane copy that one can hardly escape.)

Pre-metamorphosis, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Monbiot penned mad-sounding tracts that said flying across the Atlantic is more evil than child abuse (eh?), and described how manmade flight would contribute to a climate calamity that would make ‘genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering’ (1). Well, what’s being gassed in a chamber compared with the carbon skidmark left by a bunch of British chavs taking a cheap flight to vomit-stained Magaluf? He wrote about loitering in busy train stations and watching as City workers, who must suffer from ‘a species of mental illness’, hurried home: ‘Stress oozes from them like sweat, anger shudders beneath their skin.’ (2) (Luckily for Monbiot, he executed this bizarre staring stunt in 1999, before New Labour really got serious about handing out Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.)

Like a latter-day Christian recluse, he wrote of his horror at hearing the sound of human laughter. ‘The world is dying, and people are killing themselves with laughter’, he wailed (3). So disturbed was he by the ‘gales of laughter’ sweeping Britain that he was moved to quote Kierkegaard: ‘This is the way I think the world will end – with general giggling by all the witty heads, who think it is a joke.’ Far from being a ‘man of science’, pre-metamorphosis Monbiot sounded more like Ephrem the Syrian, an early Christian theologian. In the fourth century CE, Ephrem declared that ‘the beginning of all destruction of the soul is laughing’. If a hermit or monk ever laughed, Ephrem said they had reached ‘the bottom of evil’. ‘O Lord, expel laughter from me, and grant me the crying and lamentation Thou asketh for!’ Ephrem prayed (4). Monbiot must make a similar prayer: he’s certainly had any fleck of humour scrubbed from his constitution, replaced by the crying and lamentation that Gaia asketh for.

In the old days, Monbiot argued that ‘being gay is arguably more moral than being straight’, because gays are less likely to spawn ’orrible little resource-sucking babies – or ‘screaming shit machines’, as one of his fellow green contributors to the Guardian more honestly describes them (5). Men and women of the Enlightenment, who really did desire to have a ‘dazzling command of science’, were interested in using their knowledge to ‘dazzlingly command’ nature – that is, to understand, predict and even control the natural world for the benefit of mankind. Old Monbiot preferred to quote an old Indian proverb: ‘When you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she’ll come back through the window with a pitchfork.’ (6) Ouch.

On the rare occasion that Monbiot did dip his nib into the world of science, he invariably got things wrong. He was one of a gang of green-leaning writers in Britain who leapt upon Dr Arpad Pusztai’s experiments on lab rats as evidence that GM foods could be harmful to humans. In 1998, Dr Pusztai seemed to find that GM potatoes caused thickening in the stomach lining of rats, and this single, unreplicated experiment was taken as proof that genetically tampered-with grub – an invention that greens consider supremely offensive – might make humans sick, too. When experts picked apart Pusztai’s findings, and showed that there was no scientific basis to the hysterical public panic about killer spuds, Monbiot argued that the important thing is how people feel about allegedly dodgy foods: ‘Food scares happen in Britain because people feel they have no control over what they eat. Our decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable corporations.’ (7) In a testy public debate on GM, one of Britain’s top scientists said Monbiot was either a ‘liar or a fool’, or maybe ‘both’ (8). Again, ouch. Dazzling command of science my arse.

Back then, Monbiot was simply a shrill articulator of petty dinner-party prejudices: car-drivers are selfish; fecund families are dangerous; supermarkets are evil; City workers are slaves, and possibly even mentally ill. Pop into any soirée in the leafy suburbs of Britain and you will hear people saying similar things over their Nigella-inspired main course. Yet now, after the metamorphosis, he’s treated seriously (by some) as ‘one of the best informed people on the planet’ (as John Burnside gushes on the back flap of Monbiot’s new book). The man who said flying was like fiddling children and being straight was effectively an eco-crime is hailed as a brave defender of scientific truth.

Monbiot’s new book, Bring on the Apocalypse (the title says it all), is a collection of mostly post-metamorphosis columns; the articles, in the main, are from 2003 to 2007. It is remarkable the extent to which Monbiot now considers himself a warrior for scientific fact. Gone are the naked assertions about how empty and slavish is modern life (at least as lived by frequent flyers and ‘mentally ill’ City workers); in their place we have ‘facts’, stats and percentages galore, apparently showing the slow but certain destruction of biospheres and ecosystems by mankind. Gone is old Monbiot’s suspicion of mainstream science; in its place we have declarations about how the ‘entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals’ tell us that climate change is happening (9). These newer columns are still jam-packed with expressions of disgust for modernity and its adherents, of course, but each outburst is carefully evidenced, proven, footnoted, fact-checked, scientifically backed up.

The metamorphosis of Monbiot is telling. It shows, in microcosm (after all, we’re only talking about the Guardian comment pages here), how the politics and science of environmentalism have added a new, legitimising coating to elite fears and prejudices. The most striking thing about the rise and rise (and rise) of the environmentalist ethos is how it has acted as a life support machine for the political and cultural elite’s contempt for the lifestyles of the lower orders, and how it has added a new scientific/end of the world twist to the authorities’ attempts to manage, control and change our behaviour and expectations. In our post-modern, anything-goes, Oprah-ised, non-judgemental era, it is increasingly difficult for elite elements to lay down the line on what is right or wrong, or to induce guilt and shame in the ‘wayward’ masses, or to make nakedly moral judgements about the apparently soulless, greedy populace. Instead, ‘scientific fact’ – ‘evidence’ about individuals’ disgusting impact on their surroundings – has become the main means through which the elites hector us and police our behaviour. Slowly, inexorably, instinctively, the apparently fact-driven politics of environmentalism has spread to fill the gap left by the collapse of traditional morality.

Everywhere one looks, long-standing snooty prejudices are being ‘scientised’; old-fashioned hatred for mass behaviour is being replaced by new, superbly convenient ‘scientific facts’ which apparently show – on spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts, no less – that mass behaviour is quantifiably, unfalsifiably, unquestionably Harmful.

For example, a certain breed of middle-class writer and thinker has always hated the consumer society and the masses who patronise it. They talked about the ‘rat race’ (the sight of thousands of men and women in suits commuting to work) and of the masses’ brainless dash to buy more and more ‘stuff’ that they don’t need. Today, a new diagnosable, scientifically provable illness has emerged to describe the stupidity of the masses: ‘Affluenza’. Serious writers, researchers and policymakers now claim that years of fact-gathering and scientific-style study prove that the rat race and the stuff race make people mentally ill (though as I argued in the New Statesman earlier this year, after examining the experts’ ‘evidence’, actually they have ‘rehabilitated the sin of gluttony in pseudo-scientific terms’) (10).

It is striking that 10 years ago, in Liverpool Street station, Monbiot gawked at busy, besuited commuters and presumed that they must be suffering from a ‘species of mental illness’. ‘No retail therapy, no holiday in the Caribbean could restore the damage done by [their] self-consumption’, he preached (11). It was unadulterated prejudice, underpinned by a well-to-do columnist’s dislocation from the mass of the people, and his inability to comprehend the passions, desires and needs that drive people to work, work, work and buy, buy, buy. Now, lo and behold, research has emerged that ‘proves’ these people are mentally ill. How remarkably convenient.

Likewise, snobs have always detested mass tourism, all of those thousands of good-for-nothings tramping to some beach or to an unfortunate foreign city. When British workers first started venturing to the English seaside in the 1870s, thanks to one Thomas Cook, an outraged writer declared: ‘Of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist.’ (12) As Paul Fussell argues in his book Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars: ‘From the outset, mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves… superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit.’ In the 1920s, the British literary snob Osbert Sitwell described American tourists as a ‘swarm of very noisy transatlantic locusts’. His sister, the poet Edith Sitwell, said tourists were ‘the most awful people with legs like flies, who come in to lunch in bathing costumes – flies, centipedes’ (13).

This prejudice, too, has been scientised. The idea of the mass tourist as noxious – that is, ‘harmful to living things, injurious to health’ – has been rehabilitated through the science of environmentalism. Now tourists are seen as literally noxious, farting out smog and poisons from their cheap flights. Pre-metamorphosis Monbiot’s distaste for the mass tourist was too similar to the snobbery of the Sitwells and others – he said flying across the Atlantic is ‘now as unacceptable as child abuse’. So where earlier snobs compared tourists to locusts and insects, Monbiot compared them to paedophiles, the lowest specimen in contemporary society. It was pure moral bombast, fired by a preference for localism over international travel. Yet now, post-metamorphosis, Monbiot cites science to denounce travellers. In his new book, it says that if you throw all the ‘numbers’ into ‘the equation’, then you will discover that ‘aviation will account for between 91 per cent and 258 per cent of all the greenhouse gases the UK will be permitted, [under a new law], to produce in 2050’ (14).

Numbers, equations, accounting, 2050… again, moral disgust is transformed into a scientific measurement; prejudice becomes wrapped up in percentages.

Similarly, middle-class disdain for supermarkets and their cheap and garish wares (old Monbiot wrote of how the supermarkets are putting small shops out of business) is today expressed in the extremely dubious science of ‘food miles’: the distance a foodstuff travels, and thus how much it impacts on the environment, before it hits Tesco’s shelves. Yet as I argued on spiked recently: ‘The “food miles” category is not an accurate scientific measurement of the impact of food production on the climate – it is a moral judgement about the “right” and “wrong” way of producing and consuming things.’ (15)

Old snobbery about overly fecund families, especially in the sex-mad Third World, has been given a new lease of life in the green-leaning language of demography and the science of ‘resource depletion’. Even the hatred of football fans now has a scientific basis to it. In the past they were looked down upon as a seething, heaving, potentially violent mob. Now, serious academics and green reporters carefully measure how much football fans travel, eat and discard, and have worked out that a big football event can leave an ‘eco-footprint’ 3,000 times as big as the pitch at Wembley (16). Courtesy of the ‘science’ of environmentalism, even one of the foulest expressions of British snobbery – that against the working men and women who enjoy football – has been scientised; it is numerically proven that these people are, well, disgusting.

Monbiot, who once harried tourists, workers and shoppers over their bad habits but who now writes endlessly of science and sums, personifies an important shift that has taken place under the tyranny of environmentalism: the scientisation of elite fear and prejudice. And what of the science of climate change itself? No doubt there is research that shows the planet has warmed, and that man may have played a role in its warming; yet this science, too, has conveniently metamorphosed into a political and moral campaign to lower people’s horizons and keep them in their place. Call me a cynic, a doubter, even a denier if you like, I don’t care; but when scientific research continually and conveniently, almost magically, ‘proves’ that people are disgusting and must rein in their desires and change their habits – just as the elite caste, from priests to politicians, have been arguing for decades! – then I get suspicious.

No, there’s no conspiracy here; instead our rulers and our thinkers and our betters are instinctively feeling around for a new morality, a new form of control and judgement. And what better than easily moulded research which shows that travelling abroad is irresponsible (fact), over-shopping in supermarkets is evil (fact), wanting too much stuff will make you mentally ill (fact), having too many children is lethal (fact), and football fans are fat, foul and smelly (fact). It’s almost as if one of the pious nuns who taught me at school, and who frequently spouted all of the above prejudices, suddenly happened upon scientific evidence to back up her worldview. Well, I say to the new green hectors what I often dreamt of saying to that nun, but never did: Fuck off.

The new scientisation is defensive and censorious. It suggests an elite that has lost the nerve and the will to say what is morally right and wrong, and which instead continually hides behind dubious ‘facts’ to justify its agenda. And anyone who challenges these ‘facts’ is put beyond the pale. When something is ‘scientifically proven’, whether it’s that flying is bad or shopping is a mental illness or the planet will end in 72 years and three months, then if anyone stands up and says that travel is a good thing, that the desire for more stuff should be satisfied, and that human ingenuity can and will make the planet a better place, they can be written off as anti-science, as liars, deniers, heretics. Well, when it comes to defending human ambition from the attacks of our pie-chart-armed elite, that’s a risk I’m willing to take: let the heresy begin.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice, by George Monbiot is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the June 2008 issue of thespiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) Meltdown, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(2) Meltdown, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(3) Meltdown, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(4) The Language of Art: Studies in Interpretation, Moshe Barasch, New York University Press, 1997

(5) Is the Pope gay?, Guardian, 13 July 2000

(6) Reality reasserts itself, Guardian, 2 November 2000

(7) ‘Coming soon: cow’s milk with added hormones’, Guardian Weekly, week ending 28 February 1999

(8) The new socialism of fools?, LM, April 1999

(9) Bring on the Apocalypse, George Monbiot, Atlantic Books: p32

(10) When ignorance is bliss, New Statesman, 24 January 2008

(11) Meltdown, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(12) Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, Paul Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1982

(13) Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, Paul Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1982

(14) Bring on the Apocalypse, George Monbiot, Atlantic Books: p37

(15) Buy British? A badly Soiled argument, by Brendan O’Neill

(16) See Kick environmentalism out of football, by Brendan O’Neill

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

Topics Science & Tech

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