George Monbiot is a man who feels his moment has come. We’re speaking the day before the first of two Global Climate Strikes and the long-time environmental journalist and campaigner is jubilant about what it could achieve.
“I’ve been involved in loads of protest movements over the years, but none of them have really been big enough to counter the huge scale of our problems. Maybe one day we’ll look back and say this was the day the world woke up,” he says.
He’s talking of the mass awakening in environmental and climate consciousness, galvanized and spearheaded by teenager Greta Thunberg’s youth movement, and the powerful uprising of Extinction Rebellion.
“I’ve been an environmental journalist and campaigner now for 34 years, and it’s been a pretty depressing 34 years, on the whole, where I’ve seen most things spiral downwards very rapidly,” he laughs, sadly. “But I also feel that this is the moment I’ve been waiting for, throughout that entire time.
“We’re seeing a level of engagement in terms of the number of people, but also the commitment, that is beginning to look commensurate with the scale of the problem we face.”
Monbiot’s career began as an investigative environmental documentary maker for the BBC, before travelling to Indonesia, and subsequently Brazil, where he became involved in social justice, indigenous rights movements, and uncovered an illegal mahogany trade.
His influence in environmental debate is well-established – food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote in a book review that Monbiot has “reshaped the surface of the planet several times over, [and] has the intellectual temerity to suggest how we might do it better from here on in.”
These days, he is most well-known for his regular columns for the Guardian newspaper, some of which turn into books, and which can be tied together only through the sheer breadth of topics he tackles – from wealth, to land reform, to ecological and economic justice.
His most recent column at the time of our interview outlines an idea to cap an individual’s wealth, citing a whistle-blower at a private airport where jets regularly take off with only one passenger. Is he, after 34 years in reporting on the area, resigned to such acts of environmental madness?
“I am still shocked by the extraordinarily careless way in which we treat the only planet known to harbour life,” he says. “It’s almost a necrophiliac obsession, as if we want to accelerate towards a dead planet.”
As with any question put to him, the answer doesn’t end there – from wealth, we move to consumerism, capitalism, ecological collapse and the need for a new economic system.
“One of the things we need to recognise is there is no such thing as green consumerism, just less consumerism,” he says. “The one thing that is completely correlated with environmental impact, is wealth. The richer you are, the more harm you’ll do to the planet. It really is that simple.
“What we need is a system that I call private sufficiency, public luxury,” he says, explaining how that includes public spaces like parks, galleries, allotments and other amenities that are owned by a community under a ‘Commons’ system.
As vocal as he is on consumerism and wealth, it’s on food and farming where Monbiot is perhaps most radical.
His thinking is underpinned by the concept of rewilding – letting nature restore itself as a natural climate solution and using forests and other ecosystems as carbon sinks – something he explains in a mesmerising TedTalk that has now been seen by almost 170,000 people.
But to rewild, you need land, something Monbiot believes should come from nothing less than getting rid of livestock production, period.
“Livestock numbers are rising at twice the rate of human numbers: that is the real population crisis. There’s simply not enough land to support that livestock without destroying everything else,” he says.
And it’s not just intensively-farmed meat that he takes aim at – under his vision for true natural climate solutions, even land-extensive livestock systems, like free range, must be replaced.
“We have this woefully ill-informed pastoral idyll that says we ought to be eating free-range meat, or pasture-fed beef, that’s the way to go,” he says. “It has a far greater impact, even than the disastrous impacts of indoor meat, because it requires so much more land.
“In a way, the more extensive your system is, or the more land it requires, the more it is taking away from nature, natural climate solutions, and the solutions that we need. In fact, it’s a counter solution. We just need to get out of livestock production.
On fertilising crops without animal manure, Monbiot, who is a vegan himself, cites ‘veganic’ farmer Iain Tolhurst, who has been growing organic vegetables without any animal input for 30 years, although there is some debate within the industry on just how competitive the system is in terms of yields.
Such a dramatic change to farming systems would be “disruptive”, he admits, but argues that we could replace the rural economy and farming subsidies of today by paying farmers to protect the natural environment and draw down carbon.
To replace animal protein in diets, meanwhile, he believes developments in microbial protein technology will offer the solution, not something you’d necessarily associate with the man whose biggest passion is the natural world.
“This has a tiny land footprint, and if, as I hope, it will displace the great majority of livestock farming, then all that is land that can be turned back to nature, can be rewilded, and used to draw down carbon through natural climate solutions. It could be the crucial technological change that allows us to stop both climate and ecological breakdown.”
Does his interest in biotech extends to genetic modification of crops, the nemesis of so many environmentalists?
“I’m generally opposed to the genetic engineering of arable crops, simply because it’s been used to a large extent to create animal feed monocultures with the complete elimination of all arable weeds,” he says.
“But I think there is some scope for genome editing in microbes to produce cultured palm oil, so we don’t have to have palm oil plantations, and cultured fish oils so we don’t have to catch fish anymore. Things that will massively take the pressure off the natural world.”
Monbiot appears indefatigable on the topic of environmentalism, despite talking openly earlier this year about dealing with a health scare, and I wonder what drives, or at least sustains him.
It becomes clearer when he talks about his biggest passion outside of work, brought to life in the opening chapters of his book, Feral. “The days I spend on my sea kayak, off the coast of Britain, those are the days around which my life is built,” he says.
“I spent my whole childhood fantasising about it [the sea]. I’ve always had a deep attraction to it. And kayaking is where I sort of find myself, where I find it working best for me.”
It’s this image of him bobbing alone off the coast of Great Britain, immersed in the ecosystems he writes so much about, that perhaps best sums up the drive behind a career fighting and writing for the love of the natural world.