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Synthesis/Regeneration 45   (Winter 2008)

Monbiot and Deep Dilemmas

review by David Orton

Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning, by George Monbiot, (Doubleday Canada, 2006, 277 pages, hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-0-385-66221-5); — reviewed by David Orton

What I hope I have demonstrated is that it is possible to save the biosphere. — Monbiot, p. 203

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
— Upton Sinclair, cited in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, pp. 266–267.

I recently read George Monbiot’s latest book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Monbiot is an interesting fellow. He is one of the climate change gurus who are widely discussed, and he is a person of the Left — a progressive journalist, unlike Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth) or Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers). Also unlike Tim Flannery, Monbiot has little sense of ecology. Another of Monbiot’s books Manifesto for a New World Order (2003), has as its overall thesis that we should take over and democratize globalization. Local self-sufficiency was considered negatively, and at that time he supported carbon emissions trading. Monbiot now seems to have softened this support and gives an informative and very critical examination of the European Emissions Trading Scheme as “a classic act of enclosure.” (pp. 46–49).

Monbiot is someone who has made the intellectual effort to go through the climate change literature for the United Kingdom. He also looks at the proposed technological solutions to the climate change problem and tries to see whether or not the proposed solutions are possible or if they are illusions. He points out that we should look critically at anyone writing about climate change who has something to sell and thus has an economic interest. This corresponds with the sentiment of the Upton Sinclair quotation given above in Al Gore’s book. We have to take this book very seriously indeed.

As most of us know, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 280 parts per million to 380 parts per million today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is forecasting a rise in global temperatures of between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees this century.

We know this is a “compromise” figure in order to get the most polluting states to sign on. Scientists who are directly involved and who are speaking out, seem to be saying that the climate change crisis is much worse than the official view given in the Intergovernmental Panel, and with potential “feed back” mechanisms which make the forecasting of rising temperatures a mug’s guessing game. But the one thing we can count on is that the “vital processes” of the Earth, referred to in the 1970s book The Limits to Growth, are going to be severely disrupted. Monbiot’s book has no listing in the index for “population” and no mention of population reduction. It is human-centered, with other species not really discussed.

I know of people who have read Monbiot and who, because of his arguments, have given up air travel. As the author puts it, “a 90 per cent cut in emissions requires not only that growth [in aviation] stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today are grounded.” (p.182) He also has a good critique of carbon offsets. Monbiot says on this, “Accurate accounting for many carbon-offset projects however honest the attempt, is simply impossible.” (p. 210) I believe that buying carbon offsets encourages the deferment of climate change decisions which need to made now.

I believe that buying carbon offsets encourages the deferment of climate change decisions which need to made now.

Monbiot says that 1.2 tonnes per capita is “the sustainable limit for carbon emissions,” whereas for Canada, our existing per capita carbon usage is 19.05 tonnes a year, and one tonne more still for the US.

I am very conscious of what I don’t know in the climate change debate and its various spin-offs. Yet it seems that now everyone has an opinion on climate change, including many on the Left who have no past history of struggling around environmental concerns. Many commentators who have access to the media support particular soft energy technological fixes, which, they believe, will enable climate change to be addressed and our industrial lifestyle to continue. Yet fundamentally, Canada’s energy policy is about supplying US energy needs.

Capitalism and growth economics, class power, human-centeredness, increasing human populations, land and wildlife “ownership” by humans, consumerism, and the rule of the market are givens. For deeper environmentalists and deeper Greens, however, a real climate change debate means casting aside these givens, as well as a fossil fuel based economy and lifestyle, if we truly seek climate change redemption. As Arne Naess has reminded us: “We must live at a level that we seriously can wish others to attain, not at a level that requires the bulk of humanity not to reach.”

Monbiot is writing about the UK, a crowded industrialized society on a small island, which I feel fortunate to have left behind in my early 20s. But I know in my heart that how we live here in the countryside in Nova Scotia, on a 130-acre old hill farm, which has gone back to forest and being home for non-human animals, is highly privileged — no matter that we have no indoor plumbing, an outhouse and get our water by hand pump from a shallow dug well, and we heat only by wood. To live in the countryside is a privilege, when North American and Western European society is overwhelmingly urban. Yet I also know that most people on Earth could not live this way, otherwise other species would be in an even worse shape than they already are.

And it matters to quite a few of us, even from a visual beauty aspect, when the cell phone towers and wind farm turbines start going up like mushrooms across the rural, and increasingly clear-cut, forest landscape. (Over 90% of industrial forestry in Nova Scotia is by clear cutting.) This is not to minimize the problems bats and birds have with wind turbines, and the problem of noise rural residents living near wind turbines have to endure, in the name of a soft energy path and “tackling” climate change. Where there was once a forest or ocean view, now day and night (presumably because of aircraft a light is needed) industrialization is at one’s doorstep and visible from many miles away.

Canada’s energy policy is about supplying US energy needs.

Real social change is not underway regarding climate change, so I feel the debate to be without substance. We are all self-indulging with words, as the Earth goes down before our eyes. I do not find Monbiot’s Heat helpful in this larger picture, because, whatever his boldness, he takes industrial society as a given, whereas for me it is on its way out.

There is a lot one has to take “on faith” in the climate change discussions, which I do not like, although I am generally impressed by Monbiot’s diligence in examining the data and the different viewpoints. I do not agree with Monbiot’s working assumption that, because of “new technologies and a few cunning applications,” a 94% reduction in carbon emissions “is compatible with the survival of an advanced industrial civilisation.” (p. xii) This seems to be pure fantasy. In another formulation, the book “seeks to show how a modern economy can be decarbonized while remaining a modern economy.” (p. xviii) More accurate is the closing paragraph of Heat, which I find personally inspiring, but is not the overall message of this book:

For the campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all other public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves. (p. 15)

The overall message is that the existing high-consumption industrial lifestyle can be kept and climate change held under control if certain carbon reducing changes are made. It will be tough, is the message, but it can be done.

So what is basically wrong with this generally interesting book? Monbiot is good on social justice, but ecocentric justice for all life forms seems to escape him, no matter his claim “to saving the biosphere.” Yet deeper Greens believe that social justice for humans must be situated within ecocentric justice for all species of animal and plant life.

I will close with a quote from the late Stan Rowe, Canadian co-author (with Ted Mosquin) of the influential A Manifesto for Earth. He wrote, in an e-mail to me:

The trouble with most diagnoses —social, cultural, economic, political — is that their reference points are still inside the human race. So there’s no resolution except on the basis of faith — and we can see what that leads to with competing ideologies such as the three Abrahamic religions (the Jewish and its two heresies). What Ted [Mosquin] and I are trying to do is to establish, with the help of current biological and ecological knowledge, a point of reference outside the biocentric-homocentric. It seems to me that Earth-centeredness, cleanly separated from the natural human proclivity to put organisms and the Top-Organism at center stage, can have great “saving power” for all Life, all Creativity, in the many centuries still to come.

Real social change is not underway regarding climate change …

I do not believe industrial capitalism, which has created the climate crisis, can solve it without a fundamental transformation in character, away from human-centeredness, and with repudiation of the growth economy without ecological limits. The ecological question is primary.

We need an Earth-centered critique of climate change, around which deeper Greens and environmentalists can unite. Monbiot’s Heat, while it has important things to say and brings out some deep dilemmas for us all, is unfortunately not it. We need civilizational shock therapy from an Earth-centered perspective if we are to arrest and ultimately slay the climate change dragon.

David Orton is affiliated with Green Web, an independent environmental research group with a biocentric perspective.

[21 jan 08]

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