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Paper Straws Are Not Enough. Only “System Change” Can Halt Climate Crisis, Says George Monbiot

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A massive heat wave has scorched much of Europe this week, with the U.K. shattering its record for highest temperature ever recorded Tuesday. We’re joined by author and environmental activist George Monbiot, whose latest column for The Guardian is headlined “This heatwave has eviscerated the idea that small changes can tackle extreme weather.” Monbiot criticizes what he calls “micro-consumerist bollocks” — an approach that presents “micro-solutions” to the “macro-problem” of climate change. “The only thing that delivers quickly and effectively is system change,” says Monbiot, who also breaks down how new technology can eliminate the West’s reliance on animal agriculture, which is one of the leading causes of the climate crisis. He also discusses the role of industrial animal agriculture in the climate crisis, which is often overshadowed by a focus on fossil fuels.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We go now to Britain, which shattered its record for highest temperature ever recorded Tuesday, with the London Fire Brigade declaring a major incident in response to a huge surge in fires across the capital. This comes amidst a heat wave scorching much of Europe and more fires in France. Britain’s national weather forecaster said this week the high temperatures are now a fact of life amidst concerns the country is not prepared for the heat.

For more, we go to George Monbiot, author, environmental activist, Guardian columnist, where his latest piece is headlined “This heatwave has eviscerated the idea that small changes can tackle extreme weather.” His 2021 article “Capitalism is killing the planet — it’s time to stop buying into our own destruction” has just won the Orwell Prize for Journalism.

George Monbiot, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, why don’t you first describe what it’s like in Britain right now, why this is so unusual, and what are the remedies?

GEORGE MONBIOT: So, by comparison to what many other parts of the world have been suffering, particularly India this year and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, you might not think it’s very much, two days of 40-degree — 40 degrees centigrade — heat. But for Britain, which is famous for its mild, not to say, rather, gray and chilly and rainy climate, it was a massive shock stepping outside and feeling like you’re walking into a fan oven because of the hot wind blowing off the streets into your face. It just felt all wrong. It felt like something has gone very badly awry here in this famously chilly and mild climate. And it bust all the records. We saw the sort of wildfires, which are totally unfamiliar in the parts of the U.K. where they happened.

And it looks like a glimpse of a future that’s rushing towards us all too quickly. These are the sort of weather events that climate scientists were saying, well, you know, we might see this with 2 degrees, possibly 3 degrees, of heating. Well, here we are at 1.2 degrees centigrade of global heating, and it has already come.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I would just say, George, that, you know, I lived in London not very long ago, in Cambridge and in London, and I remember that we didn’t even have fans, much less air conditioning. So it’s really staggering, this heat wave. I want to ask about how people are responding, what steps are being taken to avert this climate crisis. In the piece we just cited, on capitalism, for which you won the Orwell Prize, you offer a scathing critique of the way we’re dealing with the crisis, focusing on what you term, quote, “micro-consumerist bollocks.” Could you explain?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Sure. So, what we’re saying to people, as environmentalists, is, look, we’re facing the greatest existential crisis that humanity has ever faced. We’re facing the potential collapse of our life support systems, a domino effect as one Earth system pulls down the others until basically the habitable space on the planet collapses into a completely different equilibrium state for which we did not evolve. So this is like the biggest of all existential crises which humanity has ever faced, and we’re seeing now. In response, we want you not to use so many plastic bags, and to replace your cotton buds which have got plastic shafts with ones with paper shafts, and stop using plastic straws.

I mean, it sounds ridiculous when I say it like this, but this is genuinely what a large portion of the environmental movement has been doing, and calling for the most micro possible solutions to the most macro possible problem. And what happens when you do that is, you know, far from making it easier to make change, and far from telling people, “Look, there’s something easy you can do, so you can buy into this; it’s a very low threshold for getting engaged,” they just turn people off altogether, because, number one, people say, “Well, they can’t be serious. Obviously, it can’t be that much of a problem if the solutions are so tiny. So this isn’t something I need to worry about.” And those who have got a bit more knowledge of it, well, they must feel like they’re being taken for idiots. Like, you know, how can that solve anything? How is that going to fix the issue?

But, unfortunately, this micro-consumerist bollocks is the dominant narrative within the media, but also within a lot of environment organizations. And when you approach those organizations and say, “Look, this isn’t going to cut it. You know, these small incremental changes you’re calling for” — even sort of slightly bigger ones than the ones I’ve mentioned — “you know, they’re in no way commensurate with the scale of the crisis we face.” And they say, “Well, we can’t get too far ahead of the membership. And we don’t want to frighten people, and we don’t want to provoke a fight with the government. And, you know, we’ve got to reach people where they are.” And frankly, their theory of change is just wrong. Incremental change can never develop the transformation which is required in situations like this — in fact, probably in any situation. It just does not deliver.

The only thing that delivers quickly and effectively is system change. And while we have been messing about with these ridiculous micro-solutions, the radical right has instituted a global insurgency and has achieved system change. It’s tearing down democracy. It’s tearing down equality before the law. It’s tearing down basic rights, human rights, tearing down regulations, tearing down tax, ripping down everything and changing the system to suit billionaires, to suit oligarchs, to suit predatory corporations. While we’ve been saying, “Oh, yes, we’re a bit — you know, we’re not — a bit worried about asking for too much,” they’ve said, “We’re going to have the lot.” And they’re succeeding. So, what they’ve proved is that you can do system change — unfortunately, you know, proved it in all the most horrible ways. And our timidity, our failure to demand that system change has been a big part of the reason why we are stuck where we are and why there’s been almost no effective measures to address this greatest of all crises.

And, you know, some of us know exactly what we want. You know, we want what I call “private sufficiency, public luxury,” where we have our own domain, our own small domain at home, where we’ve got our own home and we’ve got the necessities that we need in that home, but if we want luxury, we should pursue it in the public domain, because there’s just simply not enough physical or ecological space for everyone to pursue private luxury. You know, if everyone has a private jet and a supercar, that’s the planet gone, in hours. You know, we’d just burn through everything if that were the case. If everyone in London had their own swimming pool and their own tennis court and their own art collection, London would have to be as big as England in order to accommodate that. England would be the size of Europe. Where would everyone else live? It’s just impossible.

You know, this whole idea that we can all become millionaires is impossible for two reasons. One, some people are super rich because other people are super poor, and that extreme wealth depends on exploitation. But secondly, there’s just not enough planetary space to permit that. But there is enough space for everyone to have public luxury — public swimming pools and public tennis courts and a public health service and public transport. And that creates space for people rather than taking it away. And because we’re sharing those resources, the impact per capita is much, much smaller. So, that’s one part of it.

We need doughnut economics, Kate Raworth’s approach, where we say, you know, we live within planetary boundaries but above the welfare boundary, so that everyone has a good life without rupturing Earth systems. We need Jeremy Lent’s approach towards an ecological civilization. And we need participatory democracy, building on the ideas of Murray Bookchin and the practice of places like Porto Alegre in Brazil and Reykjavík in Iceland and Taiwan, where there’s great examples of how we can take back our politics and run them ourselves. So, some of us are very clear about the system change we want to see, but very few of us are actually prepared to call for that system change. And that has been our great failing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, George, I’d like to ask you about your recent book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, the link between the climate crisis and hunger. We were just speaking to Vanessa Nakate, the Ugandan climate justice activist, who was telling us about what the effects of the drought have been in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. So, if you could talk about the argument you make in the book, and in particular why you think animal agriculture is particularly ruinous?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes. Well, first of all, many thanks to Vanessa for all her brilliant activism. She is so inspiring and such a wonderful person. And thank you for having her on your program.

So, you know, it’s become clear to me that, looking at it from the global perspective, as a whole, it is now as important to stop animal agriculture as it is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. And, you know, I’m not saying that people in Somalia should stop keeping animals. That’s clearly their only lifeline. But for the great majority of us, and for people in the United States, for people in the U.K., where I am, you know, we’ve just got to stop eating animals, because that is the primary environmental driver of destruction. So, agriculture, as a whole, is the major cause of habitat loss, the major cause of wildlife loss, the major cause of extinction, the major cause of land use, the major cause of freshwater use, of soil degradation, one of the major causes of climate breakdown, of water pollution, of air pollution. And, you know, it’s — and by far away the biggest chunk of that is from animal agriculture. It’s up there with the fossil fuel industry as the driver of mass destruction.

Plant-based diets are much more benign, but you can go a lot further than that. And now we have these new technologies, including precision fermentation, which is basically producing your protein-rich foods, not from the flesh and the secretions of animals, but from single-celled organisms, from microbes. And you brew them. It’s just a sophisticated form of brewing, really. Now, there are many, many good things about this, because it greatly reduces the environmental impact of producing your protein-rich foods. But, importantly, it can be done anywhere. You don’t need to have fertile land. You don’t need to have water. You don’t need to have the other elements to be able to produce food from farming. So it can be done in the Horn of Africa. It can be done across the Sahel. It can be done in the Middle East and across North Africa, producing protein-rich and fat-rich foods. You have basically a microbial flour, which can then be turned into virtually anything.

And this, I think, could be the only chance now for companies to — sorry, for countries to break their dependency on these multinational companies which are controlling global trade, where you have four corporations now controlling 90% of the global grain trade, which leaves those countries incredibly vulnerable. They’re at the end of a long and highly fragile food chain. The global food system itself has lost its resilience. It’s beginning to look very much like the financial system in the approach to 2008. And if it breaks, it will be those poor nations which get hit first and worst, as always.

And we’re talking about the absolute cutting off, potentially, of food imports for some of those nations. A lot of that food passes through chokepoints. One of those chokepoints is more or less completely closed now, which is the Turkish Straits, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last year, we saw another of those chokepoints, the Suez Canal, close because that ship got wedged across it. Had those two things coincided, the food chain would simply have snapped, and about a quarter of the world’s people would have been without food almost instantly, because one of the things which this global food system has done is to switch from stocks to flows. So, basically, our global food reserves are floating at sea in container ships. And if those can’t pass, then the shelves empty almost instantly.

So, what precision fermentation gives you is this opportunity to break that formula. And I can’t see any other easy ways forward for countries where the land just can’t support people, they’re dependent on imports, they’re dependent on buying food from hard currency markets with soft currencies, and they’re extremely vulnerable to famine and food insecurity.

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