George Monbiot: How Did We Get Into This Mess?
The raison d'etre of this collection of essays comes in the final chapter in a book looking for answers as to the state of the world today:
In the United States, blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without health care, and insist that millionaires should pay less tax . . . What has happened to us?
Following on from Naomi Klein's No Is Not Enough, I wanted to read more of this, like I'm tired of trying not to slip into the equation: Concern For How Bad Things Are = Militancy = Envy and Bitterness. Who wants to be seen as a conspiracy theorist, or a bore, or a tree-hugging hippy type? But at a certain stage, you stop caring about how much you care.
Monbiot dares to care about many things, including the growing trend of investor-state rules. He cites the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in the process of being organized between the EU and the US, which will allow corporations the further ability to sue countries that deny them, eg for control of resources. Monbiot cites recent examples of this trend: a Canadian company is suing El Salvador for £315 million for the loss of its anticipated profits, for not being allowed to exploit a gold mine there, a mine that would contaminate the water supplies. In Argentina following public protests, the government put a freeze on people's energy and water bills; Argentina was then sued successfully by international utility companies, and paid them over a billion dollars in public money in compensation.
There are broader issues that Monbiot raises, epitomized by the book's title. He notes how freedom as a concept has been appropriated by the super-rich – ie those who control our media and through lobbying and funding, our political system – to mean freedom from the demands of social justice, from environmental constraints, from collective bargaining and from the taxation that funds public services. Meanwhile, most people's wages have fallen: Between 1947 and 1979, productivity in the US rose by 119 per cent, while the income of the bottom fifth of the population rose by 122 per cent. But between 1979 and 2009, productivity rose by 80 per cent, while the income of the bottom fifth fell by 4 per cent. So our conception of freedom has changed incrementally these past forty years, almost without notice, like the proverbial frog in the pan of ever increasing boiling water. The majority are getting left behind, and are voting for it, thinking that this is freedom.
The surveying of our cultural malaise is something Monbiot does well. In one chapter he writes a meditation on our modern obsession with linearity, and concurrently with accomplishments. The natural world, so at odds with this, suffers from our disregard, though we suffer too from losing ourselves in this culture of linearity. This leads to one of Monbiot's biggest arguments: that the neoliberal need for economic growth, quarter by quarter, is driving us relentlessly to our environmental destruction. He mentions Christmas as an example, of how we all buy gifts for each other that we don't need, which become forgotten a half hour later. According to a film, The Story of Stuff, only 1 per cent of materials flowing through the consumer economy remain in use six months after sale.
I read this and I thought: guilty. Monbiot then pursues the consequences of our consumer culture: Industrial Farming, Sweat-Shop Conditions in Factories, Environmental Pollution. All for who or what, exactly?
His book goes on, essay after essay, depressing in the way that watching the movie The Florida Project left me feeling low. But at the end, Monbiot mentions our extrinsic and intrinsic natures, the former caring about status and money and distrusting strangers, the latter less concerned about these things than about other people. We are all made up of both, though some gravitate more to one than the other. Monbiot finishes with a call: People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the ground that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.As a meat-eating, consumption-loving fan of the Trump-sport-par-excellence, American football, I nevertheless feel emboldened reading the likes of Klein and Monbiot. 2018 will be the year when I care just a little bit more.