Our political system has been terrible at solving our environmental problems. Journalist and author George Monbiot proposes a new approach.
It’s not surprising George Monbiot has written this book.
Monbiot’s regular column on the environment in The Guardian is always a great read – cutting, well researched, eloquent – but in total, well, a tad depressing. Or should I say challenging?
Challenging as with each article you think: we (humans) are in deep shit. Monbiot articulates the many, major things going wrong on the environmental front. And to make matters worse, there are solutions staring us in the face.
The underlying snag, as he so often points out, is our dumb politics getting in the way.
No wonder then Monbiot started thinking about changing politics itself. You know, so it might help make life on the planet better, rather than worse.
How did we get in this mess?
Monbiot says we’re stuck in an ongoing battle between two major competing political doctrines. (And that both are simply not up to the challenges we’re facing.) These are the doctrines that have dominated our lifetime:
Social democracy which supports and promotes the welfare state, income redistribution, regulation of the economy, public services and social interventions by government. It’s largely associated the theories of economist John Maynard Keynes.
Neoliberalism on the other hand advocates for privatisation, deregulation, free trade, reductions in government spending and an increased role of the private sector in the economy and society. It’s associated with the theories of economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and politicians like Margarate Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Of the two approaches, it could be argued that neoliberalism has got the upper hand in recent decades – especially in places like the US, UK and Australia.
Clearly, George is not a fan:
“Neoliberalism is, at heart, a self-serving racket: an elaborate theory that serves as an excuse for the very rich to release themselves from the constraints of democracy: tax, regulation, decent pay and conditions for their workers, care for the living world and all the other decencies we owe to each other.”
The big problem is the premise it’s based on – its underlying notion of who we are. Monbiot describes neoliberalism as:
“a virulent ideology of extreme individualism and competition, which tells us, against all the scientific evidence, that our dominant characteristics are selfishness and greed, and that this is a good thing, as it stimulates enterprise, which produces wealth, which will somehow trickle down to enrich everyone. This is the central ideology of neoliberalism, which valorises and centralises our worst tendencies, and celebrates the inequality and domination that results.”
A politics of belonging
Monbiot’s argues it’s simply not going to work to counter neoliberalism with a rehashed version of social democracy. He also reckons the failure to come up with anything new is essentially a failure of imagination.
His proposal is a “politics of belonging”.
His starting point is a remarkable human trait. One that’s much closer to who we are. It’s our ability for altruism and benevolence:
“We have an astonishing capacity for empathy and a tendency towards cooperation that is rivalled among mammals only by the naked mole rat.”
The role of community
One place to hook into that capacity for co-operation and leverage it is through our communities.
Monbiot gives examples of communities becoming properly and seriously involved in the political process. Like the participatory budgeting in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil – where 20% of the municipal budget (the part devoted to infrastructure) is allocated by the people. In fact, 50,000 people are involved.
He describes how this involvement has not only led to important improvements locally, it’s also fired people up to take politics way more seriously.
This has been my own experience – with a Better Block project – where we got our local community involved in improving their street. We saw first hand an extraordinary level of enthusiasm when people realised they could directly change where they lived for the better. It was a level of engagement and enthusiasm that shocked our local politicians and baffled Council staff.
This is Monbiot’s point too. That the public has become disengaged and cynical about politics as we’ve come to know it. And that we need a fresh, more inclusive approach – where decisions are made as close as possible to the grassroots level.
The role of storytelling
A new way of doing politics is all very fine, but how do we communicate it and how do we make it happen?
For things to really change, Monbiot says a new politics is going to have to tell a new story.
The power and use of storytelling in politics is an underlying theme of Monbiot’s book. As he says:
“Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals”.
In this short video clip, George explains how the narratives of the old doctrines have used storytelling in the past and how a new narrative might work in the future. Have a look (it’s 7 minutes long) …
Listen to George
If you’re interested in politics, or rather, frustrated with politics, you need to get this book.
Or better still, get hold of the audiobook and listen to it. It’s narrated by George Monbiot himself. You get the full Monbiot experience – a real sense of the depth of his thinking and research and also his flair for communication – articulate, passionate and wry.
Some might say this book is overly idealistic. Will the changes Monbiot proposed really happen? What’s the likelihood?
Ok, I can’t see a revolution happening any time soon. But overall, at the end of Out of the Wreckage, you’ll be glad that somebody, especially somebody like George Monbiot, has taken a step back and said hang on, this isn’t working, maybe there are ways we can do this politics thing better.
In fact, I wondered if this book was ahead of its time. Maybe even 100 years ahead.
I do sometimes ponder what life will be like then. What happens when the shit hits the fan – with the worst effects of climate change taking hold, the stark divide between rich and poor, and large numbers of refugees on the move. When it all becomes too big to ignore, Out of the Wreckage may just get unearthed. I’m guessing Monbiot had that in his head too.
Phil Stubbs is an environmental blogger and podcaster, founder of The Environment Show and livable streets advocate based in Sydney.
‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for Age of Crisis’ (Book)
By George Monbiot
Verso Books, 224 pages
‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for Age of Crisis’ (Audiobook)
By George Monbiot
Audible Studios, 5 hours and 11 minutes
Our rating – 4.6 star
GoodReads – 4.1 star
Amazon – 4.0 star
Audible – 4.5 star
‘Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems’ by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 15 April 2016
‘Becoming Unstoppable’ George Monbiot Interview about ‘Out of the Wreckage’ for Truth Out by Mark Karlin, 22nd October 2017
George Monbiot’s posts on Politics, from George Monbiot’s blog
Public talk about ‘Out of Wreckage’ for the Gaia Foundation in London, 23 November 2017 (1 hour)