George Monbiot, Bring On The Apocalypse

I'm not going to wreck it yet by digging further, because I just know that there's going to be something in his political declarations that means I'll have to give him up just a little. Right now? I'm crushing pretty hard on George Monbiot, whose collection Bring On The Apocalypse: Essays on Self-destruction has over the last few days been making me unreasonably happy in the midst of my broad anger about matters environmental and political.

At bottom, Monbiot is a funny, wickedly smart guy who's not afraid of doing some research so that when he swings at a pitch, he swings for the fences. When you read his essays is great gulps, as you can here, it gets overwhelming, in all kinds of ways. To wit:
  • If someone who writes this incisively can be ignored by policy-makers, we really are screwed.
  • With Monbiot writing so effectively, why are the rest of us not just posting his columns on politicians' doors, or tattooing them on each other's skins, rather than mumbling away in what might as well be our separate premature dotages?
In 2005, for example, he seems to have written the following: "the staggering returns the banks made this year should not have been treated as profits at all, but as money that might have protected them, and us, against bad loans when the next recession arrives" (p.171).

Rather than repeating the standard conspiracy-sounding line about the World Bank being a tool for American hegemony, Monbiot goes through the archives to find its founders saying almost exactly this, thus defusing the tinfoil-hat objections normally deployed to good effect by neoconservatives (and I think neoliberals as well, though "neoliberal" is rather like "bourgeois" in being an apparently meaningful word for others and yet beyond my brain's ability to make sense of it).

He even offers a wonderfully compressed explanation of why it's such a mistake to use the "undiscovered medicines" argument in seeking to protect wild areas: "By arguing for biodiversity on the grounds of human need, ... conservationists play into the hands of their enemies" (p.54). Monbiot's answer, ingeniously, is to reach for aesthetics and the non-rational. If the world would be a poorer place if an old painting or a rare book were to be destroyed, the same argument can and should be made in defense of endangered species and places.

It's a whole series of case studies, this book, in how to unpack a shallow argument, explode it, and plant your own conception in its place. Brilliant stuff, and for once I don't think the blurbs are over-reaching. Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in the Globe and Mail, suggested that Monbiot's previous book Heat "throws out more intellectual challenges by the page than the Canadian media does in a year": unrealistic, sure, but this book demonstrates how public intellectuals ought to carry themselves, even if Monbiot's technically a journalist rather than an intellectual.

Bring on the revolution.


David L. said…
"...even if Monbiot's technically a journalist rather than an intellectual."


Are the two categories mutually exclusive?

Two minutes for knee-jerk Ivory Tower snobbery!
Fraze said…
it's only snobbery, David, if one assumes that "intellectual" is a complimentary term. If it's an insult, or an awkward synonym for "academic" forced on Richard by the quote he's quoting... then it's not snobbery.

Seems to me that your objection was the knee-jerking this time.

Reverse snobbery!
richard said…
Good points, both. I'll accept the penalty, but I'll be waiting for a makeup call next time next match.

In phrasing it this way, I was thinking about the recent calls for academics to speak out against the current round of federal budget cuts. (In the last little while, some op-eds in the Times-Colonist have done just that.)

It's the job of journalists to Speak Truth To Power; academics have tended not to bother with that sort of thing, preferring to investigate the evolution of glottal stops in Macedonia, or environmentalist poetics, or what have you. And I want more academics to function more like public intellectuals. I want them to use their academic abilities to participate in public discourse, in this case to hold the government to account.

In other words, I was complimenting Monbiot for doing such great journalistic work (though not as a reporter, obviously) that he's successful both journalistically and intellectually. Separate categories, but not separate ranks.

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