We Need to Talk About George
A new episode of The Great Humbling, plus two recent conversations
Tonight at Dartington Hall, George Monbiot of the Guardian will go head-to-head with Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land magazine. For those of us further afield, there’s also a livestream. Their debate has been given the slightly subdued title, ‘Vegan vs Mixed Organic Agriculture’. What is at stake is rather more than this, because for the past three years, Monbiot has been advocating for ‘the end of farming’ altogether.
In the new episode of The Great Humbling, Ed Gillespie and I talk about the role that George Monbiot has played for decades as the one-man human interface between the environmental movement and the mainstream media in the UK. Through his columns in the Guardian, his books and radio and TV appearances, he is easily the best-known environmentalist in the UK today. What does it take to play that role? The hide of a rhino, for one thing, and a fierce left hook.
Public debate in Britain is a form of pugilism, a skill taught at expensive schools, whose practitioners learn to combine ruthlessness with a veneer of charm. Inasmuch as the environmental movement needs to enter this ring, Monbiot has been its heavyweight, a role he’s been happy to play up to: he once went out on tour as ‘Gentleman George’, challenging all-comers.
Where things get tricky is that, for many of its other practitioners, this form of combat is played as entertainment: more wrestling than boxing. It’s possible to be grateful for the role that Monbiot has played in getting in that ring, raising issues that might otherwise not be heard at all, while having doubts about the fruitfulness of staged combat over such issues. How often are minds changed by this kind of performative combat? When one side is seen to have won an encounter, does this tell us anything about the matter under debate, or just the skills of the debaters?
My ambivalence here has a personal dimension. I once spent an hour on stage with Monbiot, at the first Dark Mountain festival. It was not a particularly enjoyable experience, nor a particularly fruitful one – except in as much as it set me thinking harder about how we find ways of speaking and thinking together in public that don’t assume we get closer to the truth by staging this kind of combative spectacle.
But my own encounter with Monbiot is a footnote, not a story that would be worth revisiting in its own right. What brought Ed and me onto the subject was the conversations both of us have had since last summer with people in various corners of the environmental movement, prompted by Regenesis, the book in which Monbiot argues that farming is ‘the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the earth’, but that – fortunately – it is about to be rendered obsolete by technological innovations that allow us to produce food out of microbes, water and electricity. (If you haven’t read the book, you’ll get a sense of it from his initial Guardian article on the subject, which ran under the headline, ‘Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet’.)
Monbiot is a skilled polemicist who underwrites his arguments with a formidable amount of research. He tends to present his conclusions as simply a matter of fact: ‘You can’t negotiate with arithmetic,’ he writes at one point. It takes both analytical skill and expert knowledge to get inside a carefully constructed case such as the one made in Regenesis, to reveal the judgements on which it relies and the places where these judgements are open to question.
When it comes to the future of farming, there are people better qualified than Ed or me to do this. If that’s what you’re looking for, then I would direct you to this critique from the farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje, followed by Simon Fairlie’s review of the Regenesis in The Land magazine and Gunnar Rundgren’s ‘In defence of farming’. There’s also the investigation by Jonathan Matthews at GM Watch which details the origins and connections of RePlanet, the organisation with whom Monbiot is collaborating on the Reboot Food campaign. Finally, a useful Twitter thread from Rob Percival (head of food policy at the Soil Association and author of The Meat Paradox, Radio 4’s current Book of the Week) on the basic questions about animal farming and climate change.
So if Ed and I are not the people to offer a forensic analysis of Regenesis, what do we have to add here? I guess it’s the thing we often find ourselves doing, looking not so much at the arguments, but about what they reveal: what comes into view, as a result of this book and the impact that it has been making?
Have a listen to the episode and see what you think.
On the Re/al/ign with Rhyd Wildermuth
The countdown to publication day for At Work in the Ruins is into single figures. On Saturday, I’ll board the night train from Stockholm and set off on this three-week tour. The first of the two London events on 22 February is now sold out and the other dates are booking up fast, so if you want to be sure of a ticket, I’d book soon.
Meanwhile, the book is already bringing me into all kinds of conversations, and one of the most enjoyable encounters so far was withof . Rhyd’s writing always gets me thinking. His essay from last summer, The Garments of the Goddesses: Notes on the drought in Europe was one of the most memorable pieces I read on Substack in 2022. I look forward to our further conversations.
We had all manner of technical struggles on the afternoon when we sat down to record for his podcast, The Re/al/ign – there was some definite trickster energy in the mix – but somehow we stumbled through that into enjoying the conversation even more. You can listen to the audio-only version here, or watch the video with various camera glitches below.
On Future Trends Forum with Bryan Alexander
In my last post, I expressed some misgivings about a forthcoming appearance on the Future Trends Forum, a webinar aimed at people working in higher education, where I was due to respond to the question, ‘What should universities and colleges do about climate change?’
When we got to the opening question, my first answer was, ‘I don’t know.’ But somehow that opened a door into a lovely hour of conversation with some great follow-up questions from the audience. Thanks to everyone who took part – and to Bryan Alexander for hosting the conversation.
I’m trying to pace myself for the rest of this week, so I come into the tour as rested and ready as possible. Once I get on the road (or rather, on the rails), my intention is to keep a diary here, to give myself a way of processing all the encounters and conversations that I’m headed into. Those posts will mostly be for paid subscribers, so if you want to hear more from me, then this would be a good moment to sign up.
But in any case, I’ll be back soon with a couple of public posts, including an extract from At Work in the Ruins. Thanks for reading – and thanks to all of you who have been spreading the word about the book and the tour.