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19 December 2014 22:41 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor

  • Ivo Vegter
George Monbiot, not for the first time, has admitted to being wrong. He feels his life’s work, banging on about saving the planet, has annoyed people. He wants to stop being annoying, which entails “changing the language”.

Like many middle-aged men, George Monbiot, one of the Guardian’s more prominent left-wing messiahs, is having a wee crisis.

“For 30 years I banged on about [environmental] threats,” he laments, only to find that he’s been “engaged in contradiction and futility”.

The problem? We’re just not listening. So he is searching his soul, and making a demonstrative display of it, as if to say, “Look at me! See how intellectually honest I am with myself!”

And he is. Too honest by half, in fact. He reveals himself to be a misanthropic, insulting elitist. Let me explain.

Monbiot thinks the fact that environmentalists have failed to convince people of the urgency of their case has to do with how he and his ilk communicate things. Emphasising threats, he says, only serves to appeal to “extrinsic values”, such as “power, prestige, image and status”.

As he theorises: “Experimental work suggests that when fears are whipped up, they trigger an instinctive survival response. You suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests. Conservative strategists seem to know this, which is why they emphasise crime, terrorism, deficits and immigration.” (He does not say on which pusillanimous right-wing racists he experimented, and whether they survived.)

Since environmentalists have always preached the fear of armageddon, he reasons, they’ve only made people more selfish and uncaring. Instead, he thinks the green left ought to appeal to what he calls “intrinsic values”, namely “intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action”.

The trick is to seduce us with promises of a better world, all nice and clean and “rewilded”. This obscure and clumsy term might be surprising in this context, but naked greed explains it. He craftily links to his book, which happens to be “a manifesto on rewilding”. After all, when he’s being self-interested, he’s not like the rest of us, who are just short-sighted, hateful and uncaring. (Especially when we write about environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. Hint, hint. I earn royalties and I don’t care.)

Monbiot makes it clear: he doesn’t think that “climate breakdown” and “mass extinction” are no longer threats. He still thinks his purpose is “saving the planet”, as if he is some sort of holier-than-thou messiah who can promise us a place in paradise if only we wouldn’t squirm under his gentle, guiding hand.

But he realises he’s been quite annoying about it, which must be why we’re not listening to him. And that is a public relations problem. It is a matter of changing how he and his allies in the environmental movement communicate. Like a priest who feels he’s lost the the youth to dancing and wickedness, Monbiot thinks it’s about “changing the language” to be less “alienating”.

It never once occurs to him that his substance, not his style, might be the problem. Monbiot has on many an occasion been forced to renounce convictions he once firmly held. It is true that someone who is often wrong is not necessarily always wrong, but it can’t help his credibility.

He famously made a u-turn about nuclear power, which he had always rejected in the strongest terms. In the aftermath of Fukushima, he conceded what most of us have long known: nuclear power is among the cleanest and safest sources of energy we know.

Monbiot had to climb down off his pulpit in praise of veganism. He once said the only way to avoid widespread famine was for the rich to give up meat, fish and dairy. He now says the ethical case “once seemed clear”, but he was wrong.

In 1999, before the violent “Battle in Seattle” protest against the World Trade Organisation, George Monbiot was rallying the anti-globalisation troops. A few years later, he admitted he was wrong about trade, adding: “The only thing worse than a world with the wrong international trade rules is a world with no trade rules at all.”

Another favourite trope of the left is that rampant greed and consumerism means we’ll inevitably run out of resources, because they’re not infinite. The most popular of these was the neurosis about “peak oil”. As recently as 2009, Monbiot wrote: “It’s probably too late to prepare for peak oil, but we can at least try to salvage food production.”

Of course, the price mechanism prevented the anticipated disaster, as I’ve always argued it would. Only when the alarmist predictions failed to come true, and new sources like shale oil and oil sands began to boom, did Monbiot finally admit “we were wrong”. He likes the royal “we” when he’s in a confessional mood.

All of these admissions of error have come with face-saving caveats, of course. Vegans were wrong, but we ought to farm meat differently. Peak oil alarmists were wrong, but there’s too much of it. Free trade is not evil, but don’t you just loathe George Bush?

To Monbiot’s mind, repeatedly being proven wrong by both argument and history couldn’t possibly be why environmentalists lack credibility when they warn about threats. No, he thinks it is because the green left fails to heed “psychologists and cognitive linguists”.

He says environmentalists just need to put a positive spin on things, and everyone will reject selfishness and greed and skip into an enchanted, rewilded future, hand in hand.

It has not occurred to Monbiot that perhaps people don’t like him because he insults them. He accuses people who disagree with him of being self-centred and insecure fools who don’t care about anyone else and care about nature least of all. What a patronising, prejudiced delight he must be at dinner parties.

It hasn’t occurred to Monbiot that when some of us talk about economic concerns, we consider all the good things prosperity has done for humanity: lower child mortality, less disease, longer lives, better nutrition, more leisure time and – yes – improved environmental quality.

It comes as a surprise to him that caring about prosperity is not mutually exclusive with caring about humanity or nature. He can’t bear to admit that people who disagree with him might want a clean, healthy environment too.

I cannot speak for everyone on his political right, because it would be presumptuous of me to claim to know the wants and needs of billions of people. Most of humanity is hardly a monolithic bloc. Some of us surely are racist bigots, but most of us are not. Some of us are happy to be called “conservative”, but not all of us are. Some of us torture puppies, but I think I can safely say most of us want less poverty and more prosperity. Being George Monbiot is a rare gift, of course, but a few of us lesser mortals even think of nature as more than just a healthy, productive resource where we live and grow our food. Some of us actually experience “wonder and enchantment” about nature once in a while, though we won’t admit it down the boozer.

It’s hard to fathom, I know, being that we’re such a degenerate lot, but as Monbiot says himself: “Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power.”

The shame for him is that he needs to learn this from surveys. This suggests a deep-seated misanthropy. To him, it’s always been an either-or question. Either you’re like George Monbiot, or you’re a depraved miscreant. Either you like nature, or you think only of money.

As Monbiot himself wrote less than six weeks ago, in a piece entitled “Why we couldn't care less about the natural world”: “The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become.”

He divides the world into two stereotypes: people like him – who care about things like intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action – and the rest of us – who don’t think for ourselves, fear other people, hate ourselves, are cruel and cold, and couldn’t care less about nature. We’d sell our own mothers if a toff with a demagogic streak told us he’d get an immigrant to wax our banger, because that’s how common we are. (And by “banger” I mean “old car”, of course.)

So, now Monbiot has discovered that he was wrong about that too. Without any apparent self-consciousness about his own opinion of last month, he writes: “We've tended to assume people are more selfish than they really are.”

Yes, you have tended to assume that, George. That’s why people don’t like you. That’s why people don’t listen to you. You’re wrong all the time. You insult people for saying so. And you’re condescending enough to think they can be manipulated by some shiny new spin.

There’s your communication problem, right there. Stop calling people shallow and greedy and stupid and cold and self-centred. Start respecting the needs and desires of other people, even if they don’t live in a charming and ancient Welsh hamlet of 2,000 souls.

Sorry about your mid-life crisis. But until you stop lashing out at people for not buying your brand of baloney, you’re the very epitome of the prejudice and smug hypocrisy of the green-left elite. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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