You are here

What's your plan, George Monbiot?

George Monbiot is at it again.

See It’s the Rich Wot Gets the Pleasure of 27 Oct 2011.

George Monbiot is at it again.
Why does he and his ilk insist on asserting the primacy of consumption over population growth as the most critical factor toward aggregate resource liquidation and associated global catastrophes such as climate change?

BOTH conditions are the problem!!
Each one factors upon the other to deliver increasing resource depletion and system entropy.
Why waste time and public attention span arguing a false dichotomy?

That said, it is high material consumption standards that are, ostensibly, the central pursuit of our current capitalist value system. It lies at the very heart of the dominant economic growth fetish, which has a core metabolic need for all participants to consume, and to compete to consume, ever greater streams of 'stuff'. Why else would 'consumer confidence' be such a prominent indicator of economic health?

Population growth is merely a lazy way to bid up national or corporate GDP numbers in lieu of the productivity gains that the 'experts' incessantly tout as being the ideal means for economic growth. However population expansion does also serve to bid up the value of resource assets owned by the obscenely wealthy, so perhaps it does provide for an implicit core function within capitalist economy.

In the third world population growth is largely a collateral damage aggregated from the cultural and landscape destructions borne of colonial resource plunder. However globalisation has very successfully harnessed those who are too poor to be effective consumers into a yoke of corporate slave labor. Consequently unemployed westerners can at least afford shoes, shirts and gadgets, even if they are the discards of others who are easily able to buy too much at cheap-as-chips 'discount' prices.

Given this centrality of consumption to the modern economic equation, and the relative periphery of population growth, what is George's plan for reform?

It had better be a damn good one. Consumption levels are now, more than ever before, THE dominant socio-economic value. Radically decreasing them will require absolute system revolution, or a complete systemic collapse. Either way larger population only adds to the difficulties and risks involved within the transition. Without this revolution, incremental consumption will be ongoing and population growth will magnify its impacts upon both the planet and the poor.

Furthermore, excessive population growth also confuses and complexifies systems of communication and delivery, both local and global. The poor are clearly the biggest losers from such systemic 'entropy'.

So then, all things considered, why trivialise or malign concern about population levels?

Monbiot's view on Nuclear power reeks similarly of evidence that he is, in fact, a closet growthist. At complete odds with his stated views against 'over-consumption' he fails to observe that aggregate energy consumption is way, way too great. He implicitly accepts current and growing energy demand levels as a foundation of the problem at hand, factors this with climate change as the greatest concern facing humanity, and arrives at nuclear power generation as the solution.

The contradiction this poses with his 'over-consumption' fetish is astonishing. However the most salient flaw in his thinking is his complete oversight of high energy consumption as a core problem, no matter what the generation method. The most critical fact is that we move around too much, we build too much, we dig up too much stuff, we eat too much and we breed too much. All because we derive access to and consume too much energy. (It is vital to note that we do not 'generate' energy. We extract it from materials and systems occurring naturally around us, all of which have critical extraction limits. There is also always a loss between what we extract from system flows or sinks, thus depleting them by that amount, and what we can actually convert to our use from that extracted amount. These losses also create impacts, such as waste heat and frequency pollution. Our economic system externalises both the depletion and the conversion losses.)

The cold reality of advanced depletion across multiple vital resource values dictates that it's time to simply stop being so utterly and intractably frantic in our lives and in our expectations. It's time to learn how to just sit around a lot more; to think, talk and have simple fun; to spend our precious, finite time upon unhurried days with people and pastimes we genuinely like, rather than purchasing facile amusement and ego adornment with money that we mostly don't have. This shortfall obliges our permanent commitment to a mostly un-fulfilling, grinding work schedule to which our tenure is increasingly uncertain and destructively competitive. Such an uneasy commitment, welded to us by debt, debases our life to being a cellular input to the weight and power of the global industrial behemoth. We become one small cell in a burgeoning consumer battery. And then, like George, we have to conjure or adopt myths that can enable some belief in our personal metaphysical health. Admittedly George has carved a relatively well-configured position within the battery complex.

The commercial cost of genuine basic needs poses a significant problem to most of us when considering this necessary slowdown, most particularly the cost of amenable housing. Both the affordability and the amenity of housing are directly and seriously diminished by rapid population growth. Amenity includes access to land, private or common, on which to grow food bearing gardens. Thus population growth increases our need to work even harder to maintain our own basic standards, even when we renounce mainstream consumer behaviors. Thanks George. Appreciate your help and concern with this problem. Not!

This condition of bondage to growth might be something that the Occupy movements could very usefully focus upon.

Image icon montbiot-products-tiny.jpg5.5 KB
Image icon montbiot-salesman2.jpg32.85 KB


My perception flickers between this glimpsed view of living wholeness and the steady extrusion of deadness that is crushing around and upon me. The shifting, variously composite view between the two states poses a variously decorated, essentially lonely and potentially crazed schizophrenia. I wonder how many other people see this? Greg Wood - Zombie Culture.

The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve.......For example, the Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology urges a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030: a goal I strongly support.........But even if we can accept an expansion of infrastructure, the technocentric, carbon-counting vision I’ve favoured runs into trouble. The problem. is that it seeks to accommodate a system that cannot be accommodated: a system which demands perpetual economic growth...... Accommodation makes sense only if the economy is reaching a steady state....A steady state economy will be politically possible only if we can be persuaded to stop grabbing. This in turn will be feasible only if we feel more secure. But the global race to the bottom and its destruction of pensions, welfare, public services and stable employment make people less secure, encouraging us to grasp as much for ourselves as we can. Monbiot - The Lost World May 2011.

Well Greg, I don't support your view that Monbiot is a "closet growthist", I doubt anyone who advocates a Steady State Economy (which I certainly support), could be called that, and you seem to feel that he opposes a reduction of energy consumption, which is refuted in his May article. Having lived in Australia for 40 years and getting sick from and of the miasma that the consumerism of Australia is dependent on I moved to Spain, basically because the carbon footprint in Cataluna is 4 tonnes per capita as opposed to the 20 + tonnes per capita in Melbourne.

As you may know, recent financial crisis all over Europe have caused millions to get out in the street, to sit, to talk, to think and spend time with people they would not otherwise have met. How has this happened ? Simply put, they are denied the economic benefits which only Asia now enjoys from "growth" economies. Financial systems around the world are tumbling because people have woken up (painfully) to the giant ponzi schemes which governments globally have adopted. In Spain 48,5% of the young between 18 & 25 are now unemployed, 21.5% of the workforce in total. Millions i.e. the 99% have been badly burned by the growth system, and it is no surprise that 250,000 people turned out in Barcelona on October 15th to support the global "Occupy" movement that began here in mid May, 2 days after I arrived. It too was met with the fascist bully boy tactics the police so readily fall into, but they returned to re-occupy the plazas all over Spain.

It may be a truth that the only way out of the capitalist growth system is economic collapse, and many people such as Prof Tim Garret (Thermodynamics of Civilisation Growth ) - A heap of others are now saying this is what will happen, environmentally, economically or both - but I doubt it would be something anyone wishes for. I am also sure that everywhere the Occupy "movement" is looking at the alternative options to the bondage of growth, getting burned hurts.

Monbiot took a long time to come round to accepting a Steady State, and it is no surprise that the center for the Degrowth movement is in Europe, their 3rd conference is in Venice next year ; as you said in your post, we do have existential options.

George Monbiot says "Population is the issue you blame if you can’t admit to your own impacts"
I meet very few (if any) people who talk about population numbers without talking about "our" environmental impact. Monbiot is the one who seems to want to omit one of the factors which multiplied together give us this product (impact).
His argument seems to go like this -it's not population because a baby born in the US will have many times the environmental footprint of a child born in a developing country-
He might then swivel his focus to the negative effects of high population growth on the actual people in these countries rather than stick to the environmental footprint idea but he doesn’t really go there in the article under discussion. And at what point would he move into a global perspective on this? People can move country after all!
The fact that population growth rates are affected by the population growth that happened decades before is not really news. In Australia, despite quite a “respectable” fertility rate (just under 2 children per woman) we gallop ahead in population (with a heavy environmental footprint in our case) with births at double the rate of deaths because the very of “demographic momentum” from previous generations. (for Australia then roughly double the increase again from immigration)
Universally,bringing human population numbers back in balance with the our environment and fellow species is a huge "task" and maybe attempts to face it realistically and deal with it will come to nothing. However, it is for certain that nothing can be gained by denying it as part of any equation of human impact on the environment or on humans themselves.
George Monbiot asks ".... even if all the measures I’ve mentioned here – education, contraception, rights, redistribution – were widely deployed today, there will still be a population bulge, as a result of the momentum generated 60 years ago. So what do they propose? Compulsory sterilization? Mass killing? If not, they had better explain their programme" and "....Of course we should demand that governments help women regain control over their bodies. But beyond that there’s little that can be done. We must instead decide how best to accommodate human numbers which will, at least for the next four decades, continue to rise..."
er yes... they will be accommodated on the planet as it is most unlikely that they will be sent off to outer space but they may not live under a roof!
Monbiot implies that the solutions he puts forward to reduce the birth rate are exhaustive. I think a number of sociologists who are expert in the area could throw enormous light on this subject on which so many commentators appear utterly sure of their “knowledge” and in Monbiot’s article, apparently certain that no other knowledge is available!

Anthropologists (and well-educated sociologists) used to know how human beings kept populations stable. The information has been buried under academic trends of only looking at the latest literature which focuses on microscopic details and follows the dictates of funding, which respond to vested interests in Development Aid, foreign aid etc. Population stability for any animal including humans depends on animals having stable environments and limited exogamy. Modern economics is all about destabilising this and multiplying exogamy. I just pulled a book out of publication on this, pending the writing of an introduction because I realise that, without an introduction that first canvasses the wider misconceptions, most readers could not see the need for a new theory. So, I am not going to propound the new theory here until I am able to publish my book with a useful introduction.

If Montbiot believes that populations will continue to grow out of control until every woman is educated and every society is industrialised (leaving aside petroleum depletion) then he reveals himself to be merely a part of that vast crowd of incurious sleepwalkers unable to ask the relevant questions about what happens to people who lose access to land and self-government at local level.

There is no point in me articulating here what I have to say at greater length in my book because it requires a paradigm shift and literature reviews.

Yes zero population growth (or very, very slow growth) has actually been the norm throughout history. You would think from the growthist propaganda that rapid population growth is normal but this isn't so. My eyes were opened to this when I read that when Napoleon invaded Egypt the estimated population was 3 million. The estimated population during Roman times was about the same. For almost two thousand years the population of Egypt had remained essentially unchanged, despite a culture emphasizing early marriage and despite being staunchly Muslim for much of that time.

After some more reading the main reason for this stability was not due to very high mortality. It was certainly higher than the average now, but not that high. The main reason was that every culture evolved a set of cultural practices to regulate fertility. Later marriage in some cases, strict taboos against extra-marital sex, sexual taboos inside marriage, rudimentary contraception, and I must mention the unfortunate but apparently widespread practice of infanticide (female infanticide in particular). Humans intrinsically tend towards ZPG. After all the disruptions of the past two centuries it seems things are finally returning to normal. Hopefully not too late.

"nothing can be gained by denying it as part of any equation of human impact on the environment or on humans themselves." - I don't think Monbiot does that Quark, in his article he states ;

"Yes, population growth contributes to environmental problems. No, it is not the decisive factor. Even the availability of grain is affected more by rising livestock numbers and the use of biofuels – driven, again by consumption – than by human population growth."

Whilst he agrees that population causes environmental problems I think he is being very politically correct, too politically correct. Whereas he has in the past advocated a Steady State Economy, he has never elucidated one of the core factors of SSE, which Herman Daly has no problems doing. Daly's article in "Solutions" magazine of Feb 2010 ( - called "From a Failed-Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy sets out 10 principles to gradually move towards SSE. "The goal of a steady state is to sustain a constant, sufficient stock of real wealth and people for a long time."

There is a very basic flaw in the Ecological Footprint method - it does not allow 1 square metre of land anywhere on the planet for species other than human beings. So even that "formula" is destined to fail, other growthist reasoning destined to fail are explained by Daly ; "Without growth, the only way to cure poverty is through sharing. But redistribution is anathema. Without growth to push the hoped-for demographic transition, the only way to cure overpopulation is by population control. A second anathema. And without growth, the only way to increase funds to invest in environmental repair is by reducing current consumption. Anathema number three. Three anathemas and you’re out!"

Monbiot's recent acceptance of a Steady State appears to show a big gap in his usual flawless analysis, because perhaps, as Daly states, they are mainly regarded as anathema, and as he opens his article ;

"The level of physical wealth that the biosphere can sustain in a steady state may well be below the present level.", somewhat contradicting Dick Cheney and his famous quote that "The American way of life is non negotiable". However, as many people have since stated, nature does not negotiate, perhaps another issue Monbiot has not "absorbed".

I have no way of knowing this, and in no way want to be an apologist for Monbiot, but his stance could be taken from a point of view of what is acceptable to the masses, and accepting of the fact that people will want to take their "trinkets" into any future that is proposed, i.e. we must provide nuclear energy so that we can still watch our flatscreens.

I fully agree that population is being manipulated as a "lever" to allow rising GDP to continue, being pushed by lobbyists from the growth industry, this is where I think Monbiot is naive and he is overcautious by blanking his otherwise energetic mind to perhaps some politically incorrect solutions and proposing democratically popular (at this time) answers. To me it is no surprise that those countries who maintained high migration levels, U.S.A. U.K. and Europe are now economic basket cases, based as they are on growth and energy consumption.

This growth lobby is, as Daly states in his article, merely advocating for more of the same, more bubbles, more environmental destruction, more economic collapse. It is not viable for humanity to consider themselves, in biblical terms, masters of all they see. In fact we are just one of millions of species who all have a sacred, if you like, right to occupy this Earth. For too long this "equity" has been totally ignored, whilst concerning ourselves with only financial equity. I would offer Daly's response on population as a reasonable response to the global population issue, and yes, if birth control is to be included then the Catholic Church has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the issue.

"9/ Stabilize Population. We should be working toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but, as a start, contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted. A lot of the pro-natalist and open-borders rhetoric claims to be motivated by generosity, but it is “generosity” at the expense of the U.S. working class—a cheap labor policy. Progressives have been slow to understand this. The environmental movement began with a focus on population but has frequently given in to political correctness."

Hi Richard
sorry I've not yet replied to your initial comment. I've had insufficient time to do so which remains the case. A short summary response in lieu of a longer one which will hopefully be possible before too long.

You will note that my article stated, "Monbiot's view (on Nuclear power) reeks similarly of evidence that he is, in fact, a closet growthist." I'm suggesting that a case can be made for him being, somewhat covertly but very effectively, a growthist. I did not say that he definitely is one.

The basic problem I have with him is that the fundamental contradictions apparent within his published viewpoints are simply too great to be easily accepted from someone as intelligent as he quite clearly is. However it may be that he isn't so smart after all. I'm willing to accept that possibility.

It is also likely that, as smart as he is, he doesn't think all that deeply about things. Perhaps the very considerable pressures of media market-place convention and critical popularity keep him overly close to the conceptual surface.

Neither should we ever underestimate the intellect's subliminal action toward constructing rational supports for those things we take for granted within our lives. Social and physical mobility are held as sacramental rights by the 'green ' intelligentsia. They are energy intensive sacred cows to be preserved at nearly any cost.

Sorry that this is not as definitive or as illustrative as it could/should be. Hopefully I can manage that better a bit later.

Hi again Richard

It might be useful at this point to say that my concerns on this particular matter cause me immensely deep frustration. Public discourse upon base reality, to the extent it occurs at all, is fraught with conceptual disconnects. The opportunity cost of this, at this stage of global 'progress', is absolutely unaffordable. Monbiot's contribution to this state of disconnect is simply not tolerable. A desperate need exists for him, and other similarly prominent people, to boldly join the dots regarding the true nature of events underway. We do not need him to help maintain a pointillised and misleading view of its image.

Relatively very few prominent identities actively speak on behalf of sustainability, in its genuine rather than its corporate construct. Those who do, or who might seem to, attract the disaffected to their broadcast views like moths to a sentinel streetlight. Those thus attracted most often simply accept and reflect the illuminations provided by the popular identity. They tend not to investigate or challenge the underlying wavelengths. They are content to congregate, somewhat faithfully, in the 'light' provided. Accordingly, if these sentinel speakers do sincerely care for ecologically viable outcomes, they have a grave responsibility to seek, and to duly account for, ALL of the vitally applicable facts.

Monbiot presents himself within this field as a genuine thinker, not a cult leader or an apologist. It is terribly disheartening then when he fails to connect elements that are utterly basic to the argument, and then also maintains an advantaged offensive toward those who do. Thereby he assists ongoing refraction within the debate and the attendant marginalisation of those few who are able to challenge their personal 'reality' with the application of very simple arithmetic. Whether intentional or not, he helps to preserve the status quo by wrongly refracting its opposition and their arguments.

Monbiot's statements reveal a stunning, and apparently a stubborn, ignorance toward the vital relationship between energy, population and consumption. These are the base elements of the primary sustainability equation. His discordant summations upon these factors, which he obtusely keeps in separation from each other, serve directly to support continuing growth in both population and consumption.

Your quote of Monbiot ("Yes, population growth contributes to environmental problems. No, it is not the decisive factor. etc.") displays this disconnection perfectly. Quite evidently grain availability drives population increase, which must then drive consumption and the demand for more livestock and thus more grain, and so on. Economic growth. Hallelujah! Monbiot's dismemberment of such basic reality sequencing is astonishingly stupid, if it is not disingenuous.

His nuclear advocacy is an expansion of this basic stupidity, which must be borne of wilful ignorance as Monbiot is essentially not stupid. The actual nature of this will is unknown.

This advocacy for power 'generation' to be pursued via 'clean' nuclear rather than 'dirty' fossil means is premised upon current demand being too great to be plausibly transitioned to renewables. So Monbiot is underwriting current consumption levels. Without an explicit disclaimer, which I've not heard him make as he spouts this line, his deference to the status quo also implies an expansion of 'generation'.

Continuing, let alone expanding, current levels of energy consumption is a destructive nonsense. It is grossly debilitating in terms of any critical indicator one might choose - consumption, population, natural system depletion, deployment of renewable production systems etc. - no matter what the means of its provision. To be ecologically credible he should in fact be arguing strenuously and unequivocally FOR system wide powerdown.

Socio-economic powerdown can be easily construed to fit in neatly with Monbiot's recognised need for better economic re-distribution, and with his attendant concerns regarding over-consumption. No discernible conflict exists except against the currently over-riding political weight of a status quo that is largely informed and directed by elite resource owners and their highly paid managers. However undue concern for this elite interest creates an ultimately worthless dilemma. No successful revolution has ever been endorsed by the outgoing elite. Why bother with any activism if this endorsement is a benchmark for identifying necessary change? To predicate necessary change upon its support by elites, one must be either feeble-minded, frightened or fed by them.

As an aside, Monbiot's position on nuclear power is an evident example of how people's minds are addled by the climate change issue. It occupies their consciousness as a discrete and predominate monster to be shot dead with specially fabricated silver bullets. In fact it is a pervasive symptom of our dysfunctional socio-economic structure. The enemy is us and we must fundamentally change what we do and how much we do of it. We cannot continue to do these exact same things even faster, whilst merely seeking to execute them in notionally 'cleaner' ways.

Campaigning for 'clean', 'sustainable' energy futures devoid of any meaningful power-down is akin to calling for rape to be legitimised on the condition that perpetrators must wear condoms. It supposes that our generally violent and degrading acts of energetic excess are permissable, just as long as our carbon ejaculates are, more or less, contained. This is errant bunkum. We have to acknowledge the the landscape and cultural rape inherent within our socio-economic form, and attend diligently to the necessary elements of reform.

Our excess energy consumption is probably THE key element. It drives the growth process. More essentially it upsets our metaphysical health and balance. Excessive power makes us overly full of ourselves and thence fatally self-indulgent. No evidence exists anywhere that we can respond otherwise.

Accordingly I find Monbiot's commentary maddeningly facile. In the very considerable time that he has to think about things, he could do much better. I have to wonder why he doesn't.