The quest for global justice
George Monbiot wants to save the planet from threats both environmental and ideological. Mark Brown salutes him
BRINGONTHEAPOCALPYSE George Monbiot Atlantic Books £11.99
In these days, when there appears, increasingly, to be an inverse relationship between the quantity of published and broadcast news and its quality, George Monbiot makes one proud to be a journalist. His passion for social and ecological justice is undimmed by 21st-century cynicism. His desire for knowledge across the widest gamut of subjects (scientific, historical, political and cultural) enables him to reach places which are foreign territory to many of us.
This combination of commitment and breadth of interest is the key strength of Bring on the Apocalypse, a collection of Monbiot’s post-millennial writings, drawn largely from his columns for the Guardian. From the reintroduction of Scotland’s vanished native species to the complexities of debt relief in the “developing world”, from the United States’ use of chemical weapons in Fallujah to the art of John Constable, his subjects are, variously, terrifying, enraging, intriguing and downright esoteric.
In spite of the diversity of this collection, various themes emerge. There is his sobering writing on the desperate plight of our abused planet. However, Monbiot is much more than an impassioned environmentalist. To read him on the most important current events and their rela-
Ttionship to history is to be convinced of the endurance of ideology in our supposedly “non-ideological” age.
The essay on the “denied holocausts” of British imperialism is a fine expose of how right-wing, and outright racist, ideology is currently attempting to regain lost ground in Britain under the guise of “nothing being unsayable” in “non-ideological” times. Like the current assault on multiculturalism, the “new” ideas on the “enlightenment” of the British Empire (from right-wing historians such as Andrew Roberts and John Keegan) are thinly-veiled attempts to roll back the gains made, both in history and racial politics, since the sixties.
As Monbiot writes, to listen to Keegan explaining how “benevolent” and “moral” late British imperialism was is to overlook entirely the fact (uncovered by socialist historian Mike Davis) that India’s per capita income did not increase at all in the two colonial centuries prior to independence in 1947. his is to say nothing of the manufactured mass starvation in India in 1877-78 (a year in which Britain exported record amounts of wheat from the country) or the unspeakable murders, mutilations and castrations of the Mau Mau in Kenya as recently as the 1950s. History, as Monbiot shows, remains an ideological battleground.
Not all of the battles covered by this collection are on such a grand historical s c a l e. In the piece Willy Loman Syndrome, Monbiot attributes growing rates of depression and mental ill-health in the UK to the unattainable fame and fortune dangled before us by late capitalism; it is, he suggests, as if millions of us are being driven to a disappointed despair similar to that of Willy Loman (the titular trader in Arthur Miller’s classic play Death of a Salesman).
This argument isn’t new (Karl Marx was writing about “alienation” the best part of two centuries ago), but Monbiot is prepared to get his hands dirty with the most seemingly trivial sources in order to expose some sinister contemporary trends. Many of us are aggrieved that our culture has an increas-
ing tendency to promote a distorted ideal of female beauty and the Orwellian concept of a talentless “fame” which derives from nothing other than fame itself; however, how many of us have considered the role played by girls’ magazines such as Sugar? t is in those harmless pages that Monbiot finds a gushing feature about an ideal “celeb wedding” in which “ugly relatives” are stuck away in a separate enclosure and overweight people are subjected to a make-up artist whose job is to “make the uglies photogenic”. Should we be surprised, he asks, at the alarming rates of eating disorders, self-harm and depression among girls and young women?
If this collection is purposefully eclectic and impressively incisive, it also has its drawbacks. There are points where even sympathisers with Monbiot’s broadly left- wing stance will find themselves scratching their heads. His apparent belief that it is the apocalyptic fantasies of American fundamentalist Christians (rather than economic and strategic interests) that drives US support for Israel seems fanciful.
His suggestion that gay people might be “more moral” in a world of depleting resources (because they, supposedly, don’t reproduce) is patronising, silly and dangerous. It ignores the fact that homosexuality is not a barrier to reproduction (ever heard of artificial insemination, George?).
It is also dangerously close to the kind of Malthusian claptrap which condemns African countries for creating “too many mouths to feed”, while ignoring the far higher population densities of well-fed nations, such as the Netherlands.
Such ideas are but chinks in Monbiot’s armour, however. For the most part, Bring on the Apocalypse is a rich and abundant source of arguments for social progress.
Monbiot, left, warns against histories that ignore British atrocities such as the murders of the Mau Mau in Kenya, right, in the 1950s