The quest for global jus­tice

Ge­orge Mon­biot wants to save the planet from threats both en­vi­ron­men­tal and ide­o­log­i­cal. Mark Brown salutes him

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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

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