How Did We Get Into This Mess?

By George Monbiot

At one point in this collection of essays George Monbiot quotes Owen Paterson, then British Secretary of State, describing a previous government’s refusal to dredge waterways as a “blind adherence to Rousseauism.” This is one of the two ways that Rousseau’s name is most often invoked in today’s political discourse: as being hopelessly naïve and sentimental. The other way, paradoxically, is for being a dangerous proto-fascist, but that’s a trump card that’s usually saved for a final play.

I’m pretty sure Monbiot would rate Rousseau differently, as he’s one of the two presiding intellectual spirits behind this collection. The influence can be seen in everything from Monbiot’s environmentalism (which includes not dredging rivers), his theories of education (“Rewild the Child” by sending them outdoors to learn from nature), and his general distrust of society. “Civilization is Boring,” is the title of one essay, which nicely captures the spirit of Rousseau in our day, for good and ill. In another essay, jumping off from a consideration of the film Avatar, we even get a conventional re-hashing of the myth of the noble savage:

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian.

I think there are a lot of caveats to be registered here – as populations grow and societies become more complex they tend to all fall heir to the same problems and develop in much the same way – but in any event the inverted hierarchy is pure Rousseauian Romanticism: allied with the child (up to and including idealistic university students, before they are absorbed by the system), the primitive, the natural, and the subconscious against the adult values of civilization, progress and order.

As with most Romantic thought, the political point is revolutionary. Our natural sociability and desire to live within nature has been corrupted by the oppressive ideology of a ruling class that needs to be overthrown. This is where Noam Chomsky comes in, the second of Monbiot’s guiding spirits. Chomsky’s name isn’t mentioned in this book (and Rousseau’s is only once), but he’s there on the first page of the Introduction as we hear about the “apparatus of justification” and “infrastructure of persuasion” utilized by the powers-that-be to control the minds of the masses. In other words, manufacturing consent.

Key to this process of control is stealth. “You can learn as much about a country from its silences as you can from its obsessions. The issues politicians do not discuss are as telling and decisive as those they do.” The ruling ideology of neoliberalism, to take the primary example, “remains largely invisible to citizens.” “That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.” “We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing” our mental chains, which has led us to a state of “superhuman passivity” and “elective impotence.”

This is all good Rousseau-Chomsky in that it posits an essentially good human nature that has been corrupted and is now controlled by various systems of power. The opposite view can be identified as Hobbesian or (social) Darwinist: viewing life in terms of a fallen nature, as a vicious struggle for dominance and survival. Monbiot only mentions the name of Hobbes a couple of times, and that is to forcefully reject him: “Thomas Hobbes could not have been more wrong when he claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war of ‘every man against every man.’ We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.”

Truth lies somewhere in between. Despite having huge respect for Chomsky, I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the brainwashing thesis. An alternative view of human nature, seeing humankind as neither inherently good nor originally sinful (broadly, Rousseau and Hobbes, the liberal and conservative positions), is provided by Ian West in his book Why the West Rules – For Now. While disagreeing with some of what West says, his description of human beings as essentially lazy, greedy, and fearful seems correct to me and perhaps the best explanation for how we got into this mess. The truth is out there about our unsustainable lifestyles, the damage we are wreaking on the environment, our exploitation of the poor and the weak, and all the rest of it. On some basic level we understand the situation we’re in perfectly. We just don’t want to think about all of these problems very much, as most of us are managing pretty well and in any event there’s not much we can do about the mess we’re in anyway. If this is “elective impotence,” it is freely elected.

An example of how this works can be seen in Monbiot’s essay on “The Population Myth.” The point he wants to make here is that it’s not population growth, especially among the poorer nations, that is the big problem facing the environment but rather consumption. “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.”

“Where’s Class War when you need it?” he concludes by asking. “It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.”

All of which may be true, visible, and out in the open, but what of it? As he also notes, almost in passing, “no one anticipates a consumption transition.” Sure we could get along perfectly well with 10 billion people on the planet if we all lived like Bangladeshis, but that isn’t going to happen. “The American way of life is not negotiable,” as a former U.S. president once put it.

Class War, or revolution, isn’t the answer because this isn’t just about the 0.1 % and their monster homes and yachts. There is a very high-consumption lifestyle to which a significant proportion of the people on this planet have become accustomed, and that an even greater number aspire to. At the end of the day, while it’s true that consumption is a bigger driver of global warming than population, it’s not a true dichotomy. People are consumers. You can try all sorts of things to lower your carbon footprint (Monbiot sensibly suggests eating less meat and not buying so much junk at Christmas), but there’s no getting around this bottom line. Humans consume. The single most environmentally destructive act a middle-class North American can do is have a child. That’s a bit of carbon that’s going to go on burning a lot more carbon for the next 80 years.

As Edward O. Wilson once said, “for everyone in the world to live like Americans do would require the existence of four more planet Earths.” Or, in other words, 7 billion Americans would already take us far beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. I don’t think Class War is going to provide any kind of solution to that big a problem. A Great Mortality is more likely, and may well provide a more humane and softer landing than revolution.

Review first published online October 5, 2016.