Charismatic, outspoken, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, sheep hater, rewilding proponent, journalist, activist… – all of these words could be used to describe the environmentalist George Monbiot. Yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to be able to attend his most recent lecture in the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building at Bristol University, part of the Coleridge Lecture series and the Bristol Festival of Ideas. The last time that I stepped foot in that room had been my graduation but this event was (almost) as memorable. It was the first time that I had heard Monbiot speak in the flesh but everything I had expected was the case. He certainly has a gift for captivating his audience and although his lecture was broad in subject area (the title was ‘What a green government could do if it really tried’) he managed to engage his audience enough to create the ambience and excitement that seemed to appear in the hall afterwards, such as one experiences after a good speaker has finished talking. I am, at the moment, 2/3 of the way through reading his book, ‘Feral’, a work which explores, in detail, concepts of ‘rewilding’ across the world and sets an agenda for how this could happen in the UK and why it should happen. The lecture itself stayed true to both the style presented in the book and his clear set of objectives.
I admit, like many others, that I find it difficult to accept some of the concepts that he proposes but, as I understand him, George Monbiot expects this of us. His aim is to push us out of our comfort zones and challenge the status quo. Nearing the end of his lecture he hinted that he finds the current political climate exciting because of its instability. Change can ride on the back of such a time and he urged his audience to embrace the opportunity. He began the lecture by introducing the audience to the recently passed UK Infrastructure Bill which, so he argued, panders to the demands of the petroleum industry and has wholeheartedly injured many positive aspects of the 2008 Climate Change Act. The Common Agricultural Policy (predictably) suffered a bashing as did the UK education system and fisheries policy. Following rapturous applause once he had finished speaking, a series of astute questions were asked, some locally important and some broader in scope, including one from the Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol West relating to the ‘conventional’ media. Bristol West is a key target seat for the Greens in the May General Election. Unfortunately I was sitting in the balcony away from the microphones below and so was unable to ask my own question to George: ‘Should a truly green government make sheep farming a criminal offence?’ I was rather looking forward to him launching in to a rant about sheep – a subject that I know he feels passionately about (George if you read this post by any chance please feel free to comment below apropos this question!). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay after the lecture for the book signing otherwise I would have taken the opportunity to interrogate him then! Although I completely understand his point of view when it comes to the ‘wooly maggots’ (as they have sometimes been referred to) I struggle to see a practical way in which the UK lamb, mutton and wool industries are going to self-destruct in favour of abandoning such an entrenched part of how many farmers structure their businesses – for as much as farms rely on subsidies they are ultimately businesses which aim to both make a profit (and many succeed) and grow food for the wider public’s benefit.
His views on Scottish independence were reaffirmed as were his frustrations with the mainstream media and elitism in political circles. There is actually very little with which we disagree and I feel that the environmental lobby (the green blob as it has been called in the past) is very fortunate to have him on board. However, there is a but (and a big bit at that). There are a couple of things that frustrated me more than anything else about the approach that Monbiot took in the lecture. Firstly, he tended to make gross generalisations about farming practices and the nature of farming in this country (and in many places abroad) and secondly he didn’t mention the issue of population once. I am a strong believer that in order to move forward, environmental groups need to engage with the issues surrounding food (on a practical level), human population levels and wildlife/the natural world. Part of this means engaging as many people as possible, farmers included. Monbiot is very good at creating division, especially against the farming community. I believe that conservationists need to reach out to farmers and work with them (in my experience, once you get talking to them, many farmers are also conservationists) in order to move forward. Imposing change through politics alone is dangerous. Instead of a tyranny of the minority a tyranny of the majority is created. Monbiot seemed to forget about the many hundreds of small and medium farms that rely on subsidies to produce our food and do their best to care for the environment of their farms. If these farms were to fail we would become even more reliant on huge scale farming and an even greater proportion of food imported from global markets. I do not think that this is what Mr Monbiot would want but I fail to see the alternative. I am a believer in rewilding but I am also a believer in needing to secure a sustainable future for feeding a larger human population. Until government gets a grip on population it will be the role of food policy makers and farmers to produce sufficient food for this rising population. Governments need to begin talking about population, food, conservation, the environment in ways that they do not today. The taboo must be broken or our already uncertain future will become even more difficult to manage – with this I am very much in agreement with George Monbiot.