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George Monbiot: Shouting about socially constructed silences

Cabot Institute director Prof Rich Pancost ended his introduction by telling the audience how George Monbiot made him angry. Not having read much of Monbiot’s work before (except his Rewilding ideas,, I assumed Rich was talking about his reporting of the ridiculous state we have made of the planet.

A few minutes into the talk, I wasn’t angry… I was nauseous.

The evil twin of the Climate Change Act

Monbiot began by describing the recently passed Infrastructure Act 2015. As he writes about in his Guardian blog, this Act is stuffed full of unrelated policies, forcing MPs to make a sweeping yes/no vote across a huge variety of issues.

What really got me was his revelation that after the Act had been debated for some time another policy was added; the legal obligation to “maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum”.

Cooling towers at Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station.
Image credit: Alan Zomerfeld
He called it the “evil twin” of the Climate Change Act, 2008, the result of a big movement involving hundreds of thousands of people working to get the government to set a legal obligation to minimise the UK’s greenhouse emissions. The Climate Change Act was, he said, “democracy at its best”, uniting all the major parties and the general public consensus. Unfortunately, Monbiot said, the Infrastructure Act “smuggled in” a law binding us to do the polar opposite; maximising petroleum production and therefore petroleum burning.

Socially constructed silences

This is just one of the many “socially constructed silences” Monbiot highlighted in his talk. Governments around the world are signed up to significantly reduce their CO2 emissions and attempt to do this by regulating the global population instead of targeting what he described as the source of the problem; in this case, the extraction of fossil fuels by big oil companies with huge political power. Monbiot said that if governments really meant to do anything about climate change they’d tackle CO2 emissions at the fossil fuel production side of the scale, instead of making small wins trying to regulate consumption.

Monbiot put a lot of the blame on the mass media, arguing that they focus on specific issues while completely ignoring others. One stark contrast he made was the issue of benefits. Claimants of benefits like Job Seekers Allowance and Housing Benefit are regularly depicted by the media as those tiny minority of people who abuse the system, while in reality the money they can receive is capped at £26,000. At the same time, the UK government campaigned to prevent a £260,000 cap on the amount of farm subsidies a landowner can receive.

Despite Monbiot’s insistence that this would not affect farmers, I was concerned that this cap could affect friends back in Cornwall who are small dairy farmers. A quick look at their information on (a site with information on all recipients) shows that they all received around €10,000 - 25,000 in subsidies a year, and so small UK farmers would not be affected. The issue, Monbiot said, was that our government blocked the cap not to benefit farmers but huge landowners, who siphon off millions of pounds/euros each year without sowing a single seed. This isn’t a political blog so I’ll leave it there, but you can read more about it in his own words here.

A call to action

Monbiot’s talk was about what a green government can do if it really tries, but he said that really it’s about what green citizens can do. It seems that the media and the politicians are not willing to open up dialogue around socially constructed silences, so it’s time for grass roots movements to take charge. Monbiot encouraged everyone in the audience to think about what you really want in the world, as unlimited ambitions are the big ideas needed to engage people with politics. We can be the new media, leading from the bottom and speaking boldly about the changes we want to see in the world.
George also met with the Bristol 2015 campaign to discuss Bristol’s role at the European Green Capital this year. Check out his interview below.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

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