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Monbiot, Kingsnorth and Ecological Collapse

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth have been slugging it out on ecological collapse. It’s not easy to nail the differences in their viewpoint, but I think they arise at heart from what Paul sees as George’s insistance that the challenges we confront can be met through a modification of liberal capitalist democracy.

Paul characterises this political response as “Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0”, which he suggests is “much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a ‘steady state economy’.” Whilst advocating something along these lines, George of course acknowledges the huge political change that this would require. But the yet more fundamental problem with this, Paul suggests, is that we simply don’t have the resources for it.

George counters that Paul seems to be accepting – if not welcoming – the inevitability of humanitarian disaster, when infact “a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse.”  Far from a cleansed world, George suggests, “when civilisations collapse, psychopaths take over.”

This all makes for good polemics, but I’m not sure that it’s a useful distinction when it comes to informing the type of action we should take today. Identity campaigning presents an approach which seems crucial: whether we see our contribution as fighting for serious political engagement on the challenges we confront now, or helping to forestall a Mad Max world if and when ecological catastrophe hits.

With respect to George’s call for ambitious policy intervention going way beyond anything we see any glimmer of now, we will not create the political momentum for this without working at the level of identity. Appeals to self-interest may motivate us to take simple domestic energy-efficiency steps. They will not motivate us to accept – or rather, actively demand – the less comfortable interventions that are inevitably needed.

With respect to Paul’s suggestion that ecological catastrophe is inevitable, we had better start ‘cutting the channels in which public debate comes to flow’ (Alastair McIntosh‘s phrase) in order to help ensure that our responses in extremis are humane (a taller order, but one that has surely to be started now).

Similar aspects of identity (some of which Tim Kasser and I outline in our book) both constrain ambitious government interventions, and fuel the risks of inhumane responses to ecological catastrophe. Wherever you stand on the debate between George and Paul, these aspects of identity must be engaged.

Tom CromptonMonbiot, Kingsnorth and Ecological Collapse
  • I’ve only just seen this debate they are having but surely they are both missing the point that steady state wellbeing maximising capitalism 3.0 is not just some tweaking of the current system but one which would if done right lead to maximum flourishing for all within the means of the planet. They seem to be caught up in the ‘should we have more wind farms?’ versus ‘capitalism is inherently evil’ debate?

  • Jim Mitchell

    I couldn’t agree more Tom. The issue of identity and our values will become more vital as our lives change. Collapse if it comes will cause all sectors of society to question our entire ways of thinking and any preparation through debate about identity before that will help. And if George is right then identity issues are the also only route to the ‘soft landing’.