Climate change has reached a tipping point — and now is the perfect time to act
Acclaimed journalist and activist George Monbiot on why we can come out of a global pandemic even stronger
The climate change crisis has reached a tipping point, and if we don't act quickly, we face an uncertain and tumultuous future. For decades, George Monbiot, a British investigative journalist, author and activist, has been decrying environmental exploitation, a message that often falls on deaf ears. "We've lost 30 years or more … during which we could affect a gradual transition out of the destructive, extractive economy into a far more benign one," said Monbiot. "But now, we find ourselves at the cliff edge."
As we see in Rebellion, a documentary from The Nature of Things, scenes of mass protest from recent climate strikes, like the ones led by Extinction Rebellion, show that people are listening. They are angry and demanding change. And as Monbiot pointed out, "coming out of the pandemic gives us an unprecedented opportunity to do so."
We've lost 30 years or more … during which we could affect a gradual transition out of the destructive, extractive economy into a far more benign one ...but now, we find ourselves at the cliff edge.
Even as individuals we still have power
As individuals fighting against climate change, we may often feel we have little power to make a real difference. "There are clear limits to individual action," said Monbiot. "We're facing structural pressures, and we need structural change in response to those pressures. We need system change."
But that doesn't mean we should sit back and expect politicians to handle things, he said. Given the modern distractions at our disposal, it's easier than ever to switch off. "We can push everything away. We can just forget about the waste; we can forget about the resources required; we can forget about the energy required [and] just buy," said Monbiot. "Buy stuff; fly for that lovely holiday; buy this completely useless gizmo; buy this vast gas-guzzling motor because you're worth it, you deserve it."
We can't be either passive citizens or passive consumers, just allowing whatever comes our way to guide the direction that we take ... we have to strike our own direction.
These are the forces we have to fight, according to Monbiot. "That endless tide of advertising, of marketing, of celebrity ... the ones telling us to consume," he said. "We have to resist all that and we have to find our pleasures elsewhere — in nature, in community, in our families. We have to find meaning and purpose where meaning and purpose should lie."
We have to take action in our own lives but also on a grander scale, Monbiot stressed. "We can't be either passive citizens or passive consumers, just allowing whatever comes our way to guide the direction that we take," he said. "We have to strike our own direction."
A global pandemic has paralyzed progress
Just as the climate change movement was picking up momentum, it was hit hard by the global pandemic.
As society locked down, protest organizers had to alter their plans. "The pandemic arises from our appalling mistreatment of the living world," Monbiot said. "But what we also see is that the failures of government to prepare for and prevent pandemics of this nature are very similar to the failures of government to prepare for and prevent climate breakdown and ecological breakdown."
Instead, he said, "We see commercial interests dominating, we see corporate lobbying dominating, rather than the interests and needs of humanity and the living planet as a whole."
He said our planet should be top of mind, "because we are in the middle of a climate emergency, not just a public health emergency, … and we have very little time to turn things around."
A generation of activists
As a member of Extinction Rebellion, Monbiot sees the recent climate strikes as different than in previous decades. And in 2020, environmental activists have been hitting the streets to protest against systemic racism too.
"I think we're seeing a great awakening, a great reckoning, taking place at the moment," he said. "There's a massive issue of intergenerational justice in all three of these issues — the pandemic, the climate crisis and the institutional racism which has led to so many murders by the police."
And it's often the same individuals screaming for change. "We're seeing young people coming forward, rebelling against the old order in all three cases," Monbiot said. "We've seen the total failure of governments to protect us during the pandemic; we've seen the total failure of governments to vanquish institutional racism; and we've seen the total failure of governments to protect us and future generations from the breakdown of life on earth."
While our planet may be on the brink of ecological disaster, Monbiot also sees it as on the edge of something else. "There's a sense here of a moment, a really crucial moment in history, which I think will be essential ... to many of the other aims of the campaigners for a better world," he said.
We have an opportunity like no other
If the global shutdown of economies has shown us anything, said Monbiot, it's that we actually can adapt quickly and live with dramatic change. "When the pandemic turned up, governments asked people to do something very, very big indeed — to stay at home, not to go to the shops at all, not to travel at all," he said. "And suddenly we thought … yes, it can be done."
"It was entirely to do with political will," Monbiot said. "And if we can make these massive changes to our lives in response to the pandemic, surely we can make the smaller changes to our lives required to respond to an even greater crisis."
The pandemic has given us the opportunity to build a new world, said Monbiot, "an economy which respects the lives of future generations and doesn't sacrifice those lives for the wealth of current generations; an economy that can be sustained without trashing our life support systems."
And it's time we seize the moment. He said, "As we come out of this pandemic, we can build on that mutual aid to create the better societies that we need."
Watch Rebellion on The Nature of Things.