Monbiot’s wrecking ball environmentalism

December 20, 2008 at 11:37 pm | Posted in Climate Change, U.S. Politics | 4 Comments

You’d struggle to place a cigarette paper between George Monbiot and myself on the broad principles of climate change. We both recognise that it exists, that it has the potential to wreak unimaginable havoc on our environment & our way of life, that only a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions will stop its most extreme effects, and that there is a fierce urgency to act now.

But whilst his passion, his breadth of knowledge and his tireless persistence are all very valuable to the cause, there is a tendency towards dogmatism, even extremism, in Monbiot’s work which – deliberately or not – reduces all other political issues to this one, non-negotiable crusade.

I doubt there’s a better example of this than in his latest column condemning the Bush Administration’s $17.4bn bailout of America’s car manufacturing industry. Monbiot’s argument is simple: given the inefficiency of their products and their failure to produce the kinds of cars needed in the 21st century, there is no justification for a ‘new round of corporate socialism’ which will only throw more money at a failed business model.

And so he praises Senate Republicans at the same time as calling them “neocon nutcases”, blames the industry for being the author of its own woes whilst admitting the need to bailout a similarly self-harming banking system, and dismisses President Bush’s argument that he must safeguard jobs before denouncing the wage & benefit cuts to the jobs he has saved. To say this is all a bit inconsistent is putting it mildly.

But it’s the lack of concern for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who would lose their jobs which is most troubling. Monbiot spends no time pondering what impact the industry’s collapse would have on a city which relies on its existence, nor does he spare a thought for more than one third of its residents who live below the poverty line. His column reads like classic wrecking ball environmentalism: cars pollute the atmosphere, so we must destroy the industry, and to hell with the consequences!

The uneasy implication within the piece is that it is not possible for the priorities of environmentalists & labour activists to coexist peacefully, and that politicians and policy-makers should always prioritise the former even if it comes at the expense of the latter. If this view was to be adopted at the level of political campaigning, it would create an incredibly damaging split within the progressive coalition which would make progress towards either group’s goals so much harder to achieve.

As the New York Times reports, this is not a good bailout; there’s little corporate accountability, workers’ wages will be cut at a time when they can least afford it, and the industry is only safe until March, when the then-President Obama will have to make a decision about its long-term viability.

But for now, at least, hundreds of thousands of working/middle class Americans in one of the most economically blighted cities in the Union will still be able to live above the breadline. Monbiot would be a far more sympathetic figure if he could stop sounding so upset about it.

Image by Flickr user freeparking (Creative Commons)



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  1. You don’t make so much an argument as drool over people’s wound like a dog. Outside of fantasy land, there is always some one who will whine over any change that gets made. At least, dogs quickly forget their project of licking wounds and go play outside–just like workers can find new jobs that actually benefit people.

  2. Well, this is an idiosyncratic comment, to say the least, but I appreciate the use of simile. Anyway, back in fantasy land:

    “just like workers can find new jobs that actually benefit people”

    If you’d seen the unemployment rate recently, you’d know that your statement sounds a lot easier than it is in reality.

  3. In the 1982 recession in America, unemployment reached 10.8%–much higher than now. That recession helped bring about the good years of Reagan and Clinton. Recessions aren’t simply inevitable like the “bad” weather. They also get rid of the businesses and jobs that are no longer making a contribution to society. Human efforts can then be channeled into useful enterprises.

  4. And another quite brutal lesson learned during the 1980s is that when you cut the throat of industry without having any good plan for what the redundant manual labourers are going to do with themselves, you’re going to store up significant social and economic problems in those communities. I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty.

    The responsible route would be for any car industry bailout would involve complete accountability to the taxpayer, requirements for improved environmental standards and an insistence that the industry moves towards more energy efficient cars. At the same time, government can invest in ‘green industry’, thus providing new jobs and more entrepreneurship. Just washing your hands of the problem and allowing Detroit to descend into a crippling depression won’t create anything positive. And people will still buy cars.

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