feedback | help
BBC News BBC News Frontpage | Back to the Future 
George Monbiot,
Environmental Campaigner

George Monbiot
In 1900

We could see very large areas of the world simply becoming unfit for human habitation.

The best we can hope for is that with concerted action now.

My worst fear is that corporations effectively come to control both economies and political systems of nations all over the world.

We will see a growing inequality, not just in terms of access to wealth - but also in terms of access to resources.

There's a great danger that some of the big multi-national food companies will be able effectively to place a padlock on the food chain.

I think we're going to see a sort of homespun revolution. A rejection of the big business model of development and a new form of progress...

Who wants to live in an economy where we're just plankton manipulated, pushed aside by the great leviathans of the big corporations?
Q: Where might the world be in terms of the environment in the next century?

A: There's some very serious problems looming and the first and most obvious one is climate change. There's little doubt that the dry regions of the world are going to get a lot dryer and the wet regions of the world are going to get a lot wetter, and that has very serious implications for human welfare in those places. If we look for instance at the Saharan regions of Africa, already people are being displaced from land because the droughts which used to come every forty or fifty years are now coming every four or five years.

That's going to continue. Those regions are going to expand and there will be all sorts of places which are currently fit for human habitation which will no longer be fit for them. If we look also at low-lying areas like many parts of Bangladesh, we see there increasing dispossession already of people by floods and monsoons. That will continue, will get far worse and many millions of people are going to find themselves incapable of living in places where their ancestors have lived.

The Red Cross has shown that already more people are being displaced by climate change than are being displaced by conflicts as far as refugees are concerned. Some predictions suggest that by the year 2050 there will be as many as 200 million people displaced from their homes by the effects of environmental change.

So there's no question that some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth will find their lives becoming even worse but there's no reason to assume that we in Britain are going to be insulated from the impacts of climate change either. There are already predictions that the Gulf Stream, which is the only thing that keeps us warm here, could slow down or even stop. If it does, the UK could end up with temperatures in the summer of minus 15 degrees! It could be very serious indeed. This could have massive impact on human welfare all over the world.

Q: What about the assumption that climate change is so incremental that the scenario you described is going to take centuries to occur?

The temperatures during the last Ice Age on average around the world were just four degrees lower than current temperatures are today so in temperature terms we're really talking about very small differences. Four degrees is well within the possible range of temperature changes within the next 100 years. As far as rising world temperatures are concerned so what we're talking about might sound very small but it can have catastrophic impacts on climate and on basic ecology and the basic conditions of life which people are subject to.

Were we to see a similar sort of scale of effect as we saw with the Ice Age, vast areas of the world becoming uninhabitable, this could have absolutely devastating impacts on people today not least because we've got such high populations, often very much dependent on vulnerable ecological resources.

Q: Are you suggesting that it is possible for the world to get hotter and to get colder, or for part of the world to get hotter and another part of the world to get colder?

A: Yes. There's no question that what we're talking about. While it involves total global warming, a rise in average global temperatures, could lead to some parts of the world getting very much hotter, some parts getting very much dryer, some parts getting very much wetter and some parts paradoxically becoming very much colder.

For example: if the Gulf Stream stops because of the melting of the Arctic ice sheets causing a flood of cold water into the northern Atlantic╝ then we could see northern Europe becoming very much colder than it is, paradoxically as a result of global warming.

Q: How alarmist could the worst case be? What's the best we can hope for?

A: The best we can hope for is that with concerted action now, with an awful lot of effort to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases, we could significantly reduce the impact of some of these temperature changes. But only if we really get our act together now.

The worst case is really just too frightening to contemplate almost. We could see very large areas of the world simply becoming unfit for human habitation.

Q: What do you think the political map of the world will be like? How do you think we will be governed?

A: Well, there are two very powerful trends going in opposite directions at the moment and it's very hard to say which one is going to come out on the top.

On the one hand we've got a powerful trend towards globalisation being pursued by the World Trade Organisation, by businesses all over the world, by governments all over the world. Many aspects of this trend are effectively undermining the capacity of national governments to govern in the name of their people.

On the other hand we've got powerful bodies of people saying 'we don't want this to happen, we want to get back to a much more accountable national, regional local political systems where we ordinary people have far more control over how development takes place'. And it's very hard at this stage to know who's going to come out on top.

Q: If globalisation continues at this pace, and with the kind of consequences we're seeing today, where will we be?

A: Were globalisation to continue as it's doing at the moment , where we see the continued deregulation of national laws; we see the removal of some of the protections which have prevented the destruction of the environment - which are protecting the health and safety of workers and consumers and citizens in general - then I think we could see a very serious erosion of the capacity of governments to respond to their people and to govern in a democratic way.

We can see instead the replacement of largely accountable, or at least theoretically accountable, national governments with supra-national bodies which are only accountable in a very vague way.

This could have very grave consequences indeed. We could see a dictatorship of big business around the world, effectively running the regulatory frameworks which determine how we live our lives and it would be very hard indeed for ordinary people to make any impact upon that sort of plutocracy.

Q: So what are your worst fears if things don't change for what might happen to citizenship and politics?

A: My worst fears is that corporations effectively come to control both economies and political systems of nations all over the world, and they set the framework, establish the framework within which politics can take place. They call the shots, they say you can legislate up to this line but not beyond it.

If that comes to pass, it will effectively mean the end of liberal democracy. It will be the beginning of a corporate dictatorship which will be very hard to challenge. They will have the money, they will have the power, they will have the security apparatus and we will have very little indeed.

Q: Are we going to see the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer?

A: We'll see I think the rise of a new corporate aristocracy, people who are so rich that they can effectively detach themselves from the rest of the world, that they no longer have to share the concerns, the aspirations, the point of view of everybody else on earth. They will have their own agenda and that they will be able to feel that they owe nothing to the world and the world owes nothing to them.

And when you look at the vast pay-offs that executives are beginning to get, you can see that they can start to insulate themselves, to remove themselves behind a great plate-glass barrier from everyone else. They'd be rather like the landed aristocracy of the last century who were able to say we have a god-given right to rule, we don't have to take into account anything that anyone else says or does.

We're going to see many people becoming individually richer than some of the poorer countries on earth, I think even possibly than some of the middle-ranking countries on earth. Already this is a trend which is quite well established.

Q: Of course their argument and a very strong traditional argument is that trickle-down means that as they get richer, that everyone else gets richer with them and that as a whole, whilst the disparity may increase the world is levelling up?

A: What we're seeing and I think what we will continue to see at least is the development of the drawbridge society. You make your money and then you ensure that you and your descendants hang on to it. You pull the drawbridge up behind you and you keep the great hoi-polloi, the great unwashed out of your virtual castle.

Q: Will people in a hundred years time still have to walk a mile and a half to get water? Will children die of infant mortality at the kind of rates that we still see today? Will those kind of core indicators of absolute poverty still be with us in a 100 years time?

A: We will see a growing inequality, not just in terms of access to wealth - simple dollar values - but also in terms of access to resources.

For example, the massive hydro-electric dams displacing hundreds, millions of people around the world in order to supply water for irrigation projects, for very rich big business farms. They will lead to people being paradoxically pushed away so far from the water sources that they have to walk not a mile or two miles to get their water but 10 or 20 miles.

There's a great potential for human welfare to actually get worse rather than better. Already, in some parts of Africa we're seeing life expectancy dropping for 20 or 30 years, partly through AIDS but that's also through a loss of access to basic health care as health care programmes get slashed.

With the increasing privatisation of health care which we're seeing worldwide now, we're seeing some people having access to phenomenal incredible medical technologies, wonderful medical technologies and on the other hand, other people not having access to basic clean water.

We're seeing a massive division of access to these very fundamental indicators of human welfare, of education, of health, of fresh water, clean water, of fuel, of the basics of human survival.

And I think we're going to see that gulf grow. We're going to see a massive inequality in terms of development between the very rich and the very poor.

Q: What will we eat?

A: There's a great danger that some of the big multi-national food companies will be able effectively to place a padlock on the food chain, that they'll be able to control not just what we eat but also whether we eat.

As they take over farming itself, plant breeding especially through the agency of genetic engineering, as they take over the very ability of seeds to reproduce themselves they will be able to exercise a massive influence over the biggest commodity of all, which is of course food. That will put them in a position of very great power indeed.

I am very frightened of that scenario because were this to take place, it would inevitably lead to mass starvation. At the moment there's enough food to feed everyone in the world but still millions of people starve. This is not because of an absolute shortage of food but because the food doesn't reach the hands of the poor and vulnerable for the simple reason that it's in the hands of the rich and powerful.

As big companies take over the food chain, that trend will increase and we'll see more and more people effectively excluded from the global food economy.

Q: In this century we've seen off discrimination against women, to a large extent in the rich Western world, and to a great extent, racism is a thing of the past. What is your big fear for discrimination for the 21st century?

A: We could see a new form of discrimination emerging which would be far worse, far more potent than either racism or classism or sexism and this would be gene-ism.

We could see a new form of discrimination emerging which could be even worse than racism, classism, sexism and all the other forms of discrimination we have at the moment and this would be gene-ism.

If some scientists' plans for gene therapy go ahead where you can alter someone's genetic constituents to make them more beautiful, more intelligent, faster running - whatever it happens to be - we'll very rapidly see a division between those genetic haves and the genetic have-nots.

Those who have been altered will want to be separated, will want to be removed from the gene pool of the rest of us and of course they will only be the rich people, the people who can afford that sort of therapy. And they will for the first time be able to justify discrimination in genuine biological terms. Rather than creating false biological distinctions between white people and black people, they will be able to say there is a genuine demonstrable biological distinction between us and the great unwashed. 'We are the genetically elect, they're the genetic outcasts' and we can very quickly see a separation of the two gene pools. First of all a cultural separation increasingly a biological separation of them. We'll have two kinds of humans - the ins and the outs, the genetically superior and the genetically inferior.

Q: So we're going to sink underwater: we're going to freeze; we're going to have no political clout whatsoever; we're going to eat whatever big business tells us we should eat; and we're going to have to choose to spend our money not just on the education of our kids but on the pre-embryonic injection of the right selection of genes to our kids. This scenario is frightful - is it going to happen?

A: There's a strong possibility that things could go the other way and already we're seeing a big backlash against the corporatisation of the global economy and the global politics.

We're already seeing people saying 'we don't want this to go any further, we want to get back to a local economy, to local control over political decision-making, to local democracy' . I have a strong feeling now - and I wouldn't have said this two years ago - but I have a strong feeling that that trend is the one that's going to win.

I think we're going to see a sort of homespun revolution - a rejection of the big business model of development - and a new form of progress which says that it must respect human welfare, it must respect the environment, it must respect social justice and democracy. Unless economic change and political change can deliver that stuff, we're going to reject it and we're going to turn our backs on it.

I think we're going to see a citizens' backlash which could reverse many of these very negative changes and actually institute some very positive and genuinely progressive trends.

Q: But your optimism is based on human nature, basically, is it?

A: Well I feel there are strong grounds for optimism in that people aren't stupid, and people are beginning to see the horrendous situation that we could be leading to if we don't do something about it very fast and very firmly.

Who wants to live in a world which is largely uninhabitable, where vast areas of the earth have been rendered sterile, where human life can no longer be pursued there? Who wants to live in the world that's controlled not by our representatives but by unaccountable big business? Who wants to live in an economy where we're just plankton manipulated, pushed aside by the great leviathans of the big corporations?

What people very clearly want is a world which is accountable, which is responsive to them, where they can say we need the economy to deliver goods for us, we need our politicians to listen to what we're saying.

Ringing in the new millennium | Back to the future | Witness | Speaking for the century | Millennium diaries | What happened next? | Review of the year | Your millennium | Talking Point