Figure 1: Monbiot being detained by London Metropolitan Police for attending the Extinction Rebellion protests. Credit to Peter Summers of Getty Images.
Not all journalists are created equal. This holds true for the 59-year-old George Monbiot, a renowned writer, activist and environmental campaigner recognized for his poignant, snappy commentary and controversial opinions in the journalistic sphere. Known for being somewhat of a polymath in all things environment-related, he is the author of several bestselling books including Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life and Heat: how to stop the planet burning and Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, co-writer for singer Ewan McLennan’s 2016 concept album Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, and founder of the British land rights campaign The Land is Ours, which focuses on peacefully campaigning for access to British land for marginalized populations, including Roma peoples. Moreover, the name may sound familiar to regular YouTube viewers, who may recall his 2013 TED Talk “How Wolves Change Rivers,” with over 40 Million views, or the Nature Now documentary filmed in collaboration with Greta Thunberg, a viral hit with over 50 Million views. As it shows, Monbiot is broadly known as a jack-of-all trades for the community of climate change action, in which he holds a reputation as an inspiration for thousands of aspiring journalists and activists.
How was such a reputation constructed? If anything, it was certainly a smooth process. Believe it or not, Monbiot went to university for zoology, where he studied for three years at the University of Oxford before graduating, only to immediately begin his career working for the BBC. Later on, he would recall this moment in his life with disappointment, saying: “I had an unhappy time at university” and that “the culture did not suit me, and when I tried to join in I fell flat on my face, sometimes in a drunken stupor.” In his mind, the job he wanted “did not yet exist: to make investigative environmental programmes for the BBC.” So it was that Monbiot began work as a radio producer in 1985, after much insistence and persistent networking. In fact, he recalls receiving the big call by head of the newspaper’s natural history unit with the words: “you’re so fucking persistent you’ve got the job.” During his time at the BBC, he ran a historical wildlife programme, garnering his first critical acclaim with the documentary on the sinking of the Kowloon Bridge, an Irish freight ship, off the coast of West Cork, which won the Sony Award in 1987. That same year, Monbiot took off to write his first book with a deal from Penguin Random House, traveling to West Papua and Indonesia in a “reckless” investigation to gather data. He recalls several near-death experiences, such as almost being stung to death by hornets, being shot at by military police and moving around the countries with a forged travel pass.
Despite the initial difficulty, Poisoned Arrows, his first book, was internationally successful and served as the gateway for Monbiot to focus on his writing career, giving him an outlet to himself outside of the BBC. From then on, he has written numerous other works on environmental degradation. Notably, he lived in the Amazon for two years to study the effects of gold mining on the Yanomami people and their environment and East Africa in 1992 to investigate the “assault on the “assaults on the lives of the nomadic peoples of Kenya and Tanzania.” Since being offered a position to write weekly op-eds for The Guardian in 1996, he has established himself as a presence in the British and international media, campaigning for topics from nuclear energy to neoliberalism to species extinction, in articles such as “Green growth’ doesn’t exist – less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe” and “Britain through the looking glass: my dead goldfish is now a registered waste disposer.” His most recent article, “Do we really care more about Van Gogh’s sunflowers than real ones?” is a bitter critique of both climate change denial and bad climate activism, prompting the question: how far are activists allowed to go, to advocate for their cause?
Above all, Monbiot believes that drastic action is necessary to shape the climate crisis, and that neither the individual nor corporations can walk away from the issue without making conscious choices to alter their lifestyles. He has sustained this belief within and outside his writing. For example, he was arrested at a 2019 Extinction Rebellion protest for defying climate protest bans, and continues to impress by regarding the climate crisis with urgency and self-sacrifice, such as stating: “by putting our bodies on the line and risking our liberty, we make this great neglected issue impossible to ignore.” For his dedication, talent and rock-star reputation in activism, Monbiot has earned the heart of countless aspiring leaders and, beyond that, continually helps restore faith that there is hope for a new tomorrow.
Check out Monbiot’s work here: