Last week we went to visit George Monbiot, one of the world’s most prominent environmental journalists, to discuss the various ways in which we’re all buggered and the various things we can all do to make us less buggered.
George can’t teach you how to nail a late take-off or how to duck-dive a board that doesn't duck-dive, but he can advise you on how to be a better surfer, in the sense of how to be a better person who surfs. You really ought to go and read the whole interview, which is fascinating, but if you don’t feel up to it just yet, seven of his main suggestions for planetary rehabilitation are excerpted below.
To those of us who enjoy tropical barrels and seasoned flesh it makes for uncomfortable reading, but then to suppose that sound moral behaviour isn't contingent upon occasional earthly sacrifices is to delude oneself.
“I think we have to fly as little as possible. […] Your return flight to Indonesia is going to be not far off the average greenhouse-gas emissions per person in the UK for the whole year. So by far the biggest impact you can have is getting on a plane. And that’s per seat, I’m not talking about the whole plane: per passenger. It’s going to be slightly short of your average greenhouse gas emissions, were you not to fly, across the whole year.
"By far the biggest impact you can have is getting on a plane"
And then there’s all the other issues surrounding local pollution, noise pollution, airport development, all the rest of it. Things are happening so fast, ecological collapse is happening so fast, that these are among the last generations that are going to see this wonderful world, and yet we say, oh well, let’s go out and see it then — by getting on a plane!”
Only eat fish you catch yourself
"99% of the world’s fisheries are nosediving because of mismanagement. [...] I know so many environmentalists who will happily buy a tuna steak, or swordfish — these creatures at the top of the food chain which are being completely smashed by industrial fishing, and whose fishing often is destroying dolphin populations, turtle populations, albatross populations, the rest of it — and somehow they just don’t connect with this issue, and it’s because it hasn’t been emphasised nearly enough"
“In the absence of political action at the moment, to carry on buying sea bass, tuna, halibut, prawns, dredged scallops — the great majority of the fish that people eat — is just blatantly irresponsible. We have a moral responsibility to be aware of what we’re eating and to be aware of what the impacts are and not to buy the stuff which is causing tremendous damage. Now this is complicated by the failures of the Marine Stewardship Council, which has been certifying fisheries which should never have been certified, so its logo can no longer be trusted — which makes it more difficult for people to make reasoned decisions, and in the absence of those reasoned decisions what I say to people is either eat no fish at all or catch your own.”
And prawns count as fish too
“Prawn fisheries have about the most destructive impact of all in the marine environment. Either the prawns are being caught with massive by-catch — a lot of them come for instance from the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s wiped out a whole series of other species, including sawfish and turtles and many others — or they are being cultivated in ponds which are created where mangrove forests are cleared, which are the critical breeding grounds for loads of different species, essential for coastal defence and the rest of it. You can’t do worse at the moment than buy prawns.”
Switch to a plant-based diet, i.e. go vegan
“Look, the problem across the board is rising consumption. And with farming and fishing it is the rising consumption of meat and the rising consumption of fish, which are wiping everything out. If we switch to a plant-based diet — as I’ve done, as I strongly advocate other people do — apart from the fish I catch myself — then our impacts are massively reduced.”
Avoid plastics, but keep a sense of perspective
“We don’t know the full impacts of microplastics in the food chain yet, they could be pretty dire, in fact they almost certainly are. But I don’t think it is nearly as bad an issue as the ecological cleansing of the land and the sea by the food industry, which I now see as the top two environmental issues of all — even bigger than climate breakdown.”
“There’s no question that plastic is a huge issue but much less so in this country than in certain other countries, because we’ve got relatively good waste disposal by comparison with several Asian and African countries, for example, and Central American countries and indeed one or two Middle Eastern ones as well, where plastic is just pouring into the sea. Here much less so. In fact at a lot of the beaches you visit, a great deal of the marine plastic is actually from the fishing industry. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — it now turns out that most of that is fishing-industry debris. So again, even the marine plastics issue is to a large extent a product of industrial fishing.”
"Some people say homing in on the small stuff becomes a gateway to the bigger things, but I’m not convinced"
“I know people who recycle diligently, who are very determined never to buy a plastic bag in a shop, and then they fly to Thailand for their holidays, or drive a bloody great gas guzzler with twin exhausts. It’s very often the little things we do that blind us to the big things, and we’re all very good at self-deception, at seeing our virtues and ignoring our vices. And by homing in on the small stuff — some people say it becomes a gateway to doing stuff on the bigger things, but I’m not convinced. I think it can have exactly the opposite effect.”
Explore your own coastlines
“I think along these lines when it comes to sea kayaking, because there’s all sorts of parts of the world where I would love to go sea kayaking. But my feeling is you’ve just gotta find the best that is on your own doorstep and find ways of really appreciating it — and seeing it as a challenge, often. You know, surfing might be more difficult here, but that’s a challenge to be engaged with rather than fled from. Now with sea kayaking, there’s so many places I would love to go. The coral atolls I would love to kayak around. But actually by not doing that I’ve been able to discover that possibly the best coastline in the world for sea kayaking is the northwest coast of Lewis, in the Western Isles, which is just amazing. You could spend a lifetime exploring it, it’s just beautiful.
"Surfing might be more difficult here, but that’s a challenge to be engaged with rather than fled from"
Would I have found that if I was flying around the world to where everybody says you ought to go sea kayaking? No, because I was forced to look at the UK and go, ‘where are the best places to go sea kayaking here?’ And that has, in a way, opened the world out to me even though I’m not travelling around the world to do it.”
Buy less stuff
“In every region of the world you see these vast mines being opened up to provide the minerals, you see deforestation proceeding at horrendous rates, you see precious resources just being stripped from the earth, in order to provide stuff that we don’t regard as precious at all because we use it for a few days and then we junk it. We’ve just gotta be far more conscious about the stuff we buy, and buy much less.”