George Monbiot’s Dark Night of the Soil

Clisep has been criticised (and lost readers) for deviating from the path of climate sceptical righteousness to consider other subjects apparently far removed from climate. At the time of the election of Trump and the success of the Brexit referendum, the levels of hatred and lack of self-awareness exhibited by a ruling caste, who were also fervent climate believers, led us to speculate about the common factors at work. On Covid, the deviation is easier to justify. A genuine crisis unfolding in a few months has revealed startling parallels with the decades-long climate crisis: the mindless faith of politicians in incompetent and probably corrupt science; the self-censorship of most of the media; and the level of hatred aimed at sceptics, all suggest a similar pattern of unconscious causal factors.

And, of course, the same actors are at work. The supposedly lefty BBC and centre left or “liberal” media like the Guardian and the New York Times have been the keenest to defend the official government / establishment positions, and the popular rightwing papers like the Daily Mail and New York Post have been the most active in promoting intelligent scepticism of the official line. And this strange reversal has been effected in other fields, including the murkiest corners of geopolitical intrigue. When a British Foreign Office asset, who was on the receiving end of forty million quid of your money channelled via a private company registered in Dubai, claims that she was busy in Iraq and Afghanistan on climate-change-related matters, it’s time for us ex-Guardian-reading lefties to start paying attention.

Luckily other people have been paying attention for us, mostly independent left wing journalists like Caitlin Johnstone Craig Murray and Jonathan Cook.

Cook, formerly of the Guardian, but now independent and working from Nazareth, has been taking George Monbiot to task for several years now for accepting the official government line as gospel, first on Ruanda and Syria, and more recently on the trial of Julian Assange, who is being held on remand in solitary confinement in Belmarsh maximum security jail in conditions usually reserved for convicted terrorists. He has already served a harsh term of imprisonment for jumping bail, and is now being held pending the US government’s appeal against the judge’s decision (taken on health grounds) that he should not be extradited to the USA where he risks life imprisonment in solitary for embarrassing revelations about Western war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his latest article

Cook criticises Monbiot (for the third time) for not raising his influential voice in defence of Assange. Monbiot justified his silence on the subject in this tweet:

I’ve tweeted about it many times. But for me it’s one of hundreds of crucial issues, many of which are even more important. It’s terrible, but compared to, say, soil loss, it’s a long way down my list.

Well, we all have our priorities. Monbiot is a famous radical campaigning journalist, and the fact that the defence of a fellow famous radical campaigning journalist from a life sentence for telling the truth counts for less than dirt is an interesting comment on the place of environmental issues in the minds of our intellectual élite. 

To claim that soil loss is at the top of Monbiot’s mind seems a stretch. According to his blog he has mentioned it just three times in the past three years. His latest article on the subject – on the promise of producing artificial protein from bacteria – published a year ago is fascinating stuff – Monbiot at his best, even if it is a plug for his forthcoming documentary “Apocalypse Cow.” 

In the article he mention soil erosion just once:

A global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination.

referencing a previous Guardian article by science editor Jonathan Watts which cites Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Monique Barbut is a French civil servant with a masters degree in economics. Before coming to the UN she worked for twenty years for the Global Environment Facility. (No I hadn’t heard of them either. They have “.. a unique governing structure organised around an Assembly composed of all 184 member countries, a Council, a Secretariat based in Washington D.C., 18 Agencies, a Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP), and an Evaluation Office.”) So if Monbiot says that the Guardian’s science editor says that Monique says that a global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, you’d better believe it. What more do you want? Evidence? 

Back in November 2016  soil loss was near the bottom of Monbiot’s list of thirteen things that were worrying him sick. The other twelve were, in order: Trump, Trump, Trump, Brexit, the EU’s crumbling economy, the world’s crumbling economy, automation, le Pen, le Pen, climate change, migration due to climate breakdown, and the extinction crisis.

His reference for his worries about soil then was an article in Scientific American by Chris Arsenaut of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Somehow, the claim in the Arsenaut article that:

Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation

became transformed in the subheading to:

if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years  a senior UN official said. 

And the sole source for this claim was a speech by Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) addressing a forum marking World Soil Day.

Ms Semedo also has a masters in economics. Before joining the FAO she was minister of maritime affairs and then of tourism in Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of West Africa with a population of half a million.

Monbiot’s concern for soil may be genuine, and certainly greater than his concern about a fellow journalist being condemned to a slow death by torture, but his concern for informing us about the problem doesn’t go further than quoting the opinions of obscure UN spokeswomen. Monbiot used to worry about genocide in Indonesia, and even risked his life going there to find out more. Having nearly died in Indonesia and Kenya, he came home and for the past twenty years has been worrying about the Death of Everything. (Everything except other radical journalists that is.)

The political left has always been an uneasy alliance between the organised labour and a section of the moralising middle class that provided the intellectual structure and much of the leadership. Rising living standards have gradually transformed the trade union movement from the protectors of the toiling masses into a kind of blue collar Rotary Club. And the complexities of modern capitalism and imperialism have led most intellectuals to concentrate on simpler subjects like pronouns and planetary extinction due to a half a degree rise in the average global temperature anomaly. 

It’s a depressing fact that the three people I’ve mentioned – Caitlin Johnstone, Craig Murray and Jonathan Cook – three of a few dozen radical journalists who dare to question the official line on important geopolitical subjects – are all firm believers in the official line on climate change. 

Mike Pompeo announces publicly that it’s his job to lie and cheat, and a tiny number of brave journalists are banned from the mainstream media because they take him at his word. Why don’t they similarly believe Stephen “make little mention of any doubts” Schneider or Al “over-representation of the facts” Gore when they say much the same thing? Not to mention Monbiot and Lewandowsky when they justify Gleick’s lying in the cause of the climate.

It’s as if those who are excluded from polite society for doing what was once considered the normal job of the journalist – to question authority – have to cling to one last source of authoritative truth – ands have chosen to believe the non-existent consensus about the forthcoming death of the planet.

That a journalist considered too dangerously radical for the once radical Guardian should retire to Nazareth is a strange symbol of our times.

[For the most moving and terrifying bit of journalism you’re likely to read this century, please go to Craig Murray’s site and read his reports on the Assange trial, if you can bear to, starting here. And donate if you can]

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January 10, 2021 at 03:37AM

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