Tag: George Monbiot

Thinking anew.

Humanity’s safe and viable future depends on seeing things very differently.

Next Tuesday is the 62nd anniversary of the death of Albert Einstein, the famous German theoretical physicist who died on the 18th April, 1955. He delivered many innovative ways of seeing our world way beyond his theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics) (Ref: Wikipedia)

Why do I introduce today’s post with that reference to Mr. Einstein?

Because I wanted to share with you a recent essay from George Monbiot and an Einstein quotation seemed so apt an introduction.

We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.

That essay from George Monbiot was published yesterday and is shared with you all with Mr. Monbiot’s full permission.

It is an essay that deserves being read slowly and carefully. Please take time aside to so do because it really does offer a new manner of thinking.


Circle of Life

By reframing the economy, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics changes our view of who we are and where we stand.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th April 2017

So what are we going to do about it? This is the only question worth asking. But the answers appear elusive. Faced with a multifaceted crisis  – the capture of governments by billionaires and their lobbyists, extreme inequality, the rise of demagogues, above all the collapse of the living world – those to whom we look for leadership appear stunned, voiceless, clueless. Even if they had the courage to act, they have no idea what to do.

The most they tend to offer is more economic growth: the fairy dust supposed to make all the bad stuff disappear. Never mind that it drives ecological destruction, that it has failed to relieve structural unemployment or soaring inequality, that, in some recent years, almost all the increment in incomes has been harvested by the top 1%. As values, principles and moral purpose are lost, the promise of growth is all that’s left.

You can see the effects in a leaked memo from the UK’s foreign office: “Trade and growth are now priorities for all posts … work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down.” All that counts is the rate at which we turn natural wealth into cash. If this destroys our prosperity and the wonders that surround us, who cares?

We cannot hope to address our predicament without a new worldview. We cannot use the models that caused our crises to solve them. We need to reframe the problem. This is what the most inspiring book published so far this year has done.

In Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist, Kate Raworth reminds us that economic growth was not, at first, intended as a measurement of well-being. Simon Kuznets, who standardised the measurement of growth, warned: “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” Economic growth, he pointed out, measures only annual flow, rather than stocks of wealth and their distribution.

Raworth points out that economics in the 20th Century “lost the desire to articulate its goals.” It aspired to be a science of human behaviour: a science based on a deeply flawed portrait of humanity. The dominant model – “rational economic man”, self-interested, isolated, calculating – says more about the nature of economists than it does about other humans. The loss of an explicit objective allowed the discipline to be captured by a proxy goal: endless growth.

The aim of economic activity, she argues, should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet.” Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow.” This means changing our picture of what the economy is and how it works.

The central image in mainstream economics is the circular flow diagram. It depicts a closed flow of income cycling between households, businesses, banks, government and trade, operating in a social and ecological vacuum. Energy, materials, the natural world, human society, power, the wealth we hold in common: all are missing from the model. The unpaid work of carers – principally women – is ignored, though no economy could function without them. Like rational economic man, this representation of economic activity bears little relationship to reality.

So Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds it in the Earth’s systems and in society, showing how it depends on the flow of materials and energy, and reminding us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital.

The Embedded Economy. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

This recognition of inconvenient realities then leads to her breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we want to create. Like all the best ideas, her Doughnut model seems so simple and obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. But achieving this clarity and concision requires years of thought: a great decluttering of the myths and misrepresentations in which we have been schooled.

The diagram consists of two rings. The inner ring of the doughnut represents a sufficiency of the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy … . Anyone living below that line, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation.

The Doughnut. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health

The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on the living world. The area between the two rings – the doughnut – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.

As well as describing a better world, the doughnut model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. At the moment we transgress both lines. Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle. We have breached the outer boundary in several places.

Where we are now. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health

An economics that helps us to live within the doughnut would seek to reduce inequalities in wealth and income. Wealth arising from the gifts of nature would be widely shared. Money, markets, taxation and public investment would be designed to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them. State-owned banks would invest in projects that transform our relationship with the living world, such as zero-carbon public transport and community energy schemes. New metrics would measure genuine prosperity, rather than the speed with which we degrade our long-term prospects.

Such proposals are familiar, but without a new framework of thought, piecemeal solutions are unlikely to succeed. By rethinking economics from first principles, Raworth allows us to integrate our specific propositions into a coherent programme, and then to measure the extent to which it is realised. I see her as the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st-Century: by reframing the economy, she allows us to change our view of who we are, where we stand, and what we want to be.

Now we need to turn her ideas into policy. Read her book, then demand that those who wield power start working towards its objectives: human prosperity within a thriving living world.



 Please, wherever you are and whatever your plans are for this long weekend, do take great care of yourself and all your loved ones!

Private power.

The power of corporations must never be permitted to override democratic choice.

The main thrust in yesterday’s post was a plea by , Lecturer on Anthropology, University of Colorado, Denver for our natural lands to be given the legal status of a person. Here’s how Prof. Colwell concluded his essay (my emphasis):

In New Zealand, the Te Urewera Act offers a higher level of protection, empowering a board to be the land’s guardian. The Te Urewera Act, though, does not remove its connection to humans. With a permit, people can hunt, fish, farm and more. The public still has access to the forest. One section of the law even allows Te Urewera to be mined.

Te Urewera teaches us that acknowledging cultural views of places as living does not mean ending the relationship between humans and nature, but reordering it – recognizing nature’s intrinsic worth and respecting indigenous philosophies.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, I believe we can do better to align our legal system with the cultural expressions of the people it serves. For instance, the U.S. Congress could amend the NHPA or the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to acknowledge the deep cultural connection between tribes and natural places, and afford better protections for sacred landscapes like New Mexico’s Mount Taylor.

Until then, it says much about us when companies are considered people before nature is.

Chip Colwell was alerting us, as in humanity, that our natural resources are way, way too important for them to be considered corporate assets.

The days between a Christmas Day and a New Year’s Day are frequently a time for introspection; well they are for me! A few days to reflect on what did or did not work in the year just coming to an end and to find some clarity about the important issues for the new year.

That mood of introspection, of reflection, seems to be creeping into my blog posts this last week of 2016. For following Chip Colwell comes George Monbiot and an essay he published on the 6th December, 2016, that is republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s very kind permission.

Regarding the power of corporations there are strong echoes between Prof. Colwell and Mr. Monbiot.


The Golden Arches Theory of Decline

Why is there a worldwide revolt against politics as usual? Because corporate globalisation has crushed democratic choice.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 6th December 2016

A wave of revulsion rolls around the world. Approval ratings for incumbent leaders are everywhere collapsing. Symbols, slogans and sensation trump facts and nuanced argument. One in six Americans now believes that military rule would be a good idea. From all this I draw the following, peculiar conclusion: no country with a McDonald’s can remain a democracy.

Twenty years ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed his “golden arches theory of conflict prevention”. This holds that “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other since they each got their McDonald’s”.

Friedman’s was one of several end-of-history narratives suggesting that global capitalism would lead to permanent peace. He claimed that it might create “a tip-over point at which a country, by integrating with the global economy, opening itself up to foreign investment and empowering its consumers, permanently restricts its capacity for troublemaking and promotes gradual democratization and widening peace.” He didn’t mean that McDonald’s ends war, but that its arrival in a nation symbolised the transition.

In using McDonalds as shorthand for the forces tearing democracy apart, I am, like him, writing figuratively. I do not mean that the presence of the burger chain itself is the cause of the decline of open, democratic societies (though it has played its part in Britain, using our defamation laws against its critics). Nor do I mean that countries hosting McDonald’s will necessarily mutate into dictatorships.

What I mean is that, under the onslaught of the placeless, transnational capital McDonald’s exemplifies, democracy as a living system withers and dies. The old forms and forums still exist – parliaments and congresses remain standing – but the power they once contained seeps away, re-emerging where we can no longer reach it.

The political power that should belong to us has flitted into confidential meetings with the lobbyists and donors who establish the limits of debate and action. It has slipped into the dictats of the IMF and the European Central Bank, which respond not to the people but to the financial sector. It has been transported, under armed guard, into the icy fastness of Davos, where Mr Friedman finds himself so warmly welcomed (even when he’s talking cobblers).

Above all, the power that should belong to the people is being crushed by international treaty. Contracts such as NAFTA, CETA, the proposed TransPacific Partnership and Trade in Services Agreement and the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are crafted behind closed doors in discussions dominated by corporate lobbyists. They are able to slip in clauses that no informed electorate would ever approve, such as the establishment of opaque offshore tribunals, through which corporations can bypass national courts, challenge national laws and demand compensation for the results of democratic decisions.

These treaties limit the scope of politics, prevent states from changing social outcomes and drive down labour rights, consumer protection, financial regulation and the quality of neighbourhoods. They make a mockery of sovereignty. Anyone who forgets that striking them down was one of Donald Trump’s main promises will fail to understand why people were prepared to risk so much in electing him.

At the national level too, the McDonalds model destroys meaningful democracy. Democracy depends on a reciprocal sense of belief, trust and belonging: the conviction that you belong to the nation and the nation belongs to you. The McDonalds model, by rooting out attachment, could not have been better designed to erase that perception.

As Tom Wolfe observes in his novel A Man in Full, “the only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchise chains started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot.” The alienation and anomie this destruction of place promotes are enhanced by the casualisation of labour and a spirit-crushing regime of monitoring, quantification and assessment (at which McDonald’s happens to excel). Public health disasters contribute to the sense of rupture. After falling for decades, for example, death rates among middle-aged white Americans are now rising. Among the likely causes are obesity and diabetes, opioid addiction and liver failure, diseases whose vectors are corporations.

Corporations, released from democratic constraints, drive us towards climate breakdown, an urgent threat to global peace. McDonald’s has done more than its fair share: beef production is among the most powerful causes of climate change.

In his book The Globalisation Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik describes a political trilemma. Democracy, national sovereignty and hyperglobalisation, he argues, are mutually incompatible. You cannot have all three at once. McDonalisation crowds out domestic politics. Incoherent and dangerous as it often is, the global backlash against mainstream politicians is, at heart, an attempt to reassert national sovereignty against the forces of undemocratic globalisation.

An article about the history of the Democratic party by Matt Stoller in The Atlantic reminds us that a similar choice was articulated by the great American jurist Louis Brandeis. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” In 1936, the congressman Wright Patman managed to pass a bill against the concentration of corporate power. Among his targets was A&P, the giant chainstore of his day, that was hollowing out towns, destroying local retailers and turning “independent tradesmen into clerks”.

In 1938, President Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” The Democrats saw concentrated corporate power as a form of dictatorship. They broke up giant banks and businesses and chained the chainstores. What Roosevelt, Brandeis and Patman knew has been forgotten by those in power, including powerful journalists. But not by the victims of this system.

One of the answers to Trump, Putin, Orban, Erdogan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to defend the crucial political unit that’s under assault by banks, monopolies and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard to peace between nations than a corporate model which crushes democratic choice.



It’s very easy to pick out from Mr. Monbiot’s essay what the theme should be for 2017, and beyond. What each and every one of us who cares about the future and understands the huge changes that have to take place if our grandchildren are to have a viable future.

It was that compelling quotation by Louis Brandeis:

We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.

It’s as simple as that!

Troubling times.

We all could easily be drinking in ‘the last chance saloon’.

After I published my book, Learning From Dogs, last December I was invited to a number of book signing events. In each case I gave a short talk of about 20 minutes in which I explained the philosophy behind the book. Perhaps no better articulated than by Dr. Jim Goodbrod’s Foreword to the book. Take this paragraph, for instance, from that Foreword:

 Dogs represent to me that innocence lost. Their emotions are pure. They live in the present. They do not suffer existential angst over what they are. They do not covet material wealth. They offer us unconditional love and devotion. Although they certainly have not reached the great heights of intellectual achievement of us humans (I know for a fact that this is true after having lived with a Labrador Retriever for several years), at the same time they have not sunk to the depths of depravity to which we are susceptible. It could be argued that I am being overly anthropomorphic, or that dogs are simply mentally incapable of these thoughts. But nevertheless, metaphorically or otherwise, I believe that dogs demonstrate a simple and uncorrupted approach to life from which we all could benefit.

During my opening talks on each occasion I would ask the audience: “So raise your hands if you are someone who is not worried about the future?”

There was never a raised hand!

My introduction to a recent essay published by George Monbiot that is republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s permission.


The Drums of War

A political diversion.

This essay from George Monbiot just has to be read as widely as possible.

Dear followers of this blog know that from time to time I dip into politics. I do so because something I read strikes me with such force that I want others to read the article or essay. Not infrequently, my ‘dip’ is in the form of republishing an essay from George Monbiot who, long ago, gave me blanket permission to republish his essays. That is the case today.

Buy The Book

I was inspired to write my book, subsequently self-published last December, because I truly believe that the values that we see in our longest animal companions are values that we, as in our societies, from top to bottom, have to embrace if we are to stand any chance of surviving as a species.

Reflect on the fact that dogs do not lie, they do not set out to deceive or influence others for their own personal gain and they are utterly creatures of integrity.

OK, I can hear some of you thinking that dogs are dogs and humans are humans and it’s just plain daft to link the two in this fashion. My only answer to that is to read the book or, at the very least, download and read the first twenty-five pages (for free). Better still purchase the book and have 50% of my net income donated to the Rogue Valley Humane Society.

On the 28th July, George Monbiot published an essay entitled So Much For Sovereignty. I read the essay and, frankly, was apalled at what George was describing: the background of the UK’s new international trade secretary, Liam Fox, recently appointed by Theresa May.

Read it for yourself and see if you react the same way that I did!


So Much For Sovereignty

In defence of sovereignty and democracy.

The challenges facing the European Union ripple out across the whole of the free world.

I note that this is the second Friday where there is an abrupt change from the run of posts during the previous few days. For last Friday I republished a George Monbiot article on Rigging the Market and today there is another Monbiot article that I want to share with you; shared with you with the kind permission of Mr. Monbiot.

Unlike last Friday’s Monbiot article that clearly had global implications, at first sight this article about the European Union has no relevance to those of us not living with EU boundaries. But that would be wrong. For the importance of protecting a country’s sovereignty and the democratic processes within that country is supreme across all democratically elected governments.


The Lesser Evil

Oil, corruption and public money.

Nothing at all to do with dogs, or with integrity if it comes to that!

Regular followers of this place know that I am a tremendous fan of George Monbiot, the Englishman who so regularly exposes stuff that needs to be aired and discussed. As his About page explains:

Here are some of the things I love: my family and friends, salt marshes, arguments, chalk streams, Russian literature, kayaking among dolphins, diversity of all kinds, rockpools, heritage apples, woods, fishing, swimming in the sea, gazpacho, ponds and ditches, growing vegetables, insects, pruning, forgotten corners, fossils, goldfinches, etymology, Bill Hicks, ruins, Shakespeare, landscape history, palaeoecology, Gavin and Stacey and Father Ted.

Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.

Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.

I still see my life as a slightly unhinged adventure whose perpetuation is something of a mystery. I have no idea where it will take me, and no ambitions other than to keep doing what I do. So far it’s been gripping.

Way back in the early days of Learning from Dogs, the blog that is, not the book, George was very gracious in giving me blanket permission to republish his posts, and many of them have appeared in this place.

So now read George Monbiot’s latest Rigging the Market. It is yet another example of what is going wrong in these times.


Rigging the Market

Role model extraordinare!

In salute of Sir David Attenborough.

Yesterday, a wonderful number of readers ‘Liked’ my set of photographs on the theme of being a wildlife photographer. Thus it was providential, when deliberating on what to write for today’s post, to see that George Monbiot had published an article covering his recent interview with Sir David.

Before republishing that interview, let’s take a look at the man; Sir David that is!

Wikipedia has a comprehensive and fulsome description of him, that opens, thus:

Sir David Frederick Attenborough/ˈætənbʌrə/OMCHCVOCBEFRSFLSFZSFSAKt (born 8 May 1926)[2][3] is an English broadcaster and naturalist.

He is best known for writing and presenting the nine Life series, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, which collectively form a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on the planet. He is also a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC Two and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s. He is the only person to have won BAFTAs for programmes in each of black and white, colour, HD, and 3D.

Attenborough is widely considered a national treasure in Britain, although he himself does not like the term.[4][5][6] In 2002 he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote.[7] He is the younger brother of director, producer and actor Richard Attenborough.[8]

Then I want you to view this short video:

Published on May 2, 2014

From across YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, we’ve taken your comments during #AttenboroughWeek and made this video as a thank you to everyone who got involved. Click on the annotations to see each of the clips in full.

Now on to the George Monbiot interview, republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s kind and generous permission.


Rare Specimen

If you need a reminder of how beautiful our planet is (and I’m sure the majority of LfD readers don’t require that reminder) then go back and watch David Attenborough’s video and voice-over to the song  What a Wonderful World. This short but very compelling video shows why the planet is so worth protecting. Enjoy!

So make a diary note to celebrate Sir David’s 90th birthday on May 8th.

I am what I learn!

Reflections on the old and the new.

So here we are on the last day of 2015, the cusp of a new year and who knows what the next twelve months have in store.

All I am going to do is to reflect on the huge potential our modern ‘wired-up’ world offers for learning.

Most will know the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

But it is wrong!

Here at home, where a number of the dogs are in their old age (Pharaoh is the equivalent in age of 100 human years; one dog year being approximately the same as eight human years) Jean and I see no difficulty in these elderly dogs learning new tricks.  Staying with Pharaoh, as an example, his hearing is pretty poor now but he has learnt a whole range of hand signals in recent months and he still communicates very well with us.

There is much in this new world that concerns me and I know I am not alone with this view. But the rewards of reading the thoughts of others right across the world are wonderful beyond measure.

Here’s a tiny dip into some fascinating items and articles that have graced my in-box in just the last twenty-four hours.

  • Eckhart Tolle’s Moment Reminder: “As far as inner transformation is concerned, there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot transform yourself, and you certainly cannot transform your partner or anybody else. All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter.”
  • Val Boyco, “Everything comes to us that belongs to us, if we create the capacity to receive it.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore
  • John Zande in his Sketches on Atheism, “Theism’s most potent, pervasive, irresistibly enchanting gift to frightened but otherwise sane individuals is a belief—a promise—that upon their death they will go home.”
  • Mother Nature Network, “7 ways to meditate while you move – If you don’t have time for sitting meditation, give one of these active meditations a try.”
  • George Monbiot, (on the UK floods), “These floods were not just predictable. They were predicted. There were clear and specific warnings that the management of land upstream of the towns now featuring in the news would lead to disaster.”

and my final selection:

  • Patrice Ayme: (from an essay on Brain & Consciousness) “The best microprocessors you can buy in a store now can do 10 to the power 11 (10^11; one hundred billions) operations per second and use a few hundred watts,” says Wilfred van der Wiel of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, a leader of the gold circuitry effort. “The human brain can do orders of magnitude more and uses only 10 to 20 watts.  That’s a huge gap in efficiency.”

So here’s to a new year of wonderful new learnings.  And let me leave you with this additional message for 2016.

Namely that The Nation weekly journal are celebrating their 150 years of publishing the magazine. They recently published a 150th Anniversary edition and the front editorial is written by Katrina Vanden Heuval. There is a ‘break out’ to one side on Page 2 of that editorial that reads:

Change is inevitable, but the one constant in The Nation‘s history has been a faith in what can happen if you tell people the truth.

Finding out the truth and sharing it so we can all see what can happen is my wish for 2016.

Happy New Year to all of you, and to all of your friends and loved ones.

Britain before humans.

A remarkable look at the extraordinary history of the British Isles.

Now on first sight, any reasonable follower of my scribblings who lived outside Britain might wonder why this post was so focussed on one particular country, the country of my birth: Great Britain.

My justification, however, for including this George Monbiot essay is that many residents of many other countries, not just North Americans, have roots and family ties in GB. Plus, so typical of a Monbiot essay, the subject will be of interest to anyone, wherever they live in the world, who wonders about time before we shaped our environment. (I have converted some of the figures used in the essay within square brackets [ …] )

Could I also mention that from Thursday through to the end of the year, my posts in this place are going to be a mix of trivial, humorous and repeat posts. I need a bit of a break as much as you good people need a break from Learning from Dogs! 😉

Monbiot’s essay is republished here with the kind permission of George Monbiot.


Walk on the Wild Side

17th December 2015

Rewilding, hillwalking and the extraordinary history of these islands.

George Monbiot, interviewed by Dan Bailey for UKHillwalking.com, 11th December 2015

What would a natural upland habitat have looked like in Britain before humans started having the dominant influence?

This is a particularly interesting question, because we have two completely different baselines in Britain. The more recent one is the situation that prevailed after the ice retreated, and a temperate climate returned. I’m talking about parts of the Boreal and Atlantic stages, roughly between 9000 and 5000 years ago. It seems that during this period, Britain was more or less covered by closed canopy rainforest from top to toe. I’m using the term rainforest precisely: to denote forests that are wet enough to support epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants. Wherever you see polypody, the many-footed fern, growing along the branches of a tree, it’s a reminder that you are looking at rainforest fragment.

Hardly any land in this country would have been treeless at this time. With the exception of the summits of the Cairngorms, Ben Nevis and one or two other mountains, there is nowhere here that is too high for them to grow. Our bare and rocky hills are an artefact of deforestation, heavy grazing and the subsequent loss of soil.

But even that state arguably reflected the dominant influence of humans. To see what the land would have been like without them, you would have to go back to the previous interglacial period, the Eemian. At this time, the climate was almost identical to ours, but for some reason the people driven out by the previous ice age appear not to have returned to this country. At this stage, there was plenty of forest, but it seems that it was not continuous. The closed canopy rainforest was punctuated by more open forest, as well as wood pasture and savannah. Why? Because humans had not wiped out the dominant species. During the Eemian, Britain had a fairly similar collection of wildlife to the one we know today. You know: foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, deer, robins, jackdaws, elephants, rhinos, hippos, scimitar cats, hyenas and lions.

Ah yes, not the same in all respects. Like everywhere else on earth, we had a megafauna, and this shaped the ecosystem. The large herbivores were driven out of Britain by the ice, then driven to extinction in southern Europe about 30,000 years ago when modern humans arrived. (The hyenas and lions, incidentally, persisted throughout the ice age, hunting reindeer across the frozen tundra, and it seems that they survived here until about 10,000 years ago, when Mesolithic hunters turned up).

What does a typical British upland habitat look like now, and how does it differ from uplands in Mainland Europe?

In almost all other European countries (Ireland is an exception), the pattern of tree cover is what you would expect to see. The lowlands, where the land is worth farming, are largely treeless. The uplands, where the land is infertile and the climate is harsh, largely forested. This is why Europe has an average forest cover of 37%. In Britain, the lowlands are largely treeless, as you might expect, but the uplands are even barer. This peculiarity explains the fact that Britain has only 13% tree cover. Instead of a rich ecosystem in the hills, a mosaic of trees, scrub and glades (which is what would occur now, on our depleted soils, if the land were allowed to recover), the uplands are almost entirely treeless, and therefore remarkably poor in birds, insects and all the other lifeforms you might expect to find there. The parts of the country which would otherwise function as our great wildlife reserves – those places, in other words, where hardly anyone lives and there is almost no economic activity – have even less wildlife than the places that are intensely habited and farmed.

What are the people and processes responsible for keeping our hills bare in England and Wales? Who’s more to blame in Scotland?

In England and Wales, the cause is simply stated. Sheep, which originated in Mesopotamia, are wildly, disproportionately destructive. In many of our hills, they are kept at densities of no more than one per hectare or even less. But because they selectively browse out tree seedlings, they ensure that no recovery can take place. Even where remaining woods exist, they are often dying on their feet, because there are no young trees with which to replace the old ones. In terms of food production, upland sheep farming makes a minuscule contribution. It is hard to think of any industry where there is a higher ratio of destruction to production.

The denuding of our hills by sheep is supplemented by the burning of grouse moors, a fantastically destructive activity carried out for the benefit of a very small number of exceedingly rich people. These two activities ensure that in England and Wales there are scarcely any trees above around 200 m. [Ed: 656 feet]

Both are also important factors in Scotland, but in the Highlands the dominant cause of destruction is the deer stalking estates. By keeping the numbers of red deer very high, so that a banker waddling up the hillside in tweed pantaloons is almost guaranteed to make a kill, these estates have a similar effect to sheep farms. Like sheep, deer seek out the seedlings, and when their numbers rise above five or ten per square kilometre, they ensure that no forest can grow.

So why the difference between Britain and the rest of Europe? The answer seems to be the size of land holdings. Because, unlike most other European countries, Britain never had a successful revolution, we have, on one estimate, the second highest concentration of landholding in the world, after Brazil. This grants landowners inordinate power. It also leads to the situation I’ll describe in the next answer.

Where does subsidy farming come in?

People farming the uplands claimed to make their money by raising sheep. But in economic terms, sheep are ornamental. Sheep farming throughout our hills is a loss-making activity, and persists only as a result of public money, that takes the form of farm subsidies. We pay £3.6 billion [Ed: 5.33 billion US dollars] a year in this country to have our watersheds destroyed and our wildlife wiped out. The reason why the hills are kept bare here but not in the rest of Europe is that the landholdings in Britain are big enough to make subsidy harvesting a worthwhile activity: you are paid by the hectare. The more land you own, the more public money you receive. Some people take millions of pounds in these benefit payments every year. It’s extraordinary, when such restrictions are placed upon the ordinary recipients of social security, that this situation has not yet become politically explosive.

And culturally – how does our idealised view of the upland landscape feed into land management?

Our idealised, romanticised view of sheep farming, that bears almost no relationship to reality, but that is constantly drilled into our minds by programmes like Countryfile, makes it hard for us to see what is really going on. It’s because of this view that we fail to grasp a vast and obvious fact. That by denuding our hills, this economically-tiny industry has done more damage to our ecosystems and wildlife than all the building that has taken place in Britain.

Can you explain, in a nutshell, what you mean by re-wilding, and why you’d like to see it in the British hills?

Rewilding is the mass restoration of ecosystems and the re-establishment of missing species. I’m not arguing for the blanket rewilding of our hills by any means. But I believe that Britain would be greatly enriched, in terms of both wildlife and human experience, if significant areas were allowed to recover; if trees were allowed to grow in some of our denuded places, and some of the wonderful species we have lost were permitted to return. In particular, I’m thinking of beavers, boar, lynx, wolves and species that we retain in small numbers but that were once widespread, such as wildcat, pine martens, capercaillie, eagles and goshawks.

The other great benefit of allowing trees to return to the hills is the restoration of watersheds. In one study in Wales, the soil beneath woodland was found to absorb water at 67 times the rate of the soil beneath sheep pasture. The rain flashes off sheep pasture as if it were concrete, instantly causing floods downstream. Trees hold back the water and release it gradually, smoothing out the cycle of flood and drought.

Could you talk us through the stages of a habitat restoration process that could take a bare hillside and return it to woodland?

Many of our hillsides have been so thoroughly sheepwrecked that there are now no remaining seed sources. In these circumstances, we would need to plant islands of trees, using seed taken from the nearest surviving pockets of woodland in order to sustain local genetic diversity. Short of greatly reducing stocking levels or temporarily keeping herbivores off altogether, there is not a lot more that needs to be done. In some places, all that is required is temporary exclusion of grazing animals.

What is a trophic cascade, and how is this idea relevant in the British context?

A trophic cascade is an ecological process that tumbles from the top of the foodchain to the bottom. It turns out that in many places, large carnivores regulate the entire ecosystem; ecosystems that retain them behave in radically different ways to ecosystems from which they have been lost. This presents a powerful challenge to British models of conservation, as we have lost all our large carnivores here, with the result that ecological processes, and their dynamic and ever-shifting successional patterns, have been curtailed.

Critics sometimes suggest that proponents of re-wilding are advocating turning the clock back to an arbitrary point in history and then keeping things permanently fixed in this state. Is that fair?

It is precisely the opposite. Our current model of conservation fixes ecosystems at an arbitrary point and then keeps them in a state of arrested development through extreme management of the kind that everywhere else on earth we recognise as destruction, not protection: namely cutting, burning and grazing. There is no intelligible reason behind the choices that have been made by conservationists of the ecosystems and species they choose to maintain by these means. Rewilding, by contrast, has no fixed outcomes. It seeks to restore ecological processes by bringing back some of the key elements of ecosystems and the key drivers: species that trigger trophic cascades. To the greatest extent possible, it then seeks to stand back and allow natural processes to take their course.

What would a healthy population of deer look like? How about sheep – do you have a figure for environmentally supportable grazing densities?

In the infertile uplands, it is roughly 5 per square kilometre (in other words per 100 ha). [Ed: 247 acres] Beyond that point, there is almost no regeneration of trees.

The debate often seems to be framed in absolute terms – either we re-wild everywhere, and get rid of all the farmers and deer, or not at all. How big would be big enough to please you? Are you talking about re-foresting every hill, moor and mountain, from valley to summit?

The aim of the group Rewilding Britain, that I helped to found but do not run, is to allow natural ecological processes and key species to return to at least one million hectares (4.5%) of Britain’s land and 30% of our territorial waters over the next 100 years. It would like to see at least one large rewilded area to connect both land and sea – descending from the mountaintops to our coastal waters.

In somewhere as crowded as Britain are vast re-created wildernesses a viable prospect, or would it be more realistic to go for smaller scale projects in which re-wilding is just part of a mixed land use picture – projects such as Wild Ennerdale perhaps, where habitat restoration is being managed in conjunction with forestry, leisure, water extraction and livestock?

The British population is highly concentrated. Some parts of the country are exceedingly crowded; others remarkably empty. Most British uplands have a far lower population density than many parts of Europe in which wolves, lynx, bear and other species are found. Wolves have even been appearing in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, where there is very little land that is unsuitable for intensive farming, and the rural population density tends to be much higher. Their arrival has been greeted by most sectors of society with delight.

Many hill-goers will recognise your picture of the degraded upland environment, but some may simply be making a different aesthetic judgement to you, valuing the barren wide open spaces for the experience they provide. If they just happen to prefer grass and heather landscape on some romantic level, and don’t much care about botany and wildlife, how might you seek to convert them?

I believe we should have both. At the moment those who value a wild, self-willed landscape have nowhere to turn in Britain. We have to travel abroad to find it and to experience magnificent encounters with wildlife. I believe this deprives us of the wonder and delight that can enhance our lives and of choice and freedom. We have nowhere in which to escape the order and control that governs all other aspects of our lives.

Hillwalkers and climbers have fought long and hard against vested landowning interests for our right to roam. There is a worry that conservation could be used to curtail these freedoms, and some evidence to support that concern. What place does public access on open upland have in a re-wilded landscape, and which would take precedence – amenity or conservation?

I was heavily involved in campaigns for the right to roam, through another group I helped to found, The Land Is Ours, and I would be dismayed by any scheme which sought to keep people out of the hills. I believe that rewilding and access are entirely compatible. While it may be necessary in some places temporarily to fence out grazing animals, the fencing required is no different from that which is already found across the uplands, and exactly the same arrangements can be made to cross it as are used today. My hope is that in some places, as a result of rewilding, in some places there will one day be no fencing at all: in other words it will mean better access than there is today.

On a related note, could public support for re-wilding have unintended consequences? Might it, for instance, be a gift to landowners and conservation bodies with priorities quite other than public access?

I would be surprised if there were no unintended consequences. But if problems arise, the policies should be modified. No good policy emerges from the egg mature and complete. It must be constantly assessed and adjusted to head off any problems that emerge.

What sort of reception have your ideas met from folk in rural communities such as hill farmers and shooting estate workers?

I think it’s fair to say that they have been mixed. There has been a fair bit of hostility from some farming and shooting groups, but also support from surprising quarters, including landowners’ representatives and a large number of individual farmers and estate owners. In the wider countryside, there is often strong support. We would do well to remember that farmers are a very small minority even of the rural population, though this often gets forgotten because of their powerful influence on policy.

Can you offer a fully thought-through transition from sheep farming and shooting to an alternative model for the rural economy, one in which rural residents still have a secure place in a re-wilded countryside? Can you understand people’s aversion to risking this?

I certainly can understand people’s concerns. But there is going to be a major transition in the countryside before long, with or without rewilding, when farm subsidies are either scrapped or greatly reduced, as they inevitably will be. When essential public services are being cut, giving €55 billion [Ed: 61 billion USD] a year from the public purse across the EU to landowners, while helping to destroy both human communities and ecological resilience is surely as unsustainable politically as it is environmentally. So what are farmers whose livelihood is sustained only as a result of farm subsidies going to do?

I have two proposals. The first is that we start campaigning for the retention of some subsidies, whose purpose would be changed to that of ecological restoration and the support of communities. Landowners and tenants would be paid to restore watersheds, woodlands, rivers and wildlife. It’s hard to see how else continued subsidies could remain publicly acceptable. Rewilding could be a way out for struggling rural communities.

The second proposal is to start investigating means by which rural people can enhance their livelihoods by enhancing the ecosystem. There are plenty of examples from around the world of eco-tourism and associated activities reviving communities by generating income and employment. Given that the traditional industries have manifestly failed to sustain jobs and incomes, in some cases it will not be hard to show the alternatives might work better. But more research is needed, and we have to remember that the same approach is not going to work everywhere. Different local circumstances demand different strategies.

“We have an incredibly narrow and restrictive vision of cultural heritage and cultural landscapes” – your words. What would a broader vision look like?

I would love to see rural culture becoming more inclusive. It’s often highly hierarchical, with the landowners and farmers sitting at the top of the pyramid, dictating policy. In some respects, democracy is a stranger to the countryside; the old, landed powers still wield disproportionate influence over the lives of others. But I don’t want to invent a new culture. I believe that democratisation and pluralism creates its own cultures, that will evolve and develop independently in different places. I’m calling on people to challenge cultural hegemony in the countryside – perhaps we could call it agricultural hegemony – and for a much wider range of voices to be heard.

Farming and shooting are supported by the current dominant countryside culture. But wouldn’t a shift to re-wilding simply be replacing this set of special interests with another, a sort of cultural colonisation of the countryside by urbanites?

That’s certainly not how I see it. And this has nothing whatever to do with the presumed urban-rural divide. Many of rewilding’s most ardent proponents live in the countryside, perhaps unsurprisingly. We are repeatedly told that the countryside is at war with the towns and vice versa. But I see no evidence of this. What I see is certain dominant interests in the countryside in conflict with other rural interests. And those dominant interests often have either one or both feet in the cities.

A few years ago there was an article in the Telegraph that sought to characterise authentic rural people. These people apparently don’t care about “newts, trees and bats”: such matters are of interest only in London. It described David Cameron as “at heart, a rural Tory”, who “still grumbles to his wife about what, for him, are ‘banned activities’ – notably shooting”. Authentic rural people, in other words, spend their adult lives in Notting Hill and drive out to their second homes for a shooting party at the weekend. People who live in the countryside and care about wildlife, on the other hand, are, “at heart”, Londoners. The rural-urban divide, as characterised in such papers, has nothing to do with location. It’s really about class.

What chance is there of significant progress being made in the current funding climate? You’ve recently written about the ‘toothless’ Environment Agency in this regard. Given the squeeze on public bodies would it be more effective to promote the out-sourcing of re-wilding to non-governmental organisations, private philanthropists and large corporate landowners such as water companies?

There is a real problem here. Government agencies are being gutted and re-centralised. Cameron’s devolution agenda is a con: he is even more of a micromanager than Tony Blair was. The current environment secretary, Liz Truss, has put her department’s head on the block, volunteering for early execution. Statutory bodies like the Environment Agency are now, in terms of what they can do, almost dead. But the crazy situation that prevails today might not – should not – last forever. It is true to say however, that we cannot rely on government alone to deliver these changes, whatever form a government might take.

Are our National Park Authorities a help or a hindrance?

At the moment, they are a real drag on progress. This is partly because of policy, such as the Lake District National Park’s application for World Heritage status, which, as currently framed, will ensure that destructive practices are locked in (and continue to contribute to flooding). And it’s partly because of the way they frame the issues. They go to great lengths to persuade us that current land management is not only compatible with the protection of nature, but actually essential to it! All their brochures and display boards and websites create the impression that these ecological disaster zones are rich and thriving ecosystems, so people are constantly misled and misdirected. They are led to believe that all is well in our national parks, that these wastelands, which are in most cases little more than sheep ranches, are magnificent wildernesses. Our national parks are a disgrace, a shame upon the nation, and park authorities with an ounce of intellectual honesty would recognise this and seek to address it.

Re-wilding seems to be moving up the agenda of the large conservation organisations, and gaining a space in the public discourse. Do you see grounds for optimism?

It certainly is. Before Feral was published, I visited all the principal conservation groups, and received responses that varied from mild interest to outright rejection. The change over the past three years has been astonishing. Rewilding appears to have moved from the fringe of the mainstream, and I’m delighted to see how these groups have begun to pick it up and engage with it. There’s still a long way to go, and plenty of daft practices still in play, but change among the conservation groups is certainly happening, albeit slowly. We will see rewilding in this country. The question is how far and how fast it will go.


Much of my adopted country, the United States, is still wild and the Bureau of Land Management state that they manage “over 245 million surface acres ..”. However, to put that into perspective the area of the USA is 2.436 billion acres so the BLM managed area is just a fraction over 10%.

Finally, Monbiot refers to his book Feral. I have read it and can recommend it.


More details of his book may be found here.

This is much more than an issue for just Great Britain.

You couldn’t make it up!

However hard one tried to!

In Chapter Eight, Behaviours and Relationships, I speak of how the development of humans has been, unsurprisingly, the result of our human behaviours. Adding that it is likely that our behaviours have been damaging, in varying degrees, to the survival of our species and countless others for a very long time. Continuing:

But 2,000 years ago, the global population of man was only 300 million persons[1]. It took 1,200 years for that global population to become 1 billion persons; in 1800. Now track the intervals as we come forward in time.

In 1927, just 127 years later, the two-billionth baby was born. In 1960, only 33 years on, came the birth of the three-billionth baby. Just 16 years later, in 1974, the four-billionth baby was born. In 1987, now only 13 years later, we have a population of five billion persons. Around October 1999, the sixth-billionth baby was born.
The growth rate of global population is slowing[2] but nevertheless it is trending to a billion additional persons every decade. In other words, a 100-million population growth every year, or about 270,000 more persons every single day.

Combine man’s behaviours rooted in times way back with this growth in population and we have the present situation. A totally unsustainable situation for one basic and fundamental reason. We all live on a finite planet.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth
[2] According to UN’s 2010 revision to its population projections, world population will peak at 10.1bn in 2100 compared to 7bn in 2011. A 2014 paper by demographers from several universities and the United Nations Population Division forecast that the world’s population will reach about 10.9 billion in 2100 and continue growing thereafter. However, some experts dispute the UN’s forecast and have argued that birthrates will fall below replacement rate in the 2020s. According to these forecasters, population growth will be only sustained till the 2040s by rising longevity but will peak below 9bn by 2050.

A growth of about 270,000 more persons every single day!

I am sure that I am not alone in seeing this growth in our population as something that is both unsustainable and a critical component of long-term damage to our planet.

But George Monbiot in a recent essay, in true Monbiot style, highlights an aspect of our human population and the damage resulting that would have never previously occurred to me.

Read it and see if you don’t agree likewise. (Again, there are just too many links in George’s essay to reconstruct in this republishing and, as the other day, I have highlighted those phrases that are a link to other material in red. Go here if you wish to further investigate those links.)


Pregnant Silence

19th November 2015

It’s about time we discussed the real population crisis.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 18th November 2015

This column is about the population crisis. About the breeding that’s laying waste to the world’s living systems. But it’s probably not the population crisis you’re thinking of. This is about another one, that we seem to find almost impossible to discuss.

You’ll hear a lot about population in the next three weeks, as the Paris climate summit approaches. Across the airwaves and on the comment threads it will invariably be described as “the elephant in the room”. When people are not using their own words, it means they are not thinking their own thoughts. Ten thousand voices each ask why no one is talking about it. The growth in human numbers, they say, is our foremost environmental threat.

At their best, population campaigners seek to extend women’s reproductive choices. Some 225 million women have an unmet need for contraception. If this need were answered, the impact on population growth would be significant, though not decisive: the annual growth rate of 83 million would be reduced to 62m (1). But contraception is rarely limited only by the physical availability of contraceptives. In most cases, it’s about power: women are denied control of their wombs. The social transformations they need are wider and deeper than donations from the other side of the world are likely to achieve.

At their worst, they seek to shift the blame from their own environmental impacts. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many post-reproductive white men are obsessed with human population growth, as it’s about the only environmental problem of which they can wash their hands. Nor, I believe, is it a coincidence that of all such topics this is the least tractable. When there is almost nothing to be done, there is no requirement to act.

Such is the momentum behind population growth, an analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered, that were every government to adopt the one-child policy China has just abandoned, there would still be as many people on Earth at the end of this century as there are today. If two billion people were wiped out by a catastrophe in mid-century, the planet would still hold a billion more by 2100 than it does now.

If we want to reduce our impacts this century, the paper concludes, it’s consumption we must address. Population growth is outpaced by the growth in our consumption of almost all resources. There is enough to meet everyone’s need, even in a world of 10 billion people. There is not enough to meet everyone’s greed, even in a world of 2 billion people.

So let’s turn to a population crisis over which we do have some influence. I’m talking about the growth in livestock numbers. Human numbers are rising at roughly 1.2% a year. Livestock numbers are rising at around 2.4% a year. By 2050, the world’s living systems will have to support about 120m tonnes of extra human, and 400m tonnes of extra farm animals(2).

Raising them already uses three quarters of the world’s agricultural land. One third of our cereal crops are used to feed them. This may rise to roughly half by 2050. More people will starve as a result, because the poor rely mainly on grain for their subsistence, and diverting it to livestock raises the price. Now the grain that farm animals eat is being supplemented by oil crops, particularly soya, for which the forests and savannahs of South America are being cleared at shocking rates.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but were we to eat soya, rather than meat, the clearance of natural vegetation required to supply us with the same amount of protein would decline by 94%. Producing protein from chickens requires three times as much land as protein from soybeans. Pork needs nine times, beef 32 times.

A recent paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that our consumption of meat is likely to be “the leading cause of modern species extinctions”. Not only is livestock farming the major reason for habitat destruction and the killing of predators, but its waste products are overwhelming the world’s capacity to absorb them. Factory farms in the US generate 13 times as much sewage as the human population. The dairy farms in Tulare county, California produce five times as much as New York City.

Freshwater life is being wiped out across the world by farm manure. In England, as I reported last week, the system designed to protect us from the tide of crap has comprehensively broken down. Dead zones now extend from many coasts, as farm sewage erases ocean life across thousands of square kilometres.

Livestock farming causes around 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: slightly more than the output of the world’s cars, lorries, buses, trains, ships and planes. If you eat soya, your emissions per unit of protein are 20 times lower than eating pork or chicken, and 150 times lower than eating beef.

So why is hardly anyone talking about the cow, pig, sheep and chicken in the room? Why are there no government campaigns to reduce the consumption of animal products, just as they sometimes discourage our excessive use of electricity? A survey by the Royal Institute of International Affairs found that people are not unwilling to change their diets, once they become aware of the problem, but that many have no idea that livestock farming damages the living world.

It’s not as if eating less meat and dairy will harm us. If we did as our doctors advise, our environmental impacts would decline in step with heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancer. British people eat, on average, slightly more than their bodyweight in meat every year, while Americans consume another 50%: wildly more, in both cases, than is good for us or the rest of life on Earth.

But while plenty in the rich world are happy to discuss the dangers of brown people reproducing, the other population crisis scarcely crosses the threshold of perception. Livestock numbers present a direct moral challenge, as in this case we have agency. Hence the pregnant silence.



  1. While the number of unintended pregnancies would fall by 52m (or 70%), this does not mean that the number of babies would fall by the same amount. The Guttmacher/UNFPA report breaks down the outcome thus: “21 million fewer unplanned births; 24 million fewer abortions; six million fewer miscarriages; and 0.6 million fewer stillbirths.”
  2. Additional global meat consumption by this date is estimated to be roughly 200 million tonnes. Boned meat comprises roughly half the weight of a living animal. So total additional livestock biomass will be in the order of 400 million tonnes, or 400 billion kg. The average human weight is 52 kg and the anticipated rise in population by 2050 is 2.3 billion (the median estimate is 9.7 billion by that date). So the additional human weight is likely to be somewhere around 120 billion kg.


Powerful reasons to turn vegetarian or vegan. And well done if you are already there. Well done, indeed!