This is a set of quotations and arguments from George Monbiot, with an occasional paraphrase. Monbiot is easily the most important journalist who writes on climate change, power and economics, and his work is well worth your perusal, and hopefully this will help. If there are copyright issues, please let me know and I will remove this.

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Monbiot. Photo from the Guardian


Complex Systems can change quickly to a new state of equilibrium – events cascade and reinforce the change – this is what the global eco-system, Gaia if you like, is facing.

The media is engaged in distraction, and blame shifting, partly this could be because the situation is frightening, and partly because we are ruled by a plutocracy that resists change, or awareness of change.

Plutocracy may lead to avoidance even in the powers that be. this can be summarised by the idea of “learning to live with” climate or Covid. This “living with” usually seems to mean ignoring the problem, invoking magic, blaming the relatively powerless, and not learning at all.

Plutocracy leads to confusion, even when governments try to do something, as they also try and support the plutocracy that is causing the problems. For instance, they avoid stopping new fossil fuel development, or removing regulations that support fossil fuel companies.

Much of the technology promoted and imagined as helpful is magical as well. It may not even exist, but will still solve our problems. Carbon Credits and biofuels are good examples of technology which is supposed to help, but which may make the problems worse.

On top of everything else we have a world food crisis. The food system is complex, but has the kind of structure which indicates it is likely to collapse altogether if there is much stress.

Finally we quickly look at a few solutions: basically supporting democracy against plutocracy and getting rid of climate debt to free poorer countries to deal with their own climate crises.

Complexity and mess of information

[Complexity is important, as I keep hammering] Monbiot writes that people who study complex systems have discovered that they behave in consistent ways. It doesn’t matter whether the system is a banking network, a nation state, a rainforest or an Antarctic ice shelf; its behaviour follows certain mathematical rules. In normal conditions, the system regulates itself, maintaining a state of equilibrium. It can absorb stress up to a certain point. But as stress escalates, these same properties start transmitting shocks through the network. [The system] suddenly flips: a small disturbance can tip the entire system over its critical threshold, whereupon it collapses, suddenly and unstoppably. It passes a tipping point, then falls into a new state of equilibrium, which is often impossible to reverse.

If the nodes behave in a variety of [different] ways, and their links to each other are weak, the system is likely to be resilient. If certain nodes become dominant, start to behave in similar ways and are strongly connected, the system is likely to be fragile. [This happened leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, in banking].

Human civilisation relies on the current equilibrium states. But, all over the world, crucial systems appear to be approaching their tipping points. If one system crashes, it is likely to drag others down, triggering a cascade of chaos known as systemic environmental collapse. This is what happened during previous mass extinctions.

[One] way of telling whether [the complex system] is approaching a tipping point [is that its] outputs begin to flicker. The closer to its critical threshold it comes, the wilder the fluctuations. What we’ve seen this year is a great global flickering, as Earth systems begin to break down. The heat domes over the western seaboard of North America; the massive fires there, in Siberia and around the Mediterranean; the lethal floods in Germany, Belgium, China, Sierra Leone – these are the signals that, in climatic morse code, spell “mayday”.

[However, our media are not talking about the problems. They engage in distraction and the pursuit of ratings] Tune in to almost any radio station, at any time, and you can hear the frenetic distraction at work. While around the world wildfires rage, floods sweep cars from the streets and crops shrivel, you will hear a debate about whether to sit down or stand up while pulling on your socks, or a discussion about charcuterie boards for dogs. I’m not making up these examples: I stumbled across them while flicking between channels on days of climate disaster.

Most political news is nothing but court gossip: who’s in, who’s out, who said what to whom. It studiously avoids what lies beneath: the dark money, the corruption, the shift of power away from the democratic sphere, the gathering environmental collapse that makes a nonsense of its obsessions.

This distraction has taken up things like anti-litter campaigns [shifting the packaging industry’s deliberate creation of waste onto consumers] personal carbon footprint [instead of industry footprint, again shifting responsibility to relatively low emitters]. The oil companies didn’t stop there. The most extreme example I’ve seen was a 2019 speech by the chief executive of the oil company Shell, Ben van Beurden. He instructed us to “eat seasonally and recycle more”, and publicly berated his chauffeur for buying a punnet of strawberries in January. [In other words, none of the problems were apparently related to his company’s business. It was the general public, that was the problem. Wealthy polluters have to be protected from anyone doing anything about the pollution they emit.]

[Personally the question arises is this avoidance because of climate change being a scary “turn off” and they fear audiences will go elsewhere, is it because the media is owned by the same class of people as those who profit from climate change, who don’t want people to get the idea that people could have power over the corporate sector, or is it because there is always a corporately sponsored think tank which can point to something optimistic or to the evil consequences of doing something?].


[We live in plutocracies, and its sometimes pretty overt] The Sunday Times [recently] reported that people who have donated at least £250,000 to the Conservative party have been invited to join an “advisory board”, with special access to the prime minister, cabinet ministers and senior government advisers. They have used this access to lobby for changes in government policy. The 14 identified members of the group have a combined wealth of at least £30bn, and have donated £22m to the Conservatives. The group and its agenda had hitherto been kept secret. 

We have also been told that the Conservative party is helping its donors to apply for key government positions.

The interests of the very rich are not the same as the interests of the nation. We should never forget what the billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves, who donated £3.2m to one of the leave campaigns, said about Brexit: “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.”

[The real] power is oligarchic capital, [and that bends the way that we respond and the ways that the corporate media reports the crises]

Plutocracy leads to UK Water Crisis

[Monbiot suggests that] Absence, [and lack of action from government,] is what the party donors paid for.

[R]ecent prime ministers and their governments have prepared us for none of the great predicaments we face. They have looked the other way as the water companies failed to commission any new reservoirs since they were privatised in 1989, and allowed astonishing volumes of that precious commodity we call treated drinking water – 2.4bn litres a day on current estimates – to leak away. It’s a carelessness so grand that it feels like a metaphor. Instead of forcing them to stop these leaks, the government has allowed these corporations to pump the rivers dry: the living world, as ever, is the buffer that must absorb failure and greed.

So determined is the government to absent itself from decision-making that it cannot even institute a hosepipe ban: it must feebly ask the water companies to do so. Most, with an interest in ensuring their metered customers use as much as possible, have so far refused. Nor have the companies been obliged to upgrade their sewage treatment works. The combination of over-abstraction and sewage dumping is devastating. The water in the upper reaches of some of our chalk streams – remarkable ecosystems that are almost unique to England – now consists of nothing but sewage outflows and road run-off. During this long period of regulatory absence, the privatised water firms have piped £72bn in dividends into the accounts of their shareholders.

To [plutocrats], the duty of care is an abomination. Ten years ago next month, Liz Truss launched Britannia Unchained,… [that blamed] everything going wrong in the UK to “a diminished work ethic and a culture of excuses”. Of her four co-authors, three – Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab – are frontbenchers in the current government… They blamed inequality and the lack of social mobility in this country not on the patrimonial spiral of wealth accumulation and the resultant rentier economy, but on “laziness”. Citing no meaningful evidence, they maintained that “once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world”.

[And to return to a previous point;] When governments are contractually incapable of solving their people’s problems, only one option remains: turning us against each other [giving them a distraction].

Magic and Avoidance

[Avoidance is common in plutocracy, as the plutocrats are part of the problem.] We have a new term for doing nothing: “learning to live with”. Learning to live with Covid means abandoning testing, isolation and wearing masks in public places. Living with it, dying from it, what’s the difference? The same applies to climate breakdown.

[With climate] our primary effort should still be to decarbonise our economies, to prevent even worse impacts. We also need to brace ourselves for the heating [and resultant weather] that’s now unavoidable.

[However,] government policy is to wish away these problems [and shift responsibility on to ordinary people] Doubtless we’ll soon be told we need to take “personal responsibility” for ensuring our homes are not flooded and our power lines are not destroyed by storms.

There is no learning involved in “learning to live with” [hence its easy and makes no demands personal or political]….

A few days ago, a senior executive at the Institute of Economic Affairs suggested that instead of preventing climate breakdown, we could simply “build sea walls”. It is not just denial we’re up against. It’s a belief in magic.

Confusion and Avoidance

[Magical Thinking encroaches everywhere, and often involves ignoring contradictions. Many government policies seem confused. While they want to be thought to be taking action, they don’t want to challenge the plutocrats or the fossil fuel companies]

MPs with no discernible record of concern for poor people, and a long record of voting against them, suddenly claim that climate action must be stymied to protect them. [Or that we must sell poorer countries our fossil fuels to reduce their poverty.]

An analysis by conservation charity WWF suggests that, while the last UK budget allocated £145m for environmental measures, it dedicated £40bn to policies that will increase emissions.

It is still government policy to “maximise economic recovery” of oil and gas from the UK’s continental shelf. According to the government’s energy white paper, promoting their extraction ensures that “the UK remains an attractive destination for global capital.”

Boris Johnson appears to be on the point of approving the development of a new oilfield – the Cambo – in the North Sea.

Since [Joe Biden] pledged to ban new drilling and fracking on federal lands, his administration has granted more than 2,000 new permits. His national security adviser has demanded that Opec+, the oil cartel, increase production, to reduce the cost of driving the monstrous cars that many Americans still buy.

[Laws and regulations are written to support this corporate death spiral.] A UK oil company is currently suing the Italian government for the loss of its “future anticipated profits” after Italy banned new oil drilling in coastal waters. Italy used to be a signatory to the Energy Charter Treaty, which allows companies to demand compensation if it stops future projects. The treaty’s sunset clause permits such lawsuits after nations are no longer party to it, so Italy can be sued even though it left the agreement in 2016.

There is no realistic prospect of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating unless all new fossil fuel development is stopped. In fact, existing projects need to be retired. Nor can we achieve the government’s official aim of net zero emissions by 2050. [But magically we can work against climate change and keep on with more fossil fuels. that way we don’t have to struggle against the plutocracy.]

Technology and Magic Avoidance

[Other than not facing up to the problem, stopping doing destructive things can be useful…]

Renewable power, for instance, is useful in preventing climate chaos only to the extent that it displaces fossil fuels.

[However, fossil fuel companies are rich] and fossil fuels will become stranded assets only when governments insist that they be left in the ground. [So that probably won’t happen for a while yet.]

[Again there is magic. A reasonably well known economist Oded] Galor claims, without providing the necessary evidence, that “the power of innovation accompanied by fertility decline” may allow us to avoid a difficult choice between economic growth and environmental protection. [We will also develop] “revolutionary technologies” that will one day rescue us from the climate crisis. [Just like that. No problem. Technology will always be found to solve every problem, when we need it.]

[People] appear to believe that the transformations necessary to prevent systemic collapse can happen without political pressure or political change. [So we don’t have to trouble THE Market or face up to the corporations who temporarily benefit from from not paying the cost of their pollution and destruction.]

[Magic innovations would be nice, but we still need to stop burning fossil fuels, just in case they don’t eventuate. If they do eventuate, we just have to deal with less pollution.]

Carbon Credits: Magic or Fraud

[Carbon credits are an idea which depends on] removing historic carbon from the air, and counteracting a small residue of unavoidable emissions once we have decarbonised the rest of the economy.

[However], they are being widely used as an alternative for effective action. Rather than committing to leave fossil fuels in the ground, oil and gas firms continue to prospect for new reserves while claiming that the credits they buy have turned them “carbon neutral”.

The French company Total is hoping to develop new oilfields in the Republic of the Congo and off the coast of Suriname. It has sought to justify these projects with nature-based solutions: in Suriname by providing money to the government for protecting existing forests, and in Congo by planting an area of savannah with fast-growing trees.

If the drilling goes ahead it will help to break open a region of extremely rich forests and wetlands that sits on top of the biggest peat deposit in the tropics, potentially threatening a huge natural carbon store. The rare savannah habitat the company wants to convert into plantations to produce timber and biomass has scarcely been explored by ecologists. It’s likely to harbour a far greater range of life than the exotic trees the oil company wants to plant. It is also likely to belong to local people though their customary rights… In other words, the offset project, far from compensating for the damage caused by oil drilling, could compound it.

Last year, forests being used as corporate offsets were incinerated by the wildfires raging across North America [showing how precarious, this form of carbon store is, in the climate fossil fuels are producing.].

Oxfam estimates that [even if carbon credits worked] the land required to meet carbon removal plans by businesses could amount to five times the size of India – more than the entire area of farmland on the planet. And much of it rightfully belongs to indigenous and other local people, who in many cases have not given their consent. This process has a name: carbon colonialism.

A better strategy would be to spend money on strengthening the land rights of indigenous people, who tend to be the most effective guardians of ecosystems and the carbon they contain. {But that would prevent land from being alienated and purchased (or stolen) by corporations and other wealthy people for their own use.]

Food Crises

[On top of climate, we seem to be developing food problems through capitalism]

The number of undernourished people fell from 811 million in 2005 to 607 million in 2014. But in 2015, the trend began to turn. Hunger has been rising ever since: to 650 million in 2019, and back to 811 million in 2020. This year is likely to be much worse.

Last year, the global wheat harvest was bigger than ever. Astoundingly, the number of undernourished people began to rise just as world food prices began to fall. In 2014, when fewer people were hungry than at any time since, the global food price index stood at 115 points. In 2015, it fell to 93, and remained below 100 until 2021.

[Food forms a complex system, and as remarked above if nodes behave similarly there is a problem. In this case the] features that might impede systemic collapse (“redundancy”, “modularity”, “circuit breakers” and “backup systems”) have been stripped away, exposing the system to “globally contagious” shocks.

On one estimate, just four corporations control 90% of the global grain trade [and] just four crops – wheat, rice, maize and soy – account for almost 60% of the calories grown by farmers.

[Food companies nowadays can depend on just-in time supplies with no redundancy or stores, this is easily disrupted by collapse in supply through company problems, war, bad weather or eco-crises – all more likely in climate change.]

If so many can go hungry at a time of unprecedented bounty, the consequences of the major crop failure that environmental breakdown could cause defy imagination. The system has to change.

The world now is in a major food crisis. Climate breakdown has begun to bite. Heat domes and droughts in North America and storms and floods in Europe and China last year damaged harvests and drove up prices. By February, the cost of food was 20% higher than a year earlier.

Ukraine and Russia produce nearly 30% of the world’s wheat exports, 15% of the maize (corn) and 75% of the sunflower oil. Altogether, they generate about 12% of the calories traded internationally. [This obviously has effects given the current war in Ukraine]

Just as European countries allowed themselves to become hooked on Russian gas and oil, they are also highly reliant on Russian and Belarusian fertilisers. About one-third of the nitrogen and two-thirds of the potassium imported by the UK and western Europe come from Russia and Belarus, and we can expect them to use this dependency as another economic weapon.

The Middle East and north Africa are highly reliant on Ukrainian and Russian grain. Almost 40% of Yemen’s wheat is grown in Russia and Ukraine. Already, millions there are close to starvation. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, relies on the warring countries for roughly 70% of its imports.

Biofuels add to the food problem

[Adding to the precariousness of food supplies we have agricultural land and crops being used to make biofuels, hence reducing the world’s food supplies again.]

Between 2019 and 2021, farmers in England raised the area of land used to make biogas by an astonishing 19%. Now 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) is ploughed to grow maize and hybrid rye for biogas, which is marketed, misleadingly, as a green alternative to fossil gas. The reopening of a bioethanol plant in Hull that will turn wheat into fuel for cars is likely to take another 130,000 hectares out of food production.

About 450 hectares of land is needed to feed a biogas plant with a capacity of one megawatt. By contrast, a megawatt of wind turbine capacity requires only one-third of a hectare

The food used by the UK alone for biofuels could feed 3.5 million people. If biofuel production ceased worldwide, according to one estimate, the saved crops could feed 1.9 billion human beings.

The investigative group Transport & Environment shows, the land used to grow the biofuels consumed in Europe covers 14m hectares (35m acres): an area larger than Greece. Of the soy oil consumed in the European Union, 32% is eaten by cars and trucks. They devour 50% of all the palm oil used in the EU and 58% of the rapeseed oil. Altogether, 18% of the world’s vegetable oil is turned into biodiesel, and 10% of the world’s grains are transformed into ethanol, to mix with petrol.

Since 2000, 10m hectares of Africa’s land, often the best land, has been bought or seized by sovereign wealth funds, corporations and private investors.

[We might be told the biiofuel plants will run on waste, but] Invariably, as soon as the market develops, dedicated crops are grown to supply it.

The UK government, “responding to industry feedback”, increased its target for the amount of biofuel used in surface transport. Worse, it justifies continued airport expansion with the claim that planes will soon be able to use “sustainable” fuels. In practice this means biofuel [and more magic and fantasy]

There’s a limit to how much we can eat. There’s no limit to how much we can burn.

Changing the plutocracy

Society is a complex system, and complex systems can never be sensibly and benevolently controlled from the centre. A centralised, hierarchical system means concentrated power, and concentrated power favours concentrated wealth. [And concentration of power and contacts may favour system collapse.]

Politics is “the active engagement of free citizens” in their own affairs. [Politics is a normal part of everyday life as we organise ourselves to do things together].

Bookchin proposed a structured political system, built on majority voting. It begins with popular assemblies, convened in opposition to the state, open to anyone from the neighbourhood who wants to join. As more assemblies form, they create confederations whose powers are not devolved downwards but delegated upwards. The assemblies send delegates to represent them at confederal councils, but these people have no powers of their own: they may only convey, coordinate and administer the decisions handed up to them. [possible examples include Rojava in Syria and the now defunct participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. This kind of proposal might end the problem that] we have no opportunity to engage creatively with each other in building better communities.

Until we change our political systems, making it impossible for the rich to buy the decisions they want, we will lose not only individual cases. We will lose everything.

Debt and solution

[There is a massive global debt crisis] Between 1990 and 2019, external debt in… the poorer nations rose on average from roughly 90% of their GDP to 170%. The pandemic has accelerated the crisis: 135 out of 148 nations in the poorer world are now classed as “critically indebted”.

An analysis in the journal Global Environmental Change suggests that $10tn of value is extracted from poorer countries by richer ones every year, in the form of raw materials, energy, land and labour. That’s 70 times as much money as would be needed to end extreme poverty worldwide….

A report from Green New Deal suggests that debt has been used by the World Bank as a means of obliging Senegal to allow US, Australian and British companies to exploit its oil and gas. In Argentina, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has reportedly pushed for the development of the giant Vaca Muerta shale gas basin, using similar leverage. Impoverished and coerced by debt, poorer nations have little choice but to allow destructive industries to exploit them. 

An analysis by Oxfam suggests that 85% of the Covid loans made by the IMF to poorer nations were connected to austerity programmes: the fund is using the power of debt to push nations into cutting wage bills and spending less on public services and support for poor people.

Rich nations owe a massive climate debt to poorer nations: for the devastating impacts of the fossil fuels we have burned. Yet they have no intention of paying for the loss and damage they have caused. Poor countries are deemed to owe massive financial debts to the rich nations, yet they cannot pay them without destroying their economies and their ecosystems.

The proposal is simultaneously to cancel both the climate and the financial debts, liberating the money poorer nations need to take climate action.

[This sounds good, but it would, like any other climate action which cuts energy, would probably produce some kind of degrowth. However, degrowth will undoubtedly happen when the cost of fixing climate damage starts becoming a significant fraction of the profit made from provoking that damage.]

[Needless to say, it is probable that the plutocracy will oppose this measure, as they or the wealth economy will suffer, and most people will never get to hear of it.]


There is hope. But we have to be prepared to take on the Plutocracy and their promotion of harmful magic and distraction. We have to slow emissions, and keep fossil fuels in the ground. We can’t phase them out immediately, but we can agitate for more democracy, degrowth, and debt reduction as part of a strategy to help poorer countries.