George Monbiot is author and columnist for The Guardian who writes with passion and insight about the environment. You may have seen his thought-provoking article on the role of meat in our society recently, which opens with the line, “From chickens pumped with antibiotics to the environmental devastation caused by production, we need to realise we are not fed with happy farm animals“.
George is someone I have long wanted to host here on my website. I am thrilled to have him as my guest interviewee this month. This is the first of a two-part interview.
I recently read George’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, which I found a gripping read; utterly fascinating, compelling and thought-changing. Its impact on me was such that I did something I don’t usually do – sent copies to people as a ‘must-read’. Feral made me reappraise my long-held belief in conservation as simply preserving habitats in timeless isolation. It has fired my thoughts about the need for a much greater restorative emphasis in the way we view the countryside. Whatever your views, take a glimpse at how rich the countryside around us could be through the pages of Feral.
Philip: George, on the subject of rewilding of the countryside, I found your recent book, Feral an absolutely gripping read.
What inspired you to write it?
George: I badly wanted to reconnect with the living world, which was one of the reasons why I moved to mid-Wales. But when I got there, I discovered that there was even less wildlife than in the city from which I had come. The hills are almost treeless. You can walk all day and see a couple of crows and no other birds. You can get down on your hands and knees and look for insects, and you’ll be lucky to find any at all. The entire landscape has been sheepwrecked.
At sea the vast shoals of fish and the reefs of sedentary creatures have been ripped to shreds by trawlers and scallop-dredgers. But it was an encounter there with one of the last members of the British mega-fauna that set me on the course I was to follow. One day I was kayaking in a rough sea close to the coast of Cardigan Bay. A bull dolphin leapt over my boat. As he did so, he made eye contact with me, and we held each other’s gaze until he crashed back into the water.
It is hard to describe the exhilaration I felt. It was an epiphany. From that moment I knew I wanted to live in a world in which such encounters are common. Instead of just fighting the bad things that are happening, I wanted to campaign for the return of missing natural wonders in this country, to bring back the forests and their wealth of species, to restore the lost marvels of the living planet. Soon after that, I came across the term rewilding. It exploded in my mind. Suddenly I knew exactly what it was that I was looking for.
Philip: What did you learn whilst writing Feral about the role of industrial farming in shaping the countryside in Britain and Europe?
George: I realised that there is a socially-constructed silence about what industrial farming has done to the living world. What I was looking at in Wales was mass destruction caused by an arm of the industry that for many centuries has been considered almost holy.
Sheep-farming has been venerated by the pastoral literary tradition since Theocritus, in the 3rd Century BC. He associated shepherding with virtue and purity, the antithesis of the corruption and scheming of the city. His theme was embraced by Virgil and by the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, “which taketh away the sin of the world”. The Elizabethan poets – Marlowe, Spenser and others – revived the tradition, with their eclogues and idylls about the pastoral life. And it lives still on Sunday night television, which is incomplete without a romanticised vignette of the shepherd’s life.
Yet this tradition, which we are taught to venerate, turns out to be amazingly destructive. More so, perhaps, than that of any other industry, if you compare its impacts to its production. Sheep farming in the uplands of Britain is amazingly unproductive, largely because the soil has been stripped down to almost nothing over the centuries. In Wales, for example, 76% of the land is used for meat production, but Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. There would be no hill farming at all in Britain if it were not for public subsidies. Yet, across almost all our uplands, it has turned what was once a rich, forested ecosystem into bare and blasted wet desert, in which you’ll see even less wildlife than in the chemical monocultures of the lowlands.
Look out for part two of my fascinating interview with George Monbiot.