George Monbiot: connection, kayaking and being an uncool dad

Known for his activism and searing journalism, George Monbiot took a surprise detour into songwriting. Shocked by the loneliness epidemic, he and folk musician Ewan McLennan wrote an album about it. As they tour Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, we ask Monbiot: what binds us together?

Why does the subject of loneliness resonate with so many people?

I think it’s one of those subjects that we all know is there and yet hardly anyone talks about. Huge numbers of people suffer from loneliness, some of them just temporarily – as I have at periods – and others long-term. And it’s a really dangerous and dreadful affliction because it builds on itself: the lonelier you become, the more you isolate yourself from others.

It’s very hard sometimes to break out of that without outside help. It has, for a long time, been a major problem among older people, but it’s now an epidemic among young people too. The 18-34 age bracket seems especially prone to loneliness at the moment.

Why do we need other people?

The Enlightenment model of the human brain says we ought to be rational, individual people: only engaging with others in order to trade with them or pursue some other utilitarian function. But we evolved in small groups that were essential to our survival and so we don’t behave like that at all.

The brains we developed are highly social, more social than that of any other mammal, and so require human company to function healthily. Isolated from others, we start to create monsters in our minds. We take our social cues and adapt our beliefs according to the cheers and boos of the crowd. It’s worrying that our models for organisation are designed on a completely flawed idea of what we’re like.

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Your work debunks neoliberalism’s homo economicus model: the idea that we’re creatures of coldy calculated selfishness. What is the reality?

So much of society is based on this idea but it has absolutely no relevance to how we are. We’re quite the opposite in fact. Think of your friends, neighbours, relatives. One or two of them might be selfish old curmudgeons, but the vast majority of people put themselves out for others in often remarkable ways.

My Dutch mother-in-law’s family kept a Jewish boy – a total stranger, brought to them by the Resistance – safe in their house for two years during the German occupation. That’s an extreme example but we see small instances of human unselfishness every single day: people giving way to each other in a queue; people giving money to the homeless; helping others with their luggage. It’s a constant pattern.

Why is the narrative we’re told so different to our everyday experience?

It’s partly because economics is a highly politicised subject. Isn’t it interesting that biology is far more complex than the way humans behave in economics – it involves millions of species interacting with each other. And yet the big questions in biology are more or less settled. But economics is constantly torn between competing theories. Why? Because if one political theory triumphs, that has huge implications for the organisation of society and the power of those at the top.

At the moment, the dominant economic view is neoliberalism which utterly depends on the notion that we’re selfish beings whose relationships are defined by competition. You take that away and the whole framework collapses, and with it, the corporate power that neoliberalism exists to defend.

What was it about loneliness that made you want to turn to music?

The sole objective was to persuade my children that I’m cool. My children are 10 and four, so it’s not going to work!

I wrote an article about loneliness and several publishers asked me to write a book about it. I decided that spending three years sitting on my arse, alone, writing a book about loneliness wasn’t a particularly alluring prospect. I realised that music actually answers the question because it brings people together. I love how Ewan seems to burrow into each song and find the essence of it. It’s been an inspiring, magical process.

Folk musician Ewan McLennan (left) and George Monbiot. Photo: Paul Blakemore

Is this a new stage in your career? Are you turning more to creative writing?

I am becoming more creative in my dotage. Radical journalists are in a glass box. You can’t even move sideways, there are so few outlets for your work. So rather than constantly fighting that, I’ve begun to embrace it. I’m working on a novel, and another venture was setting up Rewilding Britain [a charity founded in 2015 that promotes rewilding in Great Britain, a vision described in Monbiot’s book Feral].

Could music, creativity and play galvanise people toward social and political change where facts, rationality and instruction have failed to?

Re-engaging people in politics won’t happen through political meetings but through social and cultural events. When you look at the history of successful political movements in Britain, cultural and social events are crucial to their success: the likes of cycling clubs, choirs, rambling associations and book clubs.

And we’ll only re-engage people if we have a positive, propositional politics rather than just reacting to all the bad stuff that’s thrown at us. Positive News offers that counterweight in the media: it is an essential element in forming a more realistic worldview.

What would you most like to change about the media?

I would like to see the media moguls dethroned. To own a major media outlet, you need to be a billionaire and so you use the outlet to promote the interests of yourself and your fellow billionaires. That is disastrous for the rest of society and serves to reinforce cultural hegemony: the notion that what’s good for the billionaires is what’s good for everybody. In most cases, the opposite pertains. I’d like to see the media much more broken up and outlets turned into workers’ cooperatives so that those who own and work for the organisation have a much stronger say in what happens within it.

The human spirit and desire to come together overcome almost all attempts to prevent it from happening

How can we nurture what unites us?

The human spirit and desire to come together overcome almost all attempts to prevent it from happening. In early factory life, silence was imposed on the workers and so the folk tradition in England almost died because people were prevented from singing while they worked. But they found subversive ways of getting back together and strong factory communities formed and remain today. When the dictatorship in North Korea eventually ends, people there will come back together again.

Music is a really great way of facilitating and accelerating that. I think the harvesting and processing of food is greatly underestimated too. My and other families are involved in a communal apple pressing each year. We pool the apples from our trees then turn them into juice and cider. I realised that we’re reinventing thousands of years of hunting and gathering tradition. Finding and processing food together is a critical part of human existence and a great way of reconnecting people.

How did your interest in music come about?

Firstly as a teenager through heavy metal like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. I keep discovering wonderful things to this day. My 10-year-old daughter is in to One Direction and Taylor Swift but we overlap occasionally, in Ed Sheeran for example. I’m interested in getting her in to some of the girl power music: Hole, 4 Non Blondes or Garbage. I’d rather that than Katy Perry.

My interest in folk music came about through my involvement in the protest movements. There was a moment in the woods at Newbury before construction started on the bypass. We lived in the woods for a few weeks in the autumn, eating mushrooms, pheasants and chestnuts, having an amazing time. One night we were all huddled around the fire, dogs leaping at the sparks. Suddenly, this tall ragged figure stands up with a fiddle in his hand and starts playing wild, rhapsodic music. From nowhere, flutes and mandolins, banjos, guitars and mouth organs appear, and an amazing session begins. It was moments like that which kept us going. They were essential to the survival of the protest movement and it spawned amazing music.

We lived in the woods for a few weeks in the autumn, eating mushrooms, pheasants and chestnuts, having an amazing time

How do you keep invigorated and inspired?

A combination of solitude and social engagement. Solitude can sometimes cause loneliness but sometimes it can have almost the opposite effect and reconnect you with the world. For me, it’s essential to have time in nature. In the summer, I went to the Hebrides, kayaking with basking sharks. Kayaking is always a stirring thing for me, as is walking in wonderful places and swimming in the sea.

And then it’s getting together with friends or playing sport. I play a lot of sport, mostly Ultimate Frisbee still. It’s a great sport and I met my partner this way. The bane of my life is having a 25-year-old brain in a 53-year-old body.

Journalist and activist George Monbiot. Photo: Paul Blakemore

Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot are currently touring their album, Breaking the Spell of Loneliness

Main image: John Russell

This feature is from issue 88 of Positive News magazine

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