Omnicidal Plutocrats

by George Monbiot

One of the problems we face in persuading people to love and protect the living world is the language in which this love is expressed. Few of the terms we use vividly describe either the planet we are trying to defend or the threats it faces. Take “the environment”: a cold, abstract and distancing term that creates no pictures in the mind. Have you ever seen an “environment”? Or “climate change”, such a mild and neutral term to describe an existential catastrophe. It’s like calling an invading army “unexpected visitors”.

I’ve been pressing for more effective language for a long time, and I was delighted when, in 2019, the Guardian started changing the way it talks about our crisis, using terms such as “living planet” or “natural world” instead of “the environment”, replacing “climate change” with “climate breakdown”. I’m even happier to see how the Guardian’s shift has triggered a wider change.

But there is one term in particular that still niggles. It might seem an odd one to contest, because it’s pretty graphic: mass extinction.

It is used to describe the catastrophic events (there have so far been five since animals with hard body parts evolved) that wiped out many of the planet’s lifeforms. We are now in the midst of the sixth of these events. So what’s my problem?

Well, I think the term reflects what palaeontologists call “taphonomic bias”: a mistaken view of the past caused by what happens, or doesn’t happen, to be preserved. We call these events “mass extinctions” because it is easy to see the disappearance of large numbers of species from the fossil record. The rocks also reveal the deeper issue, but this is less immediately visible. Mass extinction, horrendous as it is, is one outcome of something even bigger: Earth systems collapse. This, I feel, is what we should call the thing we are facing. We are in the midst of the sixth Earth systems collapse.

In other words, human activities are not causing a biodiversity crisis, or a climate crisis, or a freshwater crisis, or a forests crisis, or a soils crisis, or an oceans crisis. We are creating an everything-crisis. While compartmentalising this omni-crisis helps us to study it and report on it, nature recognises no such boxes. All these systems are intimately connected and mutually dependent. There are no hard boundaries between them. If one fails, it threatens to bring down the rest. That is what happened in the previous five Earth systems collapses. We need, as much as we are able, to understand the whole.

Our omni-crisis is also a political and economic crisis. It is driven, above all, by a few immensely powerful oligarchs and corporations: the pollutocrats. It is a crisis of power: the power they wield over us and over Earth systems; their ability to block the progressive change we need; to ensure that business as usual, which has granted them their power, is sustained.

This is an existential crisis for them too. As the signs of gathering collapse become ever less deniable, their industries – fossil fuels, meat production, cars, roads, planes, mining, logging, fishing – are exposed to public scrutiny as never before. So they must fight harder than ever before.

They are pouring money into politics, funding and directing political parties, demanding ever more draconian laws against protesters, paying lobby groups (so-called thinktanks) to publish misleading claims, and funding troll farms to flood social media. The billionaire media, representing the same interests, crank out ever wilder misinformation about even the mildest policies (net zero, low emissions zones, 15-minute cities) which might help to arrest the slide towards destruction. Their strategies are omnicidal.

Our survival now depends on defending and expanding islands of resistance: places from which we can explain and debate the Earth systems crisis we face. The Guardian is one of these islands. By refusing to succumb to the pollutocrats’ full-spectrum assault on people and the planet, by investigating the strategies they use and the power they wield, by holding the governments they have captured to account, and by doggedly seeking to tell the truth about the crises we face, it develops some of the tools required to fight back.

Nothing here is easy. Time is short, the powers arrayed against us are great. But we know that, just as ecosystems have tipping points, so do social systems, and history shows that these often turn out to be much closer than we imagine. The quest now is to reach the social tipping points before the ecological ones.

George Monbiot
Guardian Columnist
The Guardian

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