Bolsonaro Is A Threat to Life on Earth, Says British Activist

According to the journalist and writer George Monbiot, the world needs a radical change in democracy to face the climate crisis

Cristiane Fontes Marcelo Leite
Oxford and São Paulo

George Monbiot, 58, British climate activist and an awarded journalist and writer, is considered one of the most influent voices in social media when it comes to the climate crisis, with 440,000 followers on Twitter. He spares no words against Brazil’s president: "I see Jair Bolsonaro as a menace to human life. He is one of the most threatening forces on Earth".

In this interview with Folha, Monbiot describes Bolsonaro as a global threat because of his failure in protecting not only the Amazon, but also the Brazilian savannah, Cerrado. He regrets that there hasn’t been much more international pressure to deter the right-wing president.

Deeply familiarized with Brazil, the activist indicates the involvement with landless peasants in the State of Maranhão, back in the 1990s, as fundamental for him. "When I turned up in Brazil, I was a journalist, and when I left, I was an activist."

He considers crucial and urgent the use of less natural resources in food production. This means a stop in the consumption of animal products: "They are incredibly land hungry".

Monbiot defends a much bigger mass movement to pressure governments to make headway in a fast and drastic manner in order to prevent the collapse of numerous complex Earth systems. This will require a radical transformation of democracy, aiming at direct participation. "We don't accept the principle of presumed consent in sex. Why should we accept it in politics?"

The columnist with The Guardian is hosting a daily show in the recently launched COP26TV. Next year he will publish "Regenesis: How to Feed the World Without Devouring the Planet", new book that includes a manifesto about the necessity for a revolution in our way of producing food in order to evade the worst impacts of climate change.

Why do we need to say climate breakdown and climate chaos instead of climate change?

So climate change is just a ridiculously neutral term for what we face. We use words which either don't convey the issue or sound very scientific and don't really say very much to people or are very abstract, like for instance environment. I mean, I don't know how "meio ambiente" sounds to Brazilians, but it doesn't sound like very much to me. It doesn't create any pictures in the mind.

This has been called a decisive decade to limit the impact of the climate crisis. What should we prioritise now and in the next few years, in our opinion?

The targets that governments have set, even the more progressive governments - and I'm aware that the Bolsonaro government is not among them - are nowhere near sufficient to ensure that we push Earth systems back into a safe place. Because Earth’s systems are complex systems. The atmosphere is one complex system, the oceans are another, the soils are another, the biosphere is another. And complex systems don't behave in linear, incremental ways. They don't change gradually. What happens is they absorb stress and they can absorb quite a lot of stress and maintain an equilibrium state. And then they suddenly tip, like that. They just flip over into a different equilibrium state which is likely to be very hostile to us.

Now, what we don't know is how much stress our life support systems can absorb before they flip. But one thing we do know is that when a system comes close to its tipping point, its outputs begin to flicker. And the closer to the tipping point it comes, the wilder the fluctuations become. And what we've seen in 2021 looks like a great global flickering. We've seen the massive heat domes over North America, the fires there and in Siberia and around the Mediterranean, the floods in West Africa in China, in Europe. And these look very much like ever growing fluctuations that you would expect when you're coming close to a tipping point.

And unfortunately, the way governments have been trying to address this is through small gradual changes every year and so the UK government is talking about net zero by 2050, and every year we’ll reduce emissions a little bit more.

But our life support systems are not like that at all. They’re complex systems, they behave in completely different ways. If they flip, it's the end of everything. I mean everything that we value - everything we love, everything we hate, everything we fear, everything we hoped for - it all goes. If these systems flip and the Earth becomes basically uninhabitable, the only way of ensuring that there's a high chance of preventing that from happening is rapid and drastic action. The sort of action that the US took after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and they turned the entire economy round in just a few months. They did it then, we can do it again. That's the scale and the speed at which we need to act.

Where should the money come from and be invested in?

Well, the first thing to say is that there's plenty of money. If governments want to summon up money, they can do so very effectively and very quickly. We saw that with the pandemic in my country, for instance. We've been told for years there's no money, we can't spend any money on the poor, on public services, on looking after the natural world, there just isn't any money.

But of course it doesn't work like that because governments can create money. And they can spend money into existence. And if they spend it particularly in the public sector, they can spend it into employment, and so it can be non inflationary. And they can borrow money and they can do all sorts of things that you and I can't do in just making money appear. And again that's what the US did when it entered the Second World War. It made money appear and the federal budget during the four years during which the US was in the war was bigger than all the federal spending that the US had done since independence. In just those five years. The money is there to be found.

Also, some of it could come from tax, some from borrowing, some from printing money, if you make sure that there is demand for that money and it will be taken up and it doesn't become inflationary. And unfortunately governments have been far too conservative about this.

And where should we be investing this money?

We need this full spectrum transformation of our economies and that means getting out of fossil fuel. It means massive investments in renewables. Also, I believe in fourth generation nuclear power. I think that has an important role to play. We need to see conservation of nature on a huge scale. Because this isn't just one crisis. This is many different environmental crises all happening at the same time. We see mass extinction of species threatened, ocean acidification, soil loss, freshwater loss. So many things are happening.

And a really crucial aspect of solving all of that is to protect and restore vast areas of the world’s living systems. So to stop further deforestation and further destruction. But then to restore and re-wild places which have already been damaged. And above all that means a change in diet. We've just got to stop eating animal products. That is the major driver of ecological destruction on Earth, and also a very major cause of climate breakdown and freshwater use, and much of the rest.

And so we need really determined government programmes, a bit like the pandemic programmes which mobilised the nation. I know it wasn't done very successfully in Brazil or in the United Kingdom for that matter, but there's some very good examples from other nations which mobilised around a common cause and transformed public life and the way our economy works. And we did it for the pandemic. We can do it to protect our life support systems.

In the last few years there were various campaigns asking for international support to stop Bolsonaro and deforestation in the Amazon. Is there anything that could have been done and was not done by those outside Brazil?

I think a lot more diplomatic pressure could and should have been applied. I see Jair Bolsonaro as a menace to human life. He is one of the most threatening forces on earth. Obviously he poses a threat on many levels to the people of Brazil, but he presents a global threat through his complete failure to protect not just the Amazon, but also the Cerrado and other habitats within Brazil. And I think it's important to point out that the Amazon-Cerrado system is closely linked. The two systems are closely linked together, and absolutely crucial for the protection of global climatic systems.

The first one to flip will be the Cerrado, and it could be one of the first major systems on Earth to flip. Because we've seen this mass deforestation, primarily to grow soya mostly to feed pigs and chickens around the world. And that has led to a massive loss of native vegetation, particularly the trees whose roots draw up water from the aquifers, which tend to be about 10-15 metres underground. And the trees draw them up, they release that water through their leaves in through evapotranspiration and that water then condenses at dawn as dew and a huge number of plants and animals within this Cerrado ecosystem are utterly dependent on that dew. They can't survive without it. And there comes a critical point where if you cut down too many trees, the dew doesn't form. And then those plants will die off, the plants which are dependent on it, and even less dew forms and you get a runaway feedback effect and it can very quickly turn to desert.

And as you know, the Cerrado region is a source of many of Brazil's great rivers, including some of those flowing into the Amazon, such as the Tapajós and the Tocantins. And the Amazon itself is already under tremendous strain because of deforestation, the fires and the droughts, which are striking it with increasing frequency. And that too could undergo a transition, in this case, from rainforest to savannah. So the Cerrado could go from savannah to desert, the Amazon rainforest could go to savannah.

And between them, these two systems create what are called rivers in the sky or flying rivers, which are great streams of wet air which flow right around the world, and they are generated by the vegetation from these two enormous ecosystems, and together they create a huge amount of the water vapour which moves around the world and helps to drive the global circulation system.If they both flip and the Cerrado, if it flips, will go first and that could help to flip the Amazon system because that system is partly dependent on the rivers flowing into it from the Cerrado.

So this isn't just a Brazilian issue, very much a Brazilian issue, but also a global issue, and the rest of the world has a legitimate interest in what takes place in the Cerrado and in the Amazon.

What does a new politics for an age of crisis look like?

So we are stuck with a 19th century model of democracy almost everywhere - which is a really outrageous and preposterous idea - which is that every four or five years you put a cross on a piece of paper. And then whoever gets the most crosses, forms the government. And from that moment on they can make as many decisions as they like, as long as they can get the Congress to approve them, without once referring to the people during that whole time.

So they can say, you know, if you challenge one of their policies, they will say, well, you voted for me, so I'm entitled to do this. I presume that you have consented to this policy because you voted for me, and if you don't like it in four four years time, you can vote for somebody else. And so the whole, the entire system is based on what happens on one day and what a certain number of people, who might not even be the majority in the nation, decided to do on one day. And on that basis our consent is presumed for everything else that the government does for the next four or five years.

We don't accept the principle of presumed consent in sex. Why should we accept it in politics? It's an outrageous idea. A 21st century politics should involve the people far more than the current model does. I'm not saying we get rid of representative democracy. We need to keep that but we temper it and moderate it with participatory democracy, deliberative democracy. And in fact, Brazil provides one of the greatest models of this, particularly between the years 1989 and 2004 in the city of Porto Alegre, where its programme of participatory budgeting has become a global model of how to involve people in making the crucial decisions about their lives.

And as you know, at the height of the participatory budgeting movement, established by the PT in Porto Alegre, 50,000 people a year would set the municipal infrastructure budget, and in doing so they swept away, at least during that period, most of the corruption, the clientelism, the cronyism which was taking place in that city, massively improved their quality of life, taking control of issues like public sanitation and water and primary education and healthcare.

I think we should apply participatory budgeting across the board at the national level, the state level, the federal level, right the way through, but that we should also have other forms of participatory democracy. And there's models from around the world, the Taiwan programme, which is instituted by this remarkable minister, Audrey Tang. The Better Reykjavik model in Iceland, the Podemos Madrid model in Spain. There's lots of new ways of using digital tools to create a real, participatory and deliberative democracy.

But at the moment democracy is trapped in the quill pen and the horse and carriage.

You are a supporter of the Extinction Rebellion. What are the learnings from interacting with people in the street, from having to speak a language that's more accessible and engaging, and responding to criticisms such as that the movement is disruptive, more than anything else?

Well my activism came from working in Brazil between 1989 and 1991. When I turned up in Brazil, I was a journalist, and when I left, I was an activist. And it came from working with the landless movements. This was before the Movimento Sem Terra had really begun. But I was working with local sindicatos [trade unions], local groups of peasants who were being expelled from their land, and were trying to resist those expulsions.

And at the time, because it was still permissible, they were very strongly protected and influenced by liberation theology within the Catholic Church. Later on, Pope John Paul II put a stop to that and that enabled the Pentecostalists to move into Brazil in a big way, because Catholicism then offered people little hope after liberation theology was stopped. And as we know the Pentecostalists became very important in the election of Jair Bolsonaro. So I actually think that the way that Pope John Paul II shut down liberation theology still has repercussions today in Brazil.

But it was very influential on me and so was the work of Paulo Freire. And I learnt from largely illiterate peasants how to be an activist. And these were people who were fighting with everything they had to protect their land, to protect their lives, against some extremely ruthless ranchers who were trying to steal their land, supported by state and federal police, by the Judiciary, by the federal government. They had everybody on their side, and the peasants had nobody.

Yet what they did have was this incredible strength and courage. But also largely through the Freirean process and through the Catholic Church. And most of them were illiterate. But they had a grasp of political theory, which put me to shame.

I came away from that time in Brazil a different person and someone who was committed to activism and who understood the incredible power of people who are initially powerless but come together and fight for a common name, using civil disobedience, using all the democratic tools at their disposal, and in some cases can win. And indeed the group that I worked with, close to Bacabal in Maranhao, they did win and they got their land back eventually. Though many others failed.

And so what I found in Extinction Rebellion and others is the same sort of spirit, the same strength and courage that I saw in Brazil. And just as, with the exception of the Folha de S.Paulo, most of the Brazilian media excoriated the landless movements who were trying to defend themselves. So the media in the UK excoriates the Extinction Rebellion, who are trying to defend us all against systemic environmental collapse.

You have to expect these attacks. And you have to resist these attacks.

Some people say that we need to move away from the doom and gloom narrative into something that's more positive in order to engage more people into shaping new futures. You can sound quite apocalyptic and at the same time quite optimistic and reminding us of this slogan: Be realistic and demand the impossible. Why have we been your reflections on this?

So I’II slightly changed the situationist slogan: ’‘Be scientifically realistic. Demand the politically impossible." Because there's a huge difference between what we call political realism and scientific realism.

What we call political realism is completely unrealistic in terms of preventing catastrophic environmental change, the destruction of our life support systems, is just completely unrealistic. The plans which the governments who are meeting in Glasgow have are simply unrealistic. What they're talking about his political realism and what we're talking about is scientific realism.

Now the thing is, you can bargain with political realism. You can't bargain with scientific realism. You can't can't say, well can we just change the data? Can we just change the climate? Can we change the Earth? That that you can't do. But politics is extremely malleable. You can change politics a great deal. And political change can happen with extraordinary speed and things which people believed were completely impossible suddenly become possible.

Look at the election of Jair Bolsonaro, who would have thought that would be possible, and unfortunately it was. Look at Brexit, no one believed that was going to be possible, but it was. So, be scientifically realistic. Demand the politically impossible. That's that's one of my slogans.

The only way that's going to happen is through mass mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. So we've seen some very impressive mobilizations in history. We saw mobilizations against dictatorships across Latin America. We saw the decolonisation movements right around the world. We saw the civil rights movement. We saw the democracy movement, suffragette movements, seen the Movimento Sem Terra. We need all that combined and more.

And we should be able to do this, because this is the greatest existential crisis we've ever faced.

According to an FAO report launched last year, international trading of food and agriculture has more than doubled since 2008, driven mainly by the rising consumption in countries such as China. Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of deforestation in tropical and subtropical countries. Next year you will be launching a new book, Regenesis. Can you tell us a little bit about a new possible future for food and the planet?

I've learned a great deal about a subject which most people seem to believe they are familiar with, which is food and how it's produced, where it comes from, and what we should be doing. And it turns out that almost everything we think about food is just wrong in one way or another, and we are just profoundly mistaken about what our choices are and how we should best exercise them. I think the crucial environmental task is to use less land in producing our food, because land should be the most important of all environmental measures, even more important than carbon emissions.

It's the key determinant of whether ecosystems survive, whether species survive, whether Earth’s systems survive. And the only way we're going to get through this century is to spare as much land for nature as we possibly can. And that does mean stopping eating animal products because the animal products are incredibly land hungry. They consume huge areas of land to feed us. And there's some very exciting new technologies which can help us to get out of animal products while still maintaining very good diets. There's also some really exciting new ways of growing grain and fruit and vegetables, but they're not the ways that you think. There's a whole load of fascinating techniques which just aren't being discussed anywhere in the media at the moment. And some of them draw on traditional knowledge, some of them draw on new knowledge, and I've tried to put them all together to create a manifesto for how we should feed ourselves.

I can't say too much about it at this stage because the book’s not coming out in May next year, but I think it’s revolutionary.

How can we restore a world of wonders?

Restoration is absolutely crucial. I mean, there's no substitute for protecting wonderful ecosystems. If you cut down large areas of the Amazon rainforest and then try to restore them, it won't be as good as it was before, because those ecosystems take a very long time to develop and and you'll lose species which just live in a few small spots, and they can't come back because they've become extinct.

So the first thing to say is maximum protection. We should absolutely be maximising the protection of all old ecosystems, all well established ecosystems, as much as we possibly can. But then we should also be restoring the ones which have been damaged and degraded and that's what we call rewilding. The mass restoration of ecosystems and that means in some places bringing back missing species, taking down fences, reconnecting habitats, to the greatest extent possible, standing back and letting nature do it because nature is very good at restoring itself - if only we allow it to.