RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Monbiot writes: "Humankind's greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address."

File photo, site of the 2012 UN climate summit. (photo: Osama Faisal/AP)
File photo, site of the 2012 UN climate summit. (photo: Osama Faisal/AP)

Climate Change and the Unrestrained Elite

By George Monbiot,

10 December 12


Neoliberalism is not the root of the problem: it is the ideology used to justify a global grab of power, public assets and natural resources by an unrestrained elite.

umankind's greatest crisis coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address. By the late 1980s, when it became clear that manmade climate change endangered the living planet and its people, the world was in the grip of an extreme political doctrine, whose tenets forbid the kind of intervention required to arrest it.

Neoliberalism, also known as market fundamentalism or laissez-faire economics, purports to liberate the market from political interference. The state, it asserts, should do little but defend the realm, protect private property and remove barriers to business. In practice it looks nothing like this. What neoliberal theorists call shrinking the state looks more like shrinking democracy: reducing the means by which citizens can restrain the power of the elite. What they call "the market" looks more like the interests of corporations and the ultra-rich(1). Neoliberalism appears to be little more than a justification for plutocracy.

The doctrine was first applied in Chile in 1973, as former students of the University of Chicago, schooled in Milton Friedman's extreme prescriptions and funded by the CIA, worked alongside General Pinochet to impose a programme that would have been impossible in a democratic state. The result was an economic catastrophe, but one in which the rich - who took over Chile's privatised industries and unprotected natural resources - prospered exceedingly(2).

The creed was taken up by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It was forced upon the poor world by the IMF and the World Bank. By the time James Hansen presented the first detailed attempt to model future temperature rises to the US Senate in 1988( 3), the doctrine was being implanted everywhere.

As we saw in 2007 and 2008 (when neoliberal governments were forced to abandon their principles to bail out the banks), there could scarcely be a worse set of circumstances for addressing a crisis of any kind. Until it has no choice, the self-hating state will not intervene, however acute the crisis or grave the consequences. Neoliberalism protects the interests of the elite against all comers.

Preventing climate breakdown - the four, five or six degrees of warming now predicted for this century by green extremists like, er, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and PriceWaterhouseCoopers( 4,5,6) - means confronting the oil, gas and coal industry. It means forcing that industry to abandon the four-fifths or more of fossil fuel reserves that we cannot afford to burn( 7). It means cancelling the prospecting and development of new reserves - what's the point if we can't use current stocks? - and reversing the expansion of any infrastructure (such as airports) that cannot be run without them.

But the self-hating state cannot act. Captured by interests that democracy is supposed to restrain, it can only sit on the road, ears pricked and whiskers twitching, as the truck thunders towards it. Confrontation is forbidden, action is a mortal sin. You may, perhaps, disperse some money for new energy; you may not legislate against the old.

So Barack Obama pursues what he calls an "all of the above" policy: promoting wind, solar, oil and gas( 8). Ed Davey, the British climate change secretary, launched an energy bill in the Commons last week whose purpose was to decarbonise the energy supply. In the same debate he promised that he would "maximise the potential" of oil and gas production in the North Sea and other offshore fields( 9).

Lord Stern described climate change as "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen"( 10). The useless Earth Summit in June; the feeble measures now being debated in Doha; the energy bill( 11) and electricity demand reduction paper( 12) launched in Britain last week (better than they might have been but unmatched to the scale of the problem) expose the greatest and widest ranging failure of market fundamentalism: its incapacity to address our existential crisis.

The 1000-year legacy of current carbon emissions is long enough to smash anything resembling human civilisation into splinters( 13). Complex societies have sometimes survived the rise and fall of empires, plagues, wars and famines. They won't survive six degrees of climate change, sustained for a millennium(14). In return for 150 years of explosive consumption, much of which does nothing to advance human welfare, we are atomising the natural world and the human systems that depend on it.

The climate summit (or foothill) in Doha and the sound and fury of the British government's new measures probe the current limits of political action. Go further and you break your covenant with power, a covenant both disguised and validated by the neoliberal creed.

Neoliberalism is not the root of the problem: it is the ideology used, often retrospectively, to justify a global grab of power, public assets and natural resources by an unrestrained elite. But the problem cannot be addressed until the doctrine is challenged by effective political alternatives.

In other words, the struggle against climate change - and all the crises which now beset both human beings and the natural world - cannot be won without a wider political fight: a democratic mobilisation against plutocracy. I believe this should start with an effort to reform campaign finance: the means by which corporations and the very rich buy policies and politicians. Some of us will be launching a petition in the UK in the next few weeks, and I hope you will sign it.

But this is scarcely a beginning. We must start to articulate a new politics: one that sees intervention as legitimate, that contains a higher purpose than corporate emancipation disguised as market freedom, that puts the survival of people and the living world above the survival of a few favoured industries. In other words, a politics that belongs to us, not just the super-rich.


1. See Colin Crouch, 2011. The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. Polity Press, Cambridge.

2. Naomi Klein, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Allen Lane, London.


4. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012. Turn Down the Heat: why a 4C warmer World Must be Avoided. Report for the World Bank.


6. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, November 2012. Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index 2012.





11. Nicholas Stern, 2006. The Economics of Climate Change.


13. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein, 10th February 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. PNAS, vol. 106, no. 6, pp1704-1709. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106.

14. I'm speaking loosely here, as Solomon et al propose that not 100% but around 40% of the CO2 produced this century will remain in the atmosphere until at least the year 3000. On the other hand, unrestrained emissions and global warming will not stop of their own accord in 2100: temperatures could rise well beyond 6C in the following century: without sharp mitigation now, we're setting up 1,000 years of utter chaos. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+26 # Inspired Citizen 2012-12-10 10:53
Alternet ran this story, and in the comments there. someone posted this link:

Watch that, and you'll understand how much Monbiot understates the challenge we face. Even if we can manage to take over the world, our entire industrial system, as currently operated, is destroying us. Watch this, and you'll understand that the damage has been done and our species is doomed.
+10 # Michael Lee Bugg 2012-12-10 16:57
Inspired Citizen: well said, even though I have not looked at the video yet. I decided in 1973, while only a junior in high school, not to ever have children because I could see then that mankind is on a run away train doomed to a catastrophic crash! I have said for many years, I am 56 now, that humans are on the whole just intelligent enough to be a threat to every plant and animal species on this planet because we collectively are not even smart enough to stop our population growth! If we think we have problems now with 310 million Americans and over 7 billion people worldwide, wait till we have 400 million here and over 8 billion worldwide. It will take a war far exceeding the death and destruction of WW2 to reduce our population enough to improve our chances of long term survival! If not we will go through a "Mad Max" phase of human existence due to dwindling oil supplies; then we will go through a "Planet of the Apes" phase in which our technology will regress to a sustainable level, if we don't all starve to death first. Soylent Green could end up being mankind's salvation!

Merry Christmas, everyone!
+16 # ksan51 2012-12-10 17:06
Thank you very much for posting that link. I had never seen that video and am forever grateful that I now have. I knew the situation was dire when the World Bank published its report, but this video shows that we may already be well past the point of no return.

One of the highlights (of which I think there were many) is the following quote. Guy McPherson himself was quoting Arundhati Roy (writer of Power Politics):

"The trouble is that once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."

Nothing I have heard, read, or seen in the last decade has been more true than that quote. For all those who say "I'm informed so I don't need to help anyone else understand the situation. I'll let someone else refute that skeptic who spouts nonsense", that quote is for you.

This denial and skepticism nonsense is poisonous to a degree that I'm not sure any of us truly understand.

People need to be informed of the coming disaster, and those of us who have taken the time to inform ourselves must do what we can to help educate people. Yes, the mainstream media is corrupt and asleep at the wheel. Yes, energy corporations are literally mining the Earth for profit.

The only weapon we have at this point is knowledge. We must make sure that everyone is armed to the teeth.
+31 # fredboy 2012-12-10 11:06
Perhaps the most arrogant example is what is happening in Southwest Florida. We have proven that fertilizer streaming off the land during heavy rainfall enters our watershed, bays, and shoreline waters, sparking extremely dangerous blooms of neurotoxic bacteria--some linked to ALS, Alzheimer's, and other terminal conditions. But Collier County leaders heed only the demands from golf courses and landscapers, ignoring pleas to push back the fertilizer use zone. Thus Irish green landscaping and fairways trump public health. The irony is word is spreading about our Bacteria Coast, impacting tourism and the many businesses it impacts.
+14 # bobby t. 2012-12-10 11:11
-10 # cordleycoit 2012-12-10 11:27
We have a problem. HARRP, well known for "chemtrails" is warming the earth while the pack of scientists say we should cool the earth by limiting carbon emissions not by heating the van Alan belt with electron assault. Could some reader clarify the science and the conflict?
+10 # sunflower333 2012-12-10 12:17
There is nothing more undemocratic than new technology. It is more powerful than democracy, more powerful than the military. It knows no borders and leaks into all homes and businesses. It dictates the future. New technologies that threaten the largest corporations have lukewarm friends and white hot enemies. Huge corporations have been destroyed by new ideas from independent thinkers. New technology is the enemy of empires.

I know the death threats, the gunfire, the arson, the political corruption that responds to new technology. We need protection and safe harbor for new ideas and creative thinkers.
+4 # Regina 2012-12-11 00:50
It's not the new technology -- it's the almighty megabuck and the addiction to it by megamillionaire s. They'll gladly wreck the planet for the money they won't be able to use when they finally succeed at that wreckage.
+3 # sunflower333 2012-12-11 10:38
The wealthy are lonely, bored, and miserable people. Wealth enables mental illness.

However, They are not the problem. Carbon emissions is the problem.
+33 # Elroys 2012-12-10 12:23
George Monbiot's piece today is one of the most eloquent I've read on climate, politics and what prevents nations and people from acting. There's no courage, no massive outrage, just compliant duped humans who will not look beyond today's immediate comfort (for those of us who have some comfort). Corporate financed media (6 corporations now control the vast majority of the media and therefore what you read / see / hear about "news") tells you what they want you to read and listen to ("the science is still out on climate change - which is bull) and we need coal, oil and gas for decades to come (more bull).
There are actions we can take to prevent the worst of climate change from hitting us and our kids, but either we act very soon or kiss it goodbye - how f---ing immoral of us to condemn our our children and grand-kids. How sick and cowardly can we be even when a majority of us believe climate change is real and here now. We've got to break this plutocratic hold and abandon the corporatocracy that has crept in to displace our democracy.
What will it take - more catastrophes, more billions in damage and destruction? What has become of America, the leader? People have fought and died in wars in the name of democracy. Now we shop in the name of unfettered free market capitalism - which is killing us all, slowly, but surely.
Stand up, join an organization devoted to dealing with climate change - it's going to take millions of us to break the chains of bondage.
+12 # Dhimmi 2012-12-10 12:39
Down with whoever it was who chopped off the Reference List for this essay but left the pointers to it in the text.

There are still a few readers who like to see claims substantiated. It's how we tell the wheat from the chaff!
+13 # 2012-12-10 12:39
The word Neoliberalism has many turns since the 1930's.
Even though correct,it is confusing and can easily be miss interpreted. Perhaps not using it at all would clarify the subject even more.
+7 # Mouse 2012-12-10 12:50
As described, I think neoliberalism equates more closely to libertarianism, at least in the US.
+23 # Smokey 2012-12-10 12:52
What we need is Occupy Energy.... A new movement for human rights and environmental justice that works to provide all people, in all places, with an adequate supply of energy that is safe, affordable, and sustainable.

Not too much energy, because energy production, distribution, and use always involves some problems. We're concerned about climate change, nuclear power, fracking, overhead power lines, and other problems... But , please, not too little energy. Because we need to help developing nations and other poverty pockets.

The big forces that dominated the Doha conference don't care about human rights. They're not interested in economic justice. What's needed is an energy justice strategy that will do some good. Maybe the Occupy people can make it happen.

Power to the people!
+17 # wise old owl 2012-12-10 14:06
The solution to your issue is: distributed renewable energy generation! Replace the utilities' monopolies with literal "power to the people." This negates the need for more large power generating stations; reduces the number of targets for terrorists; reduces the need for new power transmission lines; more efficiently uses the existing power lines; protects against power outages spreading across country; and replaces payments to large corporate power companies with payments to your friends and neighbors (maybe even you).

It's all doable right now!
+11 # D Duran 2012-12-10 17:34
Smokey, you are absolutely right. For more information on just these issues, one can go to the Institute for Policy Studies website and see their Sustainable Energy & Economy Network and their New Economy Working Group.

John Cavanagh, of IPS, and Robin Broad published an article in the 12/17 issue of the Nation, "It's the New Economy, Stupid," in which they call for an economic paradigm shift: instead of having an economic system based on unlimited financial growth (and degradation of the planet), it is time for a new economic way of thinking that incorporates sustainability and justice.

As a bonus, the article contains about 20 organizations that are already doing that. Each one of us has to get involved right now.
+12 # tuandon 2012-12-10 13:14
Mr. Monbiot is spot-on, as usual. He presents the situation so clearly that even a conservative ought to be able to understand it. Of course, that does not mean they would believe it, since it runs counter to their fantasy world.
+11 # Mike Roddy 2012-12-10 13:24
Monbiot is only partially correct. Yes, the elites are showing their dark sides, but it has little to do with neoliberalism. All ideologies are complicit here, with the exception of advanced socialism, as found in Sweden, for example. Those ideas come from a long historical tradition, and are not exportable.

China and Russia are mining and burning at a furious rate, regimes that don't resemble ours. Greed and stupidity are the problems, not imposed neoliberalism.
-5 # great_pumpkin 2012-12-10 14:01
Something else to think about which no one is mentioning is the contribution of microwaves to the warming of the planet.
+14 # ncporcaro 2012-12-10 14:15
A voice in a bleak wilderness of profit/growth consumption. I live in an era that owes a great apology to our great grandchildren.
+13 # Jack Gibson 2012-12-10 14:45
Please stop calling them "elite(s)". That makes them sound like they're supposedly "superior" to, or "better" than, the rest of us; those of us who aren't rich or even "well-to-do". But the rich are NOT better than or superior to us, AT ALL. They just have more money; but that doesn't make them better than ANYBODY. They are wanna-be elitISTS; people who want to be superior to everyone else, but aren't and can never be such. Therefore, do not even appear to portray them as "elite(s)", or people who are supposedly better than the "have nots"; because, once more, they are NOT and NEVER WILL BE superior to ANYBODY ELSE.
+6 # Regina 2012-12-11 00:58
Elitism is a lifestyle incorporating extreme wealth -- like the Romneys with their car elevator, etc. Elitists cannot relate to the rest of society -- think of Mitt Romney's putdown of "47%" and Ann Romney's dressage horse dancing in the Olympics. It's their attitude, not their human worth, that's above all us ordinary folk.
+12 # Helen 2012-12-10 14:49
There is a lot of good thinking here, also in the comments. As a very old lady, I know I can't do much, but at least we should make individual efforts to get our legislators doing what they could do. That's why, besides combining my errands, turning down the heat and light, and donating what I can to organizations that support solar and wind power, I also created a petition asking Congress to tax carbon now. It says:

"97% of climate scientists now agree that carbon emissions are causing global warming and disastrous weather events. We now need a carbon tax, the revenues of which could help balance the budget, or a carbon fee that would hit all of us equally."

Will you sign my petition? It couldn't hurt. Click here to add your name: /tax-carbon-now
+7 # Charles3000 2012-12-10 14:59
It is easy to miss the root of the problem. And the real root is that there are just too many humans on planet Earth. The Chinese approached the problem directly but in a very hard to accept way. Mother Nature will not spare us. She will reduce the population of humans living here is sea levels rise to make the major population centers of the world uninhabitable and arable, food producing land is reduced by an estimated 50%. Perhaps if a remnant of our species is left they will do a better job next time around. It is possible, after all, to be an optimist.
+7 # RLF 2012-12-10 15:09
Another great set of ideas coming from one of America's great institutions of higher learning. Too bad that our universities have lost the idea what learning is for...and only remember that they can become famous and make oodles of money. Down with stupid Ideas like Chile even when they come from a purported good school...Dumb is Dumb!
+10 # lincolnimp 2012-12-10 18:48
I am very heartened to read that unchecked human population growth is, once again, being recognized as a major problem. In the sixties, it was common practice to come out in favor of zero population growth. The heroes were those couples who had only two children or fewer. Now a half a century later we see a return to the glorification of having children by the boatloads. Whenever someone in my circle of friends holds court to announce the birth of yet another grandchild, I'm in a quandary. I don't feel comfortable praising this "holy" event, but I also don't feel comfortable going against the current tide of not caring about the human population explosion. So I sit there in quiet condemnation hoping that my silence may speak volumes. I long for the sixties when couples were too embarrassed to announce the birth of a third child.
-15 # handmjones 2012-12-11 08:40
I hope none of you would make these statements without knowing whether or not the temperature was even rising.
+7 # ksan51 2012-12-11 11:37
Please vet your sources before you make a post like this. Let me see if I can spell this out for you.

97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening (at an ever-accelerati ng rate) and that it is directly correlated to our ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels. Here is the link to the peer-reviewed work explaining this:

So, what you just posted is a blog. Now, I need you to understand that scientific research and blogs are not on equal footing.

Scientific Research > Blog

Got it?

Not to mention that the blog that you linked to is trying to debunk a 5 yr old climate study with a completely ludicrous premise.

Now, here is a link to the report just published by the World Bank (not exactly a liberal bastion, just so you don't think this is a partisan issue):

Now, the way I see it, if a plutocratic financial institution that serves oligarchy and corporate interests like the World Bank can wake up and see the truth, why can't you?
-3 # fhunter 2012-12-11 21:42
Mr. Monbiot talking about "A DEMOCRATIC MOBILISATION AGAINST PLUTOCRACY". President Obama had the chance to mobilise against plutocracy, if he had the faintest idea why he was running for President. He missed his chance, the Plutocrats did not.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.