George Monbiot: «When a gifted child is treated like an idiot, it is not the child that has failed, but the system»

66930032People, and not only «the have-nots», lose faith in public services/commons and our elected politicians’ ability to fulfill their task including develop and finance public services: In Norway we recently had an extensive study showing emerging neo-authoritarian organizational structures and centralization of all internal and external communications in business as well as in the public sector. Fewer employees will participate publicly, and a fearful culture is created where discussions of alternative solutions to important societal challenges is not seen as a good, but a problem.

1. With reference to your article August 3rd, 2016, the press cannot be trusted either It is all rigged and biased, alternate facts are the new Pravda – we do not trust institutions – media, science, schools, government etc. How can trust – as our most important asset and commons – be brought back? My late good friend prof. Nils Christie wrote about this and related issues,

We are indeed living in dangerous times, and the loss of trust is a crucial component of that danger. I see it as one aspect of a more general loss of belief and belonging: the sense that political life is not something to which we belong or something that belongs to us.

It is among the politically alienated that extremist movements develop. In his fascinating new book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra explores how ressentiment grows among people who have been promised equality and access, but who find that all doors are closed to them. This alienation is easily recruited by demagogues scapegoating minorities and developing a new authoritarian politics.

It seems to me that a crucial component of any progressive political project must be to restore a sense of belonging. I believe this starts with the revitalisation of community. This is part of the reason for the project I’m running with the musician Ewan McLennan, Breaking the Spell of Loneliness. By reconnecting people and rebuilding community we can begin to rebuild political belonging. Atomised, we are helpless, prey to any charlatan making extravagant promises.

2. History should have taught us some lessons on the fall & rise of empires. Are the rise of «Trumps» in the west inevitable as it is s sign of the fall of the Western empire? Or as you write in one of your recent articles: “Symbols, slogans and sensation trump facts and nuanced argument”. What do you think of Slavoj Zizek’s analysis: ?

The contradictions at the heart of mainstream ideology expose it as a system based on magical thinking. With one breath we are told that global capitalism is a dynamic, disruptive force, the source of constant innovation and change. With the next, we are told that it has brought about permanent stability and peace – the end of history. We have been promised infinite growth on a finite planet, and because this contradiction cannot be resolved, we are told simultaneously to reduce our consumption to save the living world, and increase our consumption to save the economy. We have been assured that social peace will be delivered by a system based on competition and envy, and that democracy would be secured by the power of money.

A system built on such evident contradictions is inherently unstable. It is easily captured by those who offer simple answers to complex predicaments. What we lack above all is a coherent, compelling and honest political narrative that places us in the present and predicts the future. Because mainstream parties of both the left and right have singularly failed to develop such a narrative, the vacuum can easily be filled by dishonest, simplified stories, powered by hatred and rage.

3. Dresden 1945 or Maidenhead 2017? Therese May said yesterday that UK&USA are the shiny mansions on the hill and has been that for 100s of years. Is that a fact – or a Bannion-inspired alternate fact? Svend Lindquist – much inspired by Conrad, Huxley and Orwell – tend to focus on the subjects of European imperialism, colonialism, racism, genocide and war, analyzing the place of these phenomena in Western thought, social history and ideology. Holocaust was not a German invention, but European. And; is there a straight line from Western imperialism, our NPM based schoolsystem and the way we today destroy nature and wilderness for all future generations? With reference to what happens in Norway these days:

Norway plans to cull more than two-thirds of its tiny 68 wolf population

Norway conservationists slam plans to dump mining waste into Norwegian fjord

Sven Lindqvist’s work on this issue is crucially important, as are the explorations of Adam Hochschild. The colonial project was based on both the subjugation of independent peoples and the capture of their resources.

The most successful form of historical revisionism in the former imperial nations has been the sanitisation of both projects. To read certain historians in Britain today, you would imagine that the purpose of British imperialism was to teach the natives English, table manners and double entry book-keeping. The brutal and often genocidal treatment of imperial subjects (including the concentration camps the British ran in Kenya during the 1950s and the famines it manufactured in India in the 1870s) have been comprehensively airbrushed. So has the sweeping destruction of wildlife and ecosystems by the same colonial project.

We remain enthralled by an extractivist ideology. It seems to regard the highest calling of humankind as being the subjugation and destruction of the natural world and the liquidation of natural resources. Even when excellent alternatives are available, our political and economic elites seem determined to rip apart the fabric of the living world. Look at Trump and his team, for example, who have deliberately turned their backs on new energy technologies in order to try to reignite the fossil economy. In doing so, they put the United States at a technological and commercial disadvantage, as they allow other nations to develop the new generation of technologies. But the power of old industry, desperately protecting its investments, combined with an extractivist machismo blinds them to such realities.

4. I would like to discuss the critique of our education system – as fostered by sir Ken Robinson, Pasi Sahlberg, Andy Hargreaves et al. I was myself part of the team initiating the 30 years’ anniversary of Reagan-Gorbatsjov on Iceland with these thought leaders. Is our current school system designed to improve the world or to prevent change and uproar?

I see the narrowing of the educational curriculum as being the start of the process of alienation that destroys people’s sense of belonging and self-worth. The narrower teaching becomes, the more children are excluded from it, regardless of their intelligence or ability. A narrow curriculum rewards a narrow set of skills.

I am among the lucky few whose form of intelligence happened to be the kind that the school system rewards. This is a linear, analytical and hyperlexic intelligence. But I know other people who are evidently brilliant, but whose form of intelligence was unrecognised by the school system. For example, a friend of mine can precisely diagnose engine faults simply by listening, a skill that often astonishes professional mechanics. He has a dynamic, three-dimensional, system-based intelligence (as many people with dyslexia do) that was of no interest to the schooling system, which branded him a failure.

I volunteer sometimes for an adventure learning charity, that takes children who have never visited the countryside and never seen the sea into stimulating environments. The first time I took a party of these children rock pooling, one boy stood out. He struck me as a natural genius: observant, intuitive, full of ideas and curiosity, both physically and intellectually adventurous. I pointed this out to his teacher, and she reacted with astonishment. He was at the bottom of the class. When a child such as that is treated like an idiot, it is not the child that has failed, but the system.

5. Who will win the war in science? Is the current goldstandard of scientific objectivity («speaking truth to power») less subjective than Steve Bannions «alternate facts»? If yes, how do we know that?

There is a fundamental scientific paradox, which has no easy or obvious resolution. Scientific enquiry is supposed to be based on the principle nullius in verba, which means “take nobody’s word for it”. (This is the slogan of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom). Taking no one’s word for it wasn’t too difficult when the Royal Society was founded, when an educated person could reasonably expect to be able to keep up with scientific developments.

But today science has become so specialised and publication so prolific that even people at adjoining benches in the laboratory have only a hazy idea of what their neighbours are up to. I have a scientific education and have spent much of my life reading scientific papers, but I find myself these days skipping past the methodology and results, and reading only the abstract, introduction and conclusions, as keeping up to date even in narrow fields means skim-reading, and as I don’t understand the ever more sophisticated statistical analyses they use. In other words, I now take almost everything on trust. And I suspect that the same applies to most professional scientists.

People without a scientific education and without the time to read scientific papers have no hope of forming an informed view of their own. They have to take people’s word for it. Unfortunately, the interlocutors with the greatest reach are those who have been funded to deny, distract from and confuse scientific findings, such as the network of professional climate deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry. This is a recipe for epistemological chaos.

6. Is science part of the solution or part of the problems? Can it bring solutions or is it a root cause for the state of the world? May science address the grand challenge of our time? Is the science system captured by neoliberalism? Does todays industrial-scientific-complex need a disruptive unclever guy like Trump? How can scientists become responsible for what they learn how to see?

Confronted with the vast proliferation of information, we go into survival mode, and that, among academics, means an extreme narrowing of knowledge and understanding. Narrowness is rewarded, breadth is a recipe for failure.

In Britain and certain other countries, subject specialisation takes place at a ridiculously early age: by the time you are 16, you must choose either a scientific education or a humanities education. The result is a dialogue of the deaf. Scientists have almost no grounding in philosophy, history, literature or politics, while humanities students remain staggeringly and shockingly ignorant of science. (Incidentally, almost everyone in a senior position in the media is a humanities student, which goes some way towards explaining their misrepresentation of crucial aspects of the world).

A broad, rounded worldview, that enables you to place your own knowledge and endeavour within as wide a context as possible, is destined under this system to elude us. In a world suffering numerous crises of complexity, education should aim for the broadest possible understanding, which is another way of saying wisdom. It does the opposite.

As a result, intellectual leadership is lacking. The space that should be filled by public intellectuals is occupied by loudmouths, mountebanks and corporate stooges. It is hardly surprising that people are terminally confused and have developed a distrust of intellectual elites.

7. British parliament almost refused to allow Trump entering UK a short year ago. What to think about the praise Theresa May showered over Trump in her speech January 26th? How did she get into that «mass»?

I understand she is still washing her hands, but the orange stain just won’t come off. Just as it must be deeply humiliating for those Americans who oppose him to have Trump as their president, it is deeply humiliating as a British person to see our Prime Minister grovel to him. For many years, “national sovereignty” in Britain has meant asserting our independence against the European Union while rolling over for the United States. It is notable that many of the most garrulous self-described patriots in the United Kingdom are also the greatest enthusiasts for American power. There is never an attempt to resolve this contradiction, or even to acknowledge it.

For them, the dream has always been to leave the European Union and grant the power it exercised in our politics to the United States instead. In doing so, we abandon the EU’s collective bargaining that granted us a certain amount of diplomatic leverage, and simply have to accept whatever we are given.

What this is really about is the surrender to corporate and plutocratic power. To these people, the United States is viewed as a place in which corporations and billionaires are freed from the constraints of democracy, while the European Union is seen as a place in which they remain subjected to such civilising forces as taxation and regulation. (In reality, both tax and regulation within the EU have been steadily downgraded, as it comes to resemble the American model).

It is impossible to understand modern politics without understanding the power of money. In unreformed systems such as the UK and the US, campaign finance determines political outcomes. Our systems more closely resemble one dollar one vote than one person one vote.

It’s not just that money buys political outcomes, it’s also that the dirtiest money has disproportionate influence: something I call the Pollution Paradox. The most antisocial corporations – those that cause the greatest harm to society through pollution, financial malpractice, the exploitation of workers and the destruction of communities – have the most to fear from democracy, and therefore the greatest incentive to invest in politics, to free themselves from democratic constraint. Political systems therefore come to reflect their needs and their demands, rather than those of their cleaner rivals.

Politics in the US is an orgy of plutocratic power, and therefore the envy of people such as Theresa May and her cabinet, who owe their position to the support of the owners of the media and other billionaires. They might see Trump as crude, crass and rather embarrassing, but they recognise that he and his politics serve their interests.

I interviewed George Monbiot on behalf of

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