George Monbiot is a writer, journalist, political activist and outspoken environmentalist with a weekly column in The Guardian. His most recent book, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, is a call to restore and ‘rewild’ our damaged ecosystems, to stop containing and administrating nature, and a look towards a new, more positive form of environmentalism. We spoke about this in more detail, along with the upcoming election and political devolution.

Tell us about rewilding and your new book.

Rewilding is about enhancing greatly the equality of our natural environment and the quality of our experiences in engaging with it. So while as environmentalists, we suggest to people that there’s all sorts of things we should no longer do – we should fly much less often, we should consume less, we should live carefully and mindfully, with more consideration for other people and the rest of the world – at the same time we haven’t been offering much in return. What a positive environmentalism does is not to abandon all the calls for restraint, which obviously we must also have, but to say that that’s not all – there’s some really good stuff which we don’t have yet and we can have if we embrace this agenda, and to propose a vision of a better world, which has been quite badly lacking from a lot of environmental discussion so far.

We’ve got green spaces such as the Peak District on our doorstep here. What’s your vision for those spaces?

I see the Peak District as an ecological disaster zone. To me it looks like the aftermath of a nuclear winter. It is an extraordinary thing, when we consider that that was once all covered with rainforest, and has been reduced to what anyone in the tropics would immediately recognise as a highly degraded and depleted ecosystem, dominated by low scrub composed of just a few species.

We’ve got to look at ways of restoring our lost ecologies in places where it’s most appropriate, and those places are where agricultural production is lowest. What rewilding means to begin with is allowing the trees to come back and allowing self-willed ecosystems to develop. The land would do its own thing and we would see a fascinating, complex set of wild habitats developing. And then, what I would like to see is us reintroducing some of our missing species, and really bringing back as many as we can, ecologically and politically, to as many land areas in Britain as become available.

We’re set for quite an interesting General Election. What effect do you think the splintering of political parties will have?

We’re entering a period of political fragmentation, and I believe this is a good thing. We’ve been in a very long period now of political stagnation, where we’ve had a choice between three parties which are scarcely distinguished from each other on many critical issues, such as the nature of the economy, for example, such as foreign wars – just about all the things which are genuinely important. The more that falls apart, the greater the opportunities become for a more democratic and representative politics, and the rise not just of the Greens, but also of the SNP and Plaid Cymru – all led by women, all with a really fresh feel to them – is I think a wholly positive development.

The worry is that, like the Lib Dems at the last election, a lot of people feel really energised and excited by a smaller party, only to become completely disillusioned if things don’t change.

You’re quite right that a lot of people became extremely disillusioned by what the Lib Dems did, and I think a lot of people almost gave up on politics altogether as a result. It was astonishing, and a classic example of politic short termism. I think journalism is partly responsible for that. Journalism is all about trivial immediacies. Something which a politician said today acquires far greater importance than slow, long-running trends which aren’t necessarily newsworthy but determine the shape of our lives. Politicians fit themselves into that and forget about their long-term aims and principles.

We’re seven years on from the financial crisis now and the vast majority of political discussion is still framed by austerity and fear of the deficit, as well.

You’re quite right. The antidote to it, I feel, should have been for Labour to come out and denounce austerity as a con, and demonstrate why it is a con. It’s very easy to do. There’ve been plenty of situations where Britain has had a far worse economic balance than we have today, and yet we were able to engage in radical public spending that transformed the nation in a positive fashion. There are plenty of financial instruments we could call on to make austerity redundant, even if we do accept the need to reduce the deficit so rapidly. For example, land value taxation or financial transactions tax. Why isn’t Labour putting these front and centre? Of course, when it comes to austerity and the deficit, the Conservatives are going to do it more effectively than Labour can, because that’s their whole shtick.

What are your thoughts on what local devolution should look like?

Both this government and the previous government have really been offering fake devolution. They’ve been talking a great talk about how power should be devolved to communities, but without actually devolving real power. What we need to see is almost starting at the other end. It’s not so much, ‘What can government hand down to local authorities?’ but to picture it as if you were starting from scratch. What could the local community – way below the level of the local authority – make use of?

I would start with the power of development. You take it out of the hands of the developers and the volume house builders and the supermarkets and the planners, and you basically hand as much of it as you can to the local community, and say, ‘You design the new estates. You work out where the green spaces are going to be.’ This tends to produce far better developments than this helicopter model of the big volume house builders coming in and saying, ‘Right, you’re having this. Take it or leave it.’ Then you sort of build it up from there, to issues like the People’s Budgets, which they have in Porto Alegre [in Brazil], for example. If you follow that through, you’ll see that there’s a huge number of functions currently in the hands of the government which could be much better discharged by communities at one level and local authorities at another level.

monbiot.com

Sam Walby