Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this rather intense window on the front lines of climate activism. Reading it was a vicarious thrill for me. I do what I can—we’re all doing what we can, as many in the US have been telling ourselves frequently over the past five months in order to maintain our sanity. Reckoning is one of the things I’m doing. But what you’re doing strikes me as more—more powerful, more visceral, more direct—and reading about it is inspiring.
Would you tell me a little about how you got started in this kind of activism?
George: A decade ago, I used to live in Malaysia, working on a drug rehabilitation programme in a little kampung in the jungles. It was famous for being one of the last hide-outs of the Communist partisans during the Emergency. The drive from Kuala Lumpur to Batu Arang used to take a side-road through a vast expanse of reserved forest. You could feel the air cool as you turned off the highway, the sudden chill humidity of the under-canopy sheltering the van from the oppressive heat of the equatorial sun.
One time, we went back that way, and behind a gigantic, authoritative sign announcing severe fines for illegal logging, suddenly we saw the vicious brown scar of red soil. We stopped the van. For miles in every direction, the tangled, virgin forest had been cleared. It had been flayed to the bone—only barren red soil stretching over terraces and hills into the distance. The sun beat mercilessly down. We shook our heads in silence.
Afterwards, every time we drove down that road, we saw hordes of hungry monkeys lined up along the motorway, their babies clinging to them, their prehensile hands toying with bits of trash and the scraps that passing cars fed them. Their home had succumbed to the relentless march of development, and what had been a flourishing forest had been reduced to a desert of rubber plantations. Now they sit, in families and packs, watching the cars driving by, waiting for someone to fling a bundle of half-eaten fast food to them on the roadside.
After that, I decided to get more involved.
I reject the label activist as the language creates a false dichotomy. I don’t consider ‘non-activists’ as ‘passivists’. For me, it is about choosing sides, and there are extremely ‘activist’ people on the other-side—venture capitalists, lobbyists, politicians—all extremely active.
Environmental justice for me is rooted in anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and explicitly anarchist struggle. The reduction of our environmental heritage, ecosystem and indeed the life support systems of Gaia to commodities, markets, services and resources is representative of how autodestructive, cannibalistic and, to be melodramatic, pure evil capitalism is. I realise this is not how everyone views it. That is fine. That is their choice.
Michael: How did you first realize the need for this kind of story to be told?
George: There needs to be a record of the struggle—a Peoples’ History—for posterity and for us. I started writing about squatting in London—the subject of my first book Total Shambles—because we identified that there was a dearth of current creative nonfiction on the subject and a need to find new ways to engage emotionally as well as intellectually on the subject of housing. These were stories that we told one another verbally all the time, but there was no written record of them. Academic research and political rhetoric on squatting were well-covered, but we wanted to tell a personal, human story that connected with the social implications.
Afterwards, I realised that the most urgent issue that needs humanising is the struggle to save The Big House We All Live In—Mama Terra. Often issues around climate justice seem so huge, so overwhelming, so abstract, that people have difficulty connecting with it. Generally, we seem unwilling or unable to deal with the scale of the changes we need to make. This is why recycling is very popular, and the concept of not having children to save the planet less so. One of the great powers of creative nonfiction is to give people the experience of visiting a place like Hambachforst in their mind’s eye and spending time with the people and ideas that exist there. As you said, to enjoy it vicariously. My hope is that it is an uncathartic and dissatisfying experience, and leaves the reader with discomfort over their own complicity in the ongoing ecocide. Not you personally Michael, but the reader in general, myself included.
Michael: (Oh yes, me personally. Me too, absolutely. This is what your essay made me feel, uncomfortable and that I’m not doing enough. It’s how I feel all the time; it’s what I was getting at in the Reckoning 1 editor’s note about being incapable of editorial distance.)
Who was your inspiration?
George: The people who, to quote Ken Kesey, would rather be lightning conductors than seismographs. People living for years on protest sites, in treehouses, underground, people going to prison for defending forests, environmental defenders who are murdered in the course of their protest. (117 this year, as of July.)
All I do really is write stories and clumsily wander around places where people are literally dying to defend the planet. As mentioned in the story, Barry Horne was a big inspiration for the piece, and indeed, all of those people who have been living at Hambachforst and other protest camps across Europe and the world, putting life, limb and liberty at risk. George Monbiot is a fantastic environmental and political writer, and advocates using different modes of language to try and engage with more people on these issues, and for my part, if I can find new ways to communicate, connect and captivate people, then that feels worthwhile.
Michael: What would you say to the criticism that this kind of activism is too out-there, that it alienates and interferes with the cause being taken seriously by a moderate majority?
George: As Howard Zinn said, ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. I respect a diversity of tactics, and would agree that direct action will always upset a certain section of moderates, mainly as it highlights their own complacency. I strongly advocate individual responsibility and autonomy to decide their level of involvement. I would probably endeavour to enter into a dialogue with them on the matter and discuss the severity of the situation currently—
THE PLANET IS DYING. IT’S FUCKING DYING RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. ITS BURBLING ON BLOODY VOMIT, CRASHED OUT ON THE PAVEMENT, CRYING LIKE A CRIPPLED DEER AFTER YOU HIT IT WITH YOUR CAR.
—I’d probably discuss with them the statistic that 50% of the world’s wildlife has died off in the last four decades. That we are entering the 6th great mass extinction and that it is intimately connected to human activity. That by 2050 there will be more weight by plastic in the oceans than fish—
TURN ON A FUCKING TV. HOUSTON IS LITERALLY UNDERWATER IN A ‘ONCE IN CENTURY STORM’. THERE ARE GIANT RAFTS OF FIRE ANTS FLOATING THROUGH IT. HELLISH GREAT FIRE ANT ISLANDS RIDING THE FLOOD WATERS. 12 YEARS AFTER NEW ORLEANS WAS FLATTENED. HAVE YOU BEEN TO MIAMI? WELL GO NOW BECAUSE IT WILL BE PERMANENTLY 3 FOOT DEEP IN A DECADE—
I would argue that ‘extreme’ actions such as the occupation of forests and violent attacks on machinery used to destroy our forests and oceans helps further involve and inspire the mainstream moderates, rather than alienating them. Once people see how far people are willing to go, they hopefully begin to question whether they are doing enough by recycling, or marching in a protest, or living in a treehouse in a 12,000 year old forest, or lying down in front of a bulldozer.
ALL CARS ARE TARGETS IN A RIOT. THE WORST DECISION YOU CAN MAKE FOR THE PLANET IS TO BREED. YOU ARE WHY THE AIR AND THE WATER AND THE FOOD WE EAT IS POISON. THERE IS NO FUTURE ONLY THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE—
Or perhaps I would just sigh in exasperation and save my breath. If people cannot see the value and necessity of ‘this kind of activism’ then I am not one to try and change their mind, only to point out the other options.
OPEN YOUR FUCKING EYES THE MODERATE MAJORITY IS MODERATELY MASSACRING THE ENTIRE WORLD WITH MEDIOCRITY. WARGH! WARGH! FUCK YOU
The moderate majority won’t remain so moderate when the food riots start, but meanwhile it’s important to maintain one’s sanity.
Michael: What have you been up to since Hambach Forst? What are you doing next?
George: I try to remain upbeat in the face of an ongoing climate catastrophe. I’m writing a new book all about that merry mission called Good Times In Dystopia. It covers our adventures of the last 3 years, including our recent return to Hambachforst in July 2017, where we were subsequently arrested, strip-searched, and robbed of 100 Euros by the local cops for having a picnic in the wrong place.
We also recently visited Bialowiezca forest, which is the last primeval forest in Europe, a world heritage site, and currently being logged. Of course it is.
We spent most of 2016 squatting some disused offices above a fried chicken shop in the very centre of London. During that time there were ongoing terrorist attacks, including one directly on our street, as well as the ones in Paris, Belgium, and beyond, as well as the ongoing state-terror and bombing campaigns overseas. During that time hundreds of thousands more people were displaced by war, famine and climate collapse, and during that time countless millions more plastic bottles, toothbrushes, iPods, condoms, hairbrushes, floss, and trainers were created, a few billion more barrels of oil extracted, fracking became an acceptable way to get more natural resources out of the ground, the UK voted to leave the EU, and Delerium Tremens was elected President in the US.
For 8 months, me and Mierda devoted ourselves to organising an exhibition—OUROBOROS—at a proper gallery in London. We went fully legit. We brought together over 30 artists with experience of social exclusion—homeless, LGBTQ+, persons with mental health issues, differently abled, migrants—to exhibit artworks as a creative response to the destruction of nature, consumerism, oppression and capitalism. We got funding from the Arts Council. It subsumed every waking minute of our lives for that whole time. We opened the first night with over 300 hundred people in attendance, with noise acts designed to be interactive for members of the Deaf community, visual arts with volunteer interpreters for the visually impaired, sculptures made from old car tires and paintings on gender politics and habitat destruction, photographs of abandoned buildings and shadow theatre performances about migration. It ended in a small riot, and the next morning the gallery shut us down. We took it that the moderate majority wasn’t ready for what we were trying to do, and that we were to remain excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps, as you suggested, we had succeeded in alienating them, as they have alienated us.
Faced with such a world, I have begun taking refuge in Absurdism—the act of living defiantly in a universe that has no meaning, within which our every action is essentially futile, except that very act of defiance.
I’ll finish with two quotes from Albert Camus which I use to frame my daily experience and my expectations for the future. Perhaps also just to prove how ultimately pretentious I am.
The first: The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
And the second: The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.