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The Quantitative Cosmology
The Historical Precedent for George Monbiot's Worldview and its Implications Today
“Too many green quants, then, and not enough green poets? I think so. Or rather, I think that the poets have been cowed into silence by the dominance and urgency of the quants’ narrative. How to reassert the importance of stories, then, is perhaps a key question now. Green poets might perhaps start by observing that worlds are not ‘saved’ by the same stories that are killing them. They might want to observe that saving worlds is an impossible business in the first place, and that attempting to do so is likely to lead to some very dark places. Or they might try and explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to this, time and time again, arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away.” — Paul Kingsnorth, The Quants and The Poets
“One of the Greatest Threats to Life on Earth is Poetry”
I recently watched a video which explained a rather interesting phenomenon that I had never heard of: that it’s impossible to measure coastlines and borders. This is called the “coastline paradox” and it was discovered by an English mathematician named Lewis Fry Richardson in 1950. He was researching the possible effect of border lengths on the probability of war when he noticed that there was a massive discrepancy between the reported length of the border between Portugal and Spain from each country. This discrepancy surprised him, because surely the perimeter of a finite area should be able to measured accurately, right?
Wrong, apparently. What happens is that when you start to measure a coastline or a border, from the point-of-view of a satellite, for example, it’s not possible to see all of the curves and variation in the land, so you have to zoom in. You may start measuring with a 100 kilometer ruler, and then as the picture becomes more clear and the complexity of the coastline becomes more obvious, you may have to shrink the ruler down to 50 kilometers. As is shown in the video, measuring Great Britain, if you halve the ruler, the length of the coastline increases. This will continue happening as you try to make the measuring stick more accurate by shrinking it. The “coastline paradox” is most pronounced in the mathematical certainty that you can shorten the length of your measuring stick down to the length of an atom, and the result will be a coastline that is infinity kilometers long. This mathematical problem (known as fractals) arises even before the consideration that the world is in constant flux (erosion and rising sea levels, as an example) and that everywhere, all the time, the Earth is transforming itself anew.
Straight lines and perfect angles do not fit easily into the natural world. Math is, therefore, a rather blunt instrument to wield in an attempt to understand the planet on which we live. We can try with all of our might to force the coastline to conform to our rulers, but at the end of the day, the tides move with the moon. The Earth resists these attempts at quantification and simplification at every turn.
Yet, today we have a society that is nearly completely fixated on datasets, statistics, and numbers. Anecdotes, observations, and felt experience are devalued as irrelevant outliers in nearly every single realm of societal and ecological analysis. We live in a time where nothing is even considered to be real until there is sufficient data to back it up. The level of abstraction from material reality belies a deep disconnect, not only from our individual intuitive sense of the world, but also our collective disconnect from our broader place in the web of life. We are bombarded with numbers: these pseudocertainties that do more to obscure than to inform.
Let’s take an example. As far as greenhouse gases go, methane has been given the distinction as being worse than carbon due to its comparative global warming potential, or GWP. Many people who are reasonably concerned about climate change hear this and understandably think, “Okay, clearly we need to eliminate this boogey-man methane.” They subsequently learn that cattle and other ruminant animals produce methane during enteric fermentation, which is the process that animals with rumens undergo as the grass that they eat is eaten by bacteria in one of their stomachs (fermenting, creating gas), which the animal will then eat to continue living. These “burps” have become an object of interest and talking point for many animal and climate activists. Many of these same activists would like to see the end of all livestock farming, and the “rewilding” of the landscape to allow for wild animals to once again proliferate.
I, too, would love to see more wild animals in the world. However, what is rarely, if ever, addressed is the fact that in a “rewilded” world, methane emissions from animals will not necessarily decrease, as the animals that would supposedly replace them (elk, moose, deer, wildebeest, giraffes, etc) are also ruminants and therefore also produce methane as a natural side affect of them eating.
So, we land at a conundrum. Methane has more global warming potential than carbon, yet the animals we all wish to see return to landscapes produce methane. There have already been calls in Norway to more severely manage moose populations due to methane emissions in the past. Now, the calls have shifted to culling them more intensely because they tend to eat deciduous saplings in clear-cuts (yes, from the lumber industry), which could eventually be potential storage for carbon. Yet, at the same time, moose foraging increases surface albedo (the reflection of heat from the sun) which increases cooling. Whether the animals are allowed to live or die depends largely on a math equation. Does this cooling provide enough of an offset in emissions from them eating as they have done for 2 million years to justify their continued existence? Only data scientists and researchers can know the answer to such a conundrum, apparently.
One of the best examples of this dilemma in accounting is the example of the Sudd Wetland in South Sudan, which is one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world. In 2019, YaleEnvironment360 reported that during the years 2010-2016 there was a massive increase in global methane emissions, and many climate researchers didn’t know where they came from. What atmospheric scientists discovered was that during that time, there were dam releases in the headwaters of the Nile which released tons of water into the Sudd Wetland, which led to an increase in plant growth and soil microbial activity. “Researchers estimate that wetlands in Africa’s tropics could account for up to a third of the spike in global methane emissions between 2010 and 2016, with most of this coming from the Sudd,” the article reads (emphasis mine).
This ecosystem is home to crocodiles, hippos, elephants, zebras, and shoe-billed storks rely on this wetland for their migrations. It also hosts one of the largest antelope migrations in the world.1 So, is methane a boogeyman, or not? Can we easily assign qualitative value to it? The issue is that, in all of these examples, we have people quantifying things that have objectively qualitative variables. The quantity of methane can’t be converted into a qualitative analysis because its role in the environment is complex. Is it even possible to invent a value that compares the benefit of this wetland with the amount of methane it is emitting? Is there a way to determine with accuracy the "offset" potential of such so-called "ecosystem services"?
Is that even the right question?
Still, scientists are concerned enough about the methane from wetlands to consider draining them in the name of climate change.2 Like the attempt to measure coastlines or borders, or trying to understand the ecological crisis through measurable values alone, it’s important to consider all that is left out of the accounting. As I’ve said before, it’s dangerous to implement such reductionistic thinking onto problems as complex as climate change, mass extinction, and ecocide. It’s insufficient to fixate on things that are easily measured while ignoring things that resist reductionistic measurement. Biodiversity, as an example, can be measured by the counting of individuals in a given plot of land, but what is much more challenging to measure, and is arguably more important, is the relationships between all of the individuals. How does the ecosystem function as an interconnected community of those individuals? That will be challenging to put into words, let alone into numeric value.
In the world today, we might take for granted the value of mathematics and science for it’s undeniable advancements to technology and therefore our society. People shout from the mountaintops to “believe” in science, putting signs in their yards and bumper stickers on their cars to declare so.
Yet, I think we’re in a strangely regressive time if science is something to “believe” in, which is only evidenced by the fact that it’s controversial for me to even say so. Science is a measurement tool— it’s a framework of inquiry, not the inquiry itself.
On a daily basis I see us further devaluing the “evidence of our eyes and ears” in order to ratify our belief in science. We use numbers to justify our points of view from obscure datasets that are constantly shifting as we begin to understand more what we are measuring and not measuring. We’re all speaking in this newspeak of percentages and abstractions in an attempt to validate our worldview and obfuscate our complicity in the mess we’re all in. No one can seem to agree on the numbers, yet without wielding them, our worldview is considered backwards and ignorant. Any attempts to understand the world outside of this paradigm is regressive, romantic, and overly poetic.
The extremis of this disdain for extra-empirical understanding can be summed up in George Monbiot’s unflinching statement near the end of his book, Regenesis:
“One of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry.”3
It’s quite a statement. If you haven’t heard of George Monbiot, who is a regular writer for the Guardian with more than half a million followers on Twitter, you might soon. A prominent vegan environmental activist, Monbiot has a relatively outsized influence on the direction of our food system and his point of view is explicitly anti-livestock and pro-technology.
Monbiot has recently linked up with an organization called RePlanet to promote a new movement, Reboot Food, which aims to transform and “revolutionize” the food system with technology. Precision fermentation, creating proteins from microbes, they claim, is the solution to feeding, and saving, the world.
It’s a compelling video, and it rightly shows some of the horrors of conventional animal agriculture. But, when I first saw this video, I was struck by the insinuation that the reason people don’t want to eat this food is because it’s unusual. What I saw was not a strange glob of bacteria that made me uneasy to think of eating— no, I saw the expanse of the industrial food system and the corporations at its helm luxuriating in the opportunity to diversify, yet again. I saw more chronic disease from processed foods. I saw more factories, more machines. I saw a glimpse into a future that concerns me deeply.
I knew I needed to read his book, Regenesis, to really see what his point of view was and where it came from. What astonished me most was how rigorous his analysis of the food system was, and how much I agreed with his assessments. How, I wondered, was it possible for him to be so clear on how disastrous our global food system is… to then end up here, with precision fermented factory-food as the solution?
It was so confounding to me that we could come to such wildly different conclusions from such an agreement about the global food system that I couldn’t just ignore it. As I read, I could sense there was something deeper that would cause such a cavernous expanse between our conclusions. And then I read this, near to the end of the book, which said it all:
“It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production.”4
It’s time we became obsessed by numbers.
Doing this project over the last 3 years, I’ve come to realize the danger (a word I’m not using lightly) of relying on numbers, data, and statistics to form our understanding of the living world. It’s no secret that I believe our collective hyper-fixation on carbon as the-root-of-all-evil is a dangerous obfuscation that distracts us from dealing with the ecological crisis, and I believe we fixate on it because we can measure it. Ecosystem health, biodiversity, shifting baseline syndrome, trophic cascade, co-evolution, sacredness, connection, relationships— these are much harder to measure, and are often left out of analysis completely.
Whether he’s aware of the epistemological genesis of the language and worldview he is deploying, his ultimate understanding of the food system, climate change (as an umbrella term), and what to do about it is emblematic of the scientism, reductionism, atomism, and the impulse to view the world in mathematical terms. This epistemology arose from a story that began long ago, and is one that people need to know.
This worldview, which was forged in flames of the Renaissance and lubricated by the first percolations of globalized corporatism, has now become fuel for an impenetrable technological machine. Though it was set into motion by the Scientific Revolution, and has expanded its territory through colonialism and industrialism ever since, the fuel is the worldview, and the worldview started somewhere: it started with the idea that all of nature can and should be ordered, apprehended, measured, and numbered by Man.
If we want to persist into the future without destroying the web of life, we know we need to change. The endpoint of this worldview is what exists around us all today, which any person can see is a society covered in necrotizing wounds, destroying its own basis for life in a seemingly unconscious death-march. Yet, as Charles Eisenstein explains in Climate: A New Story:
“The totalizing quest to capture the world in number never succeeds. Something always escapes the metrics and the models: the unmeasurable, the qualitative, and what seems irrelevant. Usually, the judgement as to what is relevant encodes the intellectual biases of those doing the measuring, and often the economic and political biases too. You might say that what is left out is our shadow. Like many things we ignore or suppress, it roars back in the form of perverse, unforeseeable consequences. Thus, although it is the epitome of rationality to make decisions by the numbers, the results often appear to be insane.”5
As you’ll see in this piece, I agree with Monbiot about a great deal and I do not seek to demonize him. I seek to interrogate his worldview, because he is far from alone in believing this is the direction humanity should go, and it’s important for there to be debate and dialogue about this. Our agreements can only go so far as the assumptions and epistemologies that we derive our conclusions from. In this regard, we may be irreconcilably opposed. It’s important to me to illustrate why this epistemology exists and what it looks like now.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to try to understand our current predicament not just by describing what is happening now, but by going far enough back to get a clear idea of where we came from. Bear with me: this history is long, and its expression today is immense. This is going to be a long one.
So, where did this “quest to capture the world” begin?
A Mathematic Worldview
Since the times of Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, philosophers had speculated that there was an inherent mathematical quality to the world. Looking up toward the heavens, the ancients watched the sun, moon, and stars and their seeming rotations around the earth and made the determination that we lived in a geocentric universe, which became central to the Aristotelian cosmology. This cosmology specified that the ellipses of the planets were circular, and the Earth was stationary at the center of the universe. This geocentric model had long been concretized by the time Ptolemy, a Roman mathematician and astronomer, arose to acclaim. For hundreds of years, Hellenistic astronomers took for granted the Earth-centered universe, but it wasn’t until Ptolemy established a working mathematical paradigm, called the Almagest, that astronomers had a collection of mathematical tools to predict the position of the planets, as well as explain the Aristotelian cosmology. This treatise would be the most authoritative text on astronomy across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East for over a thousand years.
Very quickly, however, mathematical discrepancies began to arise. The demand that the planets and the stars orbit in perfect circles around the Earth created a mess of irregularities, which then had to be further explained away by certain mathematical caveats, such as epicycles, eccentrics, equants, and all manner of equations to explain these anomalies.6 The differing speed of the planets, and planetary retrogrades all had corresponding Ptolemaic explanations.
It wouldn’t be until before the Protestant Reformation that Copernicus would be pouring over these Ptolemaic equations, riddled with inaccuracies that had only compounded over the past thousand years, that he started to wonder if there was a fundamental error at the center of the way astronomers had been thinking about the universe. Copernicus knew the danger of such a revelation, but primed with a “Pythagorean conviction that nature was ultimately comprehensible in simple and harmonious mathematical terms,” he took the risk to innovate the system with the sun at the center of the universe, and “mathematically worked out the implications.”7
Initially, the Catholic Church did not balk at such an innovation, but with the antagonism of the Protestant Reformation, a paranoia and revived orthodoxy compelled the Church to eventually reject Copernicus’s findings. It became the belief that the idea of Earth moving around the sun posed a fundamental threat to the Christian cosmology. If the Earth was not the stationary center of the universe and was nothing more than a “wandering star”— Creation and the plan of salvation were thrown into doubt. “The absolute uniqueness and significance of Christ’s intervention into human history seemed to require a corresponding uniqueness and significance for Earth,” Richard Tarnas explains in The Passion of the Western Mind. Still, Copernicus’s book on the matter was eventually published, albeit as a forbidden and highly technical treatise that few people could even read.
In spite of its obscurity, when Kepler and Galileo got their hands on it, it spoke to them as a text that not only further explained the mathematical qualities of the cosmos, but also saw that the Copernican theory confirmed God’s glory rather than denying it. When Kepler adjusted the heliocentric theory to contain elliptical orbits rather than circular orbits, finally solving the problem of the heavens, he fulfilled the mission of the ancients to find genuine evidence for a mathematically ordered universe.8
“Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes — I mean the universe—but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.” — Galileo Galilei
According to Tarnas, Galileo “argued that to make accurate judgements concerning nature, scientists should consider only precisely measurable ‘objective’ qualities (size, shape, number, weight, motion), while merely perceptible qualities (color, sound, taste, touch, smell) should be ignored as subjective and ephemeral. Only by means of an exclusively quantitative analysis could science attain certain knowledge of the world.”9
While these astronomers and mathematicians were focused on apprehending the universe through the use of a new way of knowing, the newly created class of European merchants were apprehending the Earth, creating the first global corporate empires. “A new celestial world was opening up to the Western mind, just as a new terrestrial world was being opened by the global explorers,” Tarnas writes. European expansion and colonial power further reinforced the worldview that was growing at this time. The invention of Galileo’s telescope in 1609, represented a paradigm shift. The development of the telescope reinforced the idea that, in order to understand nature more clearly, we must distance ourselves from it through the use of instruments. The idea of a mechanical intermediary being necessary was only possible in light of the technological advancements that were co-occurring in the expansion of the globalized, corporate system.10 In The Reenchantment of the World, Morris Berman writes of this shift: “Separate yourself from nature so you can, as Descartes would later urge, break it into the simplest parts and extract the essence— matter, motion, measurement.” Though Galileo was famously subjected to house arrest until his death for his inventions and ideas, this concept, that measurement was the most important tool to understanding nature, would ultimately lead to the end of the Medieval way of knowing.
From Math to Mechanics: the Paradigm of Control
A new scientific paradigm had begun. Galileo had proved that instruments could be used to further understand the universe, and Kepler had proved that there was a mathematical order to everything.
This faith in the mathematic ordering of the world led René Descartes to wield his incredible mathematical prowess against all of the philosophical uncertainties that plagued human understanding. “For Descartes,” writes Tarnas, “mechanics was a species of a ‘universal mathematics’ by which the physical universe could be fully analyzed and effectively manipulated to serve the health and comfort of mankind. With quantitative mechanics ruling the world, an absolute faith in human reason was justified.”11 Therefore, he ultimately concluded that there was nothing that couldn’t be questioned apart from the disciplined rational mind. All else was uncertain, but at least this much was certain: Cogito, ergo sum— I think therefore, I am.12 This notion, that the rational mind is the only way to overcome uncertainty, led to a schism. Where before man was embodied, now there was an idea of consciousness being separate from matter. There was the rational mind and then there was the material world, which, by virtue of the rational observer, was an objective material world. Plants, animals, mountains, rivers, and stones were all objective and separate. The human animal represented the only creature that transcended this binary, as we are both physical beings as well as beings imbibed with consciousness.
This concept, that there was a distinction between the mind and body, spirit and matter, naturally led to the idea that the physical world was inherently measurable while also being inherently without consciousness. This lack of consciousness has lead to an objectification of matter, which helped to justify the burgeoning industry of plantation-based globalization. Qualitative and unmeasurable properties would be ignored in this paradigm, as Galileo said: only the objective and measurable would be considered, such as shape, number, weight, duration, and relative position. Things like beauty, sacredness, or other “human distortions” were removed from what was considered relevant to measure.13
While Francis Bacon disagreed with the idea that the human mind was an infallible arbiter of reason, he certainly believed in the supremacy of Man. Instead of relying on rationality, however, he sought an intermediary to be able to more accurately apprehend phenomena as objective validity was most important. This belief in the ability to measure everything invariably led to this notion of empiricism: of creating rigorous experiments to further measure and quantify natural phenomena. Bacon, who was supremely inspired by the expansion and control that was being exerted from colonial empires, sought to use this new methodology of experimentation to research the world, giving man “the understanding of nature necessary for its control.”14 For Bacon, the express goal of science was to control nature.
Hence, Descartes and Bacon were the twin pillars of a new epistemology which held that the universe was mechanical, and that rationalism and empiricism were the only two ways of knowing the universe. Thus, these seemingly oppositional ideas of the world become strange bedfellows. When combined, as Issac Newton would do, he was able to verify what appeared to be the laws of the universe under a mechanistic paradigm. The precession of the equinoxes, the laws of motion, the orbits of comets, and the movement of the tides could all be mathematically defined. “Descartes’s vision of nature as a perfectly ordered machine governed by mathematical laws and comprehensible by human science was fulfilled.”15
The expansion of global capitalism brought riches back to Europe which had never before been seen outside of nobility. Where before the only clock a person would engage with would be the clocktower in town, which rang each hour, always reminding people of time lost, now it was common for people to carry pocket watches. Time was, before the invention of the mechanical clock, largely seen as cyclic and based on the seasonal and luminary rhythms of nature. Now, in the 17th century, time was seen as numbers relating to the arms of a machine.16 As humans started making more machines and living among them, we started to consider that “all physical phenomena can in essence be comprehended as machines.”17
As a species who now commonly describes our psyches as circuit boards, or our bodies as machines (common technological tools of our time) it should not be surprising that the philosophers and thinkers of the Scientific Revolution would begin to think of the universe as a giant clock —a massive mechanism that could be understood and measured— which also connoted a linear progression of time. The machines informed the worldview, and now, “History was not cyclical, as was supposed by the ancients, but progressive, for man now stood at the dawn of a new, scientific civilization.”18
To see nature as mechanism is an example of technology reinforcing culture reinforcing technology and on and on, but it’s important to note the economic feature of this as well. Colonial occupation expanded, creating a middle class in Europe for the first time. Machines, albeit rudimentary at this time, became an essential aspect of the modes of production, as well as an object to carry around in the form of a pocket watch. “Once technology and economy became linked in the human mind,” Berman writes, “the mind started to think in mechanical terms, to see mechanism in nature.”19
The Newtonian-Cartesian cosmology thus saw the Creator as a “divine architect, a master mathematician and clock maker” and dictated that, by virtue of Man’s intelligence, “he had penetrated the universe’s essential order and could now use that knowledge for his own benefit and empowerment.”20 This notion, coupled with the utilitarian, utopian, technological society that Bacon wrote about in The New Atlantis, whether we are aware of it or not, has persisted to this day.
An Unconscious Quantitative Cosmology
“It is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modeling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a ‘cause’ — a cause that is something and not everything— and that we can best understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables.” - Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story21
As Berman illustrates in The Reenchantment of the World, we’ve been caught in a feedback loop since the Scientific Revolution whereby we start by “regarding nature arithmetically”: reducing its parts down and simplifying its conditions to conduct experiments. That leads us to then believe that we have “mastery over nature and its resources through rational calculation”— since we are able to objectify it, we are then able to utilize it. Then we get to the “creation of wealth, credit, and individual success” that defines capitalism and the globalized commodity system, and the feedback loop continues to reinforce itself from there.22
The quantification and abstraction leads to objectification which leads to utilitarianism which leads to standardization which leads to commodification and finally to the financialization of all of nature. Understanding the world through this lens puts distance between us and the environment, as well as dangerously simplifying and reducing the complex relationships that exist within culture and ecology.
It’s undeniable that the tools of mathematics, empiricism, and science broadly have allowed for immeasurable technological innovations. But as the telescopes are improving, and we’re able to see black holes, nebulas, and parts of the universe the ancients couldn’t have dreamed of seeing, light pollution has become so bad that most of us never see the stars. The impact that not seeing the stars has on us cannot be measured, and will likely never be measured, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. No matter how you slice it, this Quantitative Cosmology has come with a profound cost.
Again, from Regenesis:
“It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production.”23
Implicit in his framing seems to be a belief that that’s not what we’re already doing and have been doing for ages — that an obsession with numbers would be a novel, new paradigm. I hope I’ve illustrated that isn’t the case. Hell, some of the very first writing to ever exist are Cuneiform tablets counting wheat yields. In Climate: A New Story, Eisenstein writes, “To those wedded to the quantitative approach to problem-solving, any failure of quantification is to be remedied with even more quantification.” Implicit in Monbiot’s statement is that the problem is, we haven’t yet ordered nature enough.
This statement doesn’t just come out of nowhere, though. As previously mentioned, in the final chapters of Regenesis, George Monbiot makes a point to say that he believes “one of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry.” This is in response to an essay by Paul Kingsnorth titled The Quants and the Poets, where Kingsnorth makes the case that the environmental movement has been subsumed by technocrats myopically fixated on climate change and carbon emissions, which really looks like “business-as-usual without the carbon.”
He describes how the green movement has “torpedoed itself with numbers” and laments about how reductionistic the current cultural moment is. He explains how nothing is considered to be “real” unless it is “sanctioned by the priesthoods of either Science or Business, preferably both.” He speaks of the solutioneering greens as continuously offering up “remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly.”
“These days, the green movement is being taken over by quants. It’s easy to see why. Quants present easy, numbered, labelled arguments which may sometimes require a maths degree but don’t require a rewiring of your worldview or an examination of your narrative. A green quant might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm, but he’s not asking you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology. And if you talk to him about this, it is very easy indeed for him to laugh and tell you loftily that this is all very nice but is hardly comparable to the serious business of saving the world one emission at a time.”
Monbiot seems to have written Regenesis, in part, as a response to critique. He even coyly proclaims that his book could be seen as “the Revenge of the Quants.” While he appears to be self-conscious by this admission, I’m not so sure he is. Clearly, the underlying mythology is a quantitative one. It’s one that believes the solution always exists in analyzing the numbers: in apprehending the world through mathematics.
But, like Copernicus pouring over Ptolemy’s Almagest, reading Regenesis, I can’t help but think there is a fundamental error in his thinking, and that error is the quantitative worldview.
Regenesis in a Nutshell
Generally speaking, Regenesis is a book about agriculture and how it’s destroying the planet. He’s not wrong in that assessment, and he actually gives a really thorough and compelling explanation of its fragility and unsustainability in the book. Where I think he is wrong, however, is on the epistemological level.
Monbiot is a self-proclaimed empiricist, and that stands out in the book. It’s riddled with facts and figures, which are not entirely useless, but I believe the “obsession with numbers” offers a shroud from the discomfort of complexity, uncertainty, and complicity. This is evidenced to me most by a passage where he describes the difference between what his grandmother, who was born in 1911, recognized as food and what he eats.
He starts off by explaining his childhood visits to her house where they would catch fresh trout and gather mushrooms, or they would go to her friend’s houses and neighboring farms for raw milk and eggs. He goes on to list all of the foods she would have eaten, and nearly all of them would have been caught/slaughtered/collected locally, engendering a reciprocal relationship between the people in her community, as well as tying her biologically and psychologically to the land. Nearly everything seems to be a whole food or homemade from scratch, requiring practical knowledge to procure. Monbiot states she is everything a “nostalgic foodie would celebrate.”24
He then goes on to talk about how “disgusting” his grandmother’s food was, and how “miserable” the world would be if we ate what she recognized as food. Following this, he describes what can only be understood as a diet which requires the global food system to be fully intact, with access to year-round industrial monocultures from all over the world: his diet. In one day of vegan meals, he describes consuming dozens of ingredients that I would have to assume cannot be grown (or at the very least are unlikely to be grown, due to comparative advantage) in England. May I remind you, this is after he spends an entire book talking about how destructive the global food system is.
He triumphantly declares that his diet has a “lower environmental impact” than his grandmother’s, which is just completely nonsensical. Only under the influence of a quantitative worldview can you at once criticize the unsustainability of global food system and then position your completely globalized diet as more sustainable than your grandmother’s localized villager diet. It only adds up if you define your reality by what has been measured and make extrapolations from there. It only adds up if you are deliberately abstracting your own innate sense of reality.
I have to assume that the reason he believes his diet is more environmentally friendly comes from how terrible conventional animal agriculture is as far as GHGs, which is likely not how his grandmother got meat at all. He doesn’t include a citation in this passage of the book, but this Our World in Data analysis, which shows that conventionally raised livestock have more of a carbon footprint than plant-based foods, is widely shared among plant-based advocates and offers an interesting look into the sort of quantitative cosmology that he’s presenting.
This figure obscures a frightening amount of qualitative reality. Take this example: “Nuts have a negative land use change figure because nut trees are currently replacing croplands: carbon is stored in the trees,” it says. Only in crazy world does anyone look at the Central Valley of California and think: this is fine. It doesn’t matter that all of the aquifers are being drained to the point that locals can’t drink from their taps because the groundwater has become so polluted with pesticides and arsenic. It doesn’t matter that nothing can live among these orchards because of how many pesticides are sprayed. It doesn’t matter that this landscape used to be the largest wetland in the West. The trees are sequestering carbon!
For livestock, the two main reasons it scores so badly on the GHG test is because of methane and land-use. If you’ll remember from the beginning, I explained how methane is part of a biogenic process. In fact, this new analysis shows that GHGs from pastoralist systems and “wild” systems are basically equivalent. So what is the relevant measure here, really? In addition to the complex interconnected ecological relationships that these metrics always leave out, using this sort of reductionism, Monbiot can obscure the existence of bilge dumping, of wage slavery, of corporate supply chains, eutrophication, and all other negative externalities that come from the global food system. Without a number, they don’t exist.
Another example of this sort of reasoning can be found in Monbiot’s article, entitled “The most damaging farm products? Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb,” where he vehemently advocates against pasture-raised/regenerative/holistically managed meat. Using the figure of carbon, he shows how much better soy is than beef. What is obviously left out is the vast differences in human and planetary health outcomes, which are much harder to measure.
Beyond methane (understood as a carbon equivalent), the raison d'être for Monbiot’s disdain for livestock is land-use. In his mind, based on the data he is looking at, he seems to believe that expanding regenerative pasture-fed meat production inherently means that agricultural sprawl will spread, causing deforestation. As REGENETARIANISM has pointed out, in Regenesis he uses data from proponents of continuous grazing (where cattle are in a pasture without rotation for an extended period of time without giving the plants time to rest) to “debunk” holistic management, which is strange considering how damaging continuous grazing actually is. One only needs to go to a continuously grazed field and then to a holistically managed field to understand the difference.
Land-use is the single “most important of all ecological metrics in farming” according to Monbiot.25 But, like methane, land-use is not as simple as activists like Monbiot would like us to believe. Some landscapes are suffering from undergrazing. Holistic management allows stocking densities to increase on the same amount of land. Water infiltration and wild biodiversity improve in these sorts of systems. But the numbers say that soy produces less carbon, so it must be better, right? These numbers that are shared so widely, which are completely decontextualized from reality, all point to the need to eliminate livestock.
The common thread here is that Monbiot consistently refers to statistics, data, and reductive reasoning to make and justify his claims. In a process that would surely bring joy to Descartes, anything qualitative is left out. The biodiversity increasing on a landscape is irrelevant without the data to back it up. Human-coupled ecological processes that are happening globally all the time are essentially dismissed on the grounds of “pics or didn’t happen.” (Although, even if you have the pics, Monbiot doesn’t seem to care.)
Yet, if you spend your time fixating on the data, you’d be under the impression that the world is constantly being deforested for livestock alone and that the moment you put a cow on the land, the land degrades. You’d also be under the impression that the world’s problems will magically be resolved by their extermination. That’s not how the world actually works, and it’s far more complex than that in nearly every way. Livestock farming needs a reckoning, absolutely, but the method he ultimately prescribes confounds the mind completely.
I said before that when we fixate on numbers, we are able to hide from complexity, uncertainty, and our complicity in the problem. In Climate: A New Story, Charles Eisenstein describes how when we feel this discomfort, we unconsciously seek out a “reasonable candidate for ‘the cause’ and going to war against that.” He goes on to say, “That moment of humble, powerless unknowing, where the sadness of an ongoing loss washes through us and we cannot escape into facile solutioneering, is a powerful and necessary moment.”26 (emphasis mine)
We all want salvation in a world where the problems seem to compound more and more every day. It’s an understandable impulse, but a dangerous one. It’s an impulse that we have to fight against constantly, otherwise we may become complacent. Otherwise we might start to believe that the problem is solvable by “micro-consumerist bollocks,” as Monbiot himself calls this sort of solutioneering. And make no mistake, while it’s a “tall order,” replacing the world’s animal products with factory-made precision-fermented protein and fat, as is the solution at the conclusion of Regenesis, is just that: yet another consumerist “solution.”
Precision Fermentation: the Farmfree Future
As previously stated, Reboot Food, which Monbiot is a figurehead of, is an organization whose mission-statement is the “techno-ethical shift” of replacing all animal-sourced foods with precision fermentation.
Simply, precision fermentation is a process by which genetically engineered microorganisms are brewed, which causes them to multiply until eventually you get a protein powder that can then be 3D printed into “chicken nuggets, burgers, sausages, and other processed meats.”27 More specifically, it’s the combination of a single microbe with carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen (molecules from the air), and nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium (nutrients that are found in plants).28 Using electricity, these microbes are then fermented in sterilized vats in a process that is apparently "20% more efficient than photosynthesis," according to Solar Foods, the company mentioned in Regenesis.
So, essentially it’s the rumen of a cow with extra steps and tons of electricity.
You can watch the company’s description of this process in this video. “To be sustainable,” they say at the end of the video, “we are following nature’s playbook. We just like to do it a little bit more efficiently.” Efficiently, you say?
According to Monbiot’s own calculations, this solution he’s proposing (to have all protein come from this process) would increase the world’s electricity demand by 11%.29 I’ll give him credit for including this metric in the book, and for describing the caveats of “the steel, copper, lithium, cobalt, rare earths and other minerals required to build generators and transport and store electricity,” but he claims these negative externalities should be weighed against the “savings in equipment and fuel used for ploughing, drilling, spraying and harvesting, housing and moving livestock, slaughtering them and processing their meat.”30 Again, we’re faced with a math equation: how much “good” will offset the “bad”? What does the math say about whether the moose deserves to live or die? Should we drain the wetland, or not?
There is infinitely more left out of this analysis than is included. As an example, in the case of electric vehicles, this obscenely titled article,“How much mining is needed to save the planet?,” shares that the International Energy Agency has concluded that “117 lithium, cobalt and nickel mines would have to open to feed the EV market by 2030.” And that’s not including the mining needed for all of the other materials for EVs, so it’s challenging to even comprehend the level of destruction to increase electricity production, which is absolutely dominated by coal and natural gas, by 11%.
This seriously begs the question, do we even have enough Earth to create this so-called “farmfree” future? How will we “rewild” landscapes when an untold (and unfathomable) amount of land will be taken up for an industry that not only destroys the land, but displaces human settlements and wildlife, poisons groundwater and rivers, and is functionally dependent on the fossil fuel industry? What about the land taken over to create this entirely new industry that will likely require thousands of mega factories? There’s no free lunch in this world and we’ll never be able to make food “from thin air” like Solar Foods claims. Required nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium don’t come from nowhere. They come from places like this:
Numbers abstract, however. It’s easy to make concessions for the real-world impacts of something so drastic if your world is understood primarily through the intermediary of data. If you’ve never seen a lithium mine, it’s hard to imagine dozens of them, if not hundreds of them. The mining, mega-factories, nitrogen plants, and continued extraction of phosphorus, potassium, and calcium are not viewed as problems in the quest to eliminate livestock: they’re hardly mentioned at all.
The whole point of Regenesis is to ultimately uplift precision fermentation as the most sustainable, logical, and natural next step in our food evolution. More ultra-processed foods that require us to increase the world’s electricity production by 11% (which equates to somewhere between the consumption of the United States and India)31 is somehow more sustainable than localized agroecology or regenerative agriculture food systems? And if this is all run on renewable energy (which, of course he claims it will be), how much more mining and industry will be required for that? This only makes sense if you formulate your worldview on the basis of data and deny your innate intuition. Because my intuition tells me that none of this adds up.
It’s nearly impossible to comprehend a world that needs nearly another United States’ worth of electricity to invent an entirely new food system. Processed foods, corporate consolidation, and industrial agriculture are plaguing our societies and destroying the world, so the solution is more? Regardless of how many caveats Monbiot puts in his book about the necessity of this technology being safeguarded by anti-trust laws and produced “locally,” he seems to naively think it’s enough to assume that it will be. When has factory-produced food ever been democratic? When has it ever improved food security? It’s naive to think that this won’t become a “dystopian future of mega-factories.” There is already a food system in place which actually feeds people, and that is the small-scale agroecological food system. It is under constant threat of consolidation by corporations, and global coalitions of peasant farmers have been struggling to exist outside of the processed food/industrial paradigm for generations.
Throughout the first half of Regenesis, I agree with almost every assessment he makes of the global food system and its fragility. In George Monbiot’s TED Talk from 2019, he talks about the need for us to “reclaim the commons” and the need for decisions to be made at the local level— things I agree with wholeheartedly. This conclusion, however, is completely befuddling. How can a food system that requires this much infrastructure and energy to exist ever be democratic? How is a top-down organization like Reboot Food going to engender local autonomy? This food system, in his own manifesto, expressly eliminates livestock, which is one of the most effective ways for people to have food sovereignty.32 The elimination of livestock will never come from the bottom-up, it will only happen as a result of authoritarian edicts, as is happening in many countries right now. Is this just denial, or is it bad accounting?
In The Quants and the Poets, Kingsnorth writes of the psychic terror of our modern predicament:
“We have to lie to ourselves – to go into denial for the sake of our psychological health. So we might pretend to ourselves that ‘one more push’ (ie, doing the same thing yet again) may do the trick.”
As has been the case for millennia, denial and self-deception can be key features of ideology. In this case, Monbiot’s ideology is based first-and-foremost around his vegan identity. But his vegan identity is scaffolded and justified by the epistemological grounds that a mathematic, data-driven apprehension of the world is sufficient. On paper, veganism makes sense as the panacea to the world’s problems. It’s only when it’s practiced in the real world that it begins to fall apart, which was the impetus for this project.
Regardless of how anyone feels about this, all of these numbers have been used by Reboot Food and Monbiot alike to create a movement which abstracts the complexities and nuances of food production to a degree that justifies their narrative. Livestock, to them, are the single biggest cause of the 6th mass extinction, climate change— everything. Land-use is the single most important metric, no matter how the land is actually used. So, an alternative is needed. Rather than radically transform a food system that is already top-down, oppressive, and making people sick by promoting a local food movement, they aim to eradicate the one “cause” at all costs: even if the cost is the people and landscapes they are supposedly fighting for. You can’t magically decouple this Reboot Food system from all of the negative consequences of the globalized capitalist system. With a local food movement, you might actually be able to.
Coupled with ideology and denial, I think there is a deep discomfort in the truth, which is that everything about industrial civilization is destructive, and each horrible thing necessitates the next. It’s also uncomfortable to acknowledge that, in order to create a sustainable future, we have to deal with each problem in ways that don’t create a million more problems that will need to be solved, also known as “negative externalities” or “residue effects,” which I have written about previously.
As Charles Eisenstein wrote in Climate: A New Story:
“The habit of rushing to the most convenient, superficially obvious causal agent distracts us from a more meaningful response. It prevents us from looking underneath, and underneath, and underneath.”33
The Foundational Error
In one of Monbiot’s pieces, where he describes the problem of “micro-consumerist bollocks,” he writes that, “People who study complex systems have discovered that they behave in consistent ways. It doesn’t matter whether the system is a banking network, a nation state, a rainforest or an Antarctic ice shelf; its behaviour follows certain mathematical rules.” (emphasis mine) I followed his citation to this article in Nature which describes in incomprehensible detail (to me) a way to use mathematics to predict the collapse of complex systems. I’m not going to pretend to understand any of it, but what I can understand is in the limitations. It harkens to Monbiot’s call for us to be “obsessed with numbers” and measure everything with more efficiency and accuracy than ever before. It also harkens to the constant mathematical adjustments that astronomers had to make for a thousand years in order to utilize Ptolemaic concepts. But the most important detail, for me, is this: “The other crucial assumption behind our approach is the linearity of the dynamics.” The fundamental flaw, in this case, is this. A complex system is by nature not linear.
The flaw at the center of Ptolemy’s worldview was the presupposition that celestial bodies orbited the Earth. I can’t say for certain that the flaw at the center of the Quantitative Cosmology is quantification itself, but I do suspect the flaw has something to do with poetry, or the lack thereof.
I have always loved writing, ever since I was a child. It wasn’t until I was in English class in 11th grade that I really understood why. My teacher explained to the class that there was nothing objectively true or untrue in writing: if you could make a convincing case about what you thought a poet meant by a particular symbol, you were right. The world, therefore, was interpretative, complex, and subjective. It wasn’t that there was no such thing as truth, but rather there was a plurality or diversity of truths. Difference of opinion, difference of culture, difference of expression were all welcome. I felt liberated by this idea that the world was not as fixed as science and mathematics claimed it was. I was always more attracted to the social sciences for this reason as well. There was room for meaning-making outside of numbers.
I can understand why Monbiot bristled at Kingsnorth’s assertion that the world needs more poets and artists when right now the world is built for computer scientists and engineers. I understand why people think it’s antiquated or superstitious to have concern over the direction of this scientific ideology, but my entire reason for concern is that it’s an ideology. The Quantitative Cosmology is not as “rational” or “objective” as it claims to be.
Under the Quantitive Cosmology, anything that is “unfalsifiable” is merely irrational dogma or superstition, even though the cosmology itself stems from unfalsifiable assumptions about the world, such as its linearity or mathematic nature. Still, it’s the most powerful idea of the day because we’ve built our whole civilization around its underlying assumptions. Anyone who questions it is immediately dismissed, as the Church once dismissed Copernicus and Galileo. The script has just flipped this time around, and all I have to back it up is an awareness of history, human psychology, and my own sense of the world. As Paul Kingsnorth wrote, “we can’t peer-review our intuition, so our complaints don’t convince anybody who matters.”
The idea of the world as a giant clock set into motion (only now, by the Big-Bang) persists to this day, underneath it all. The epistemology of linear progress and a mathematical/mechanical universe is an ambient, yet omnipresent mythology. If I’m writing this piece for any reason at all, it’s to demystify the certainty of these epistemologies: it’s to ask what’s underneath, and what we may be missing in our measurements under this mental paradigm. Furthermore, when we implicitly believe in progress, we might neglect to look back to the knowledges of the past, or around us at the knowledges of the present that don’t align with this cosmology. In that hubris alone, we might truly cede our opportunity to know and belong to the Earth. We might cede our ability to heal it.
Copernicus wasn’t the first to propose the heliocentric model of the earth. It would take nearly 2000 years for the idea to take hold, which was first proposed by Aristarchus in the 3rd century BC, but was rejected because gravity was not yet understood. It wouldn’t be until later on, under a different paradigm that that knowledge could be integrated. If we believe we’re only moving forward in one direction, we may neglect to integrate knowledges that are imperative to our survival. Sometimes knowledge is re-membering what cultural biases prevented coming into popularity. It’s never quite as linear as we would like to think.
It’s not that we don’t continue the advancement of science. It’s not that we don’t continue measuring things: it’s that we recognize how reductionism flattens and disenchants our experience of the world. We have to understand how reductionism informs our worldview. These tools can be used, and are used by many of the smartest people I know, but they know these metrics represent only one small part of the story, not the story. Without a holistic point of view, tempered by humility, I believe that this “obsession” with numbers promotes an unconscious cognitive process that allows us to continue the objectification of the world. Viewing the world through the scientific method alone implicitly suggests that there can be a subject and an object, that relationships between things do not exist: that the world can be understood as a vacuum where linear, isolated events occur. Ecology tells us this is not the case. We just have to broaden the aperture of our awareness.
These brilliant thinkers of the Scientific Revolution were so convinced that the human mind was the arbiter of reality. The world, to them, was inert, dead, and purely material. Under these pretenses, we’ve laid waste to the world. We need to approach these tools with humility and understand that science is only a flashlight in the dark illuminating what we choose to measure, and that we effect what is measured by virtue of measuring it. Outside of that beam of light is a whole universe existing outside of our awareness. We can seek to explain away all of the mystery and uncertainty through math, or we can try to pay attention to it. We can try to be moved by the world and make our meaning outside of the intermediary of data. Additionally, we can, as Nora Bateson is doing in her Warm Data Labs at the International Bateson Institute, understand the importance of data being “transcontextual” and the need to expand our understanding to encompass all of the relationships that exist within and around that data.
This could be what Monbiot means when he asks, “Where are those who care about food, care about people, care about the living world, yet who also care about the maths?”34 I’m suspicious of this, however. Warm Data doesn’t seek to exclude poetry, which is qualitative, it seeks to integrate it as a foundational part of the data— as a valid way of making meaning.
Making meaning is really just telling stories. Telling stories helps us create a cosmology, which is mythic and not rational, and perhaps it isn’t supposed to be. In Monbiot’s TED Talk, he says that stories are a means of navigating the world. It’s the way we understand its “complex and contradictory signals.” He goes on to say, “When we want to make sense of something, the sense we seek is not scientific sense, but narrative fidelity. Does what we’re hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as a story should progress?”
In his mind, I think he sees Reboot Food and the technological advancement of agriculture as the obvious next chapter in this human story. The story is progressing as it should. The teleology of progress, efficiency, innovation, and continued mastery of the world and ourselves is explicit in the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, expressing itself through books like Regenesis. Thinking of Aristarchus, I don’t think that progress works that way. When I look around me and I see the emergence of animism, the return to the land, and the increasing respect for indigenous ways of knowing, I think “progress” is far more cyclic, which is a medieval understanding of time itself. I think the idea of progress being assured is merely an intellectual product of a 17th century way of understanding the world which grew up from advancements in technology and the global expansion of colonial capitalist accumulation. It’s an epistemology that was being confirmed at that time by these philosophers and scientists, but it was just one epistemology. It wasn’t actually how the world worked, or how the majority of people understood the world to work. This impression that progress is certain, that the importance of measurement is assured, and that technology is always improving could be a foundational error in our ability to understand the world, as the geocentric model was the foundational error in our ability to understand the heavens.
As Morris Berman writes in The Reenchantment of the World, “According to modern science, the further back in time we go, the more erroneous are men’s conceptions of the world. Our own knowledge, on this schema, is of course not perfect, but we are rapidly eliminating the few remaining errors that do exist, and shall gradually arrive at a fully accurate understanding of nature, free of animistic or metaphysical presuppositions.”35 With each scientific advancement, we’re always one step closer to cracking the code to the universe. We’re always one step away from utopia.
Given that this is the schema that has punctuated the past 400 years wherein the vast majority of ecocidal destruction and societal injustices have occurred, I think it’s important that we be critical of it and challenge its assumptions. After all, the notion of progress, efficiency, and Man’s supreme ability to order nature is what brought us industrialization to begin with.
“Where our thinking needs to be bold, complex and holistic, it has been siloed, blinkered, and incremental. We wonder how we might modify the industries that are driving us towards disaster, while the scale of our crisis demands that we replace them. Our challenge is not to tinker with existing models, but to discover the feedback loops that push them past their tipping points.” - George Monbiot, Regenesis36
Regenesis was a bizarre book for me to read due to quotes like this. On its surface, there’s nothing that I disagree with about this statement, but the devil is in the subtext. I’m wary of using the term “hypocrite” simply because I don’t think statements like this are consciously hypocritical. I think on some level, to write a book like this and include a statement like this, you have to believe that what you are proposing is the “bold, complex, and holistic” answer. You have to believe that precision fermentation is not just “tinkering with existing models.” You have to believe that it’s not just a modification of an industry that is driving us towards disaster. You have to believe that this is re-making the food system in some revolutionary, and positive, way.
In the internet age, people throw around terms like “cognitive dissonance” all the time, so I am hesitant to make that accusation. However, I think there is a level of doublethink at play throughout Regenesis. Whether it’s the unflinching critique of the global food system coupled with its praise, or a call to action to replace the industrial food system with more industrial food, there is a serious contradiction here. I think that contradiction is ultimately justified by the Quantitative Cosmology. The contradiction comes from the idea that the world is a machine and the unquestioning pursuit of progress. As Kingsnorth noted, “we might pretend to ourselves that ‘one more push’ (ie, doing the same thing yet again) may do the trick.”
When I first tried to write this piece months ago, my initial intention was to break down all of the reasons I thought he was wrong: the data was incomplete, biased, etc. I was going to go through everything he has said and fact-check every little footnote in attempt to use reason to discredit him. Then, after abandoning it for some time, I realized that through that tactic I would only be playing into his own game, playing by his rules— inadvertently affirming the Quantitative Cosmology. I know those numbers are not the full story, so why would I endlessly try to wield them against him?
I can’t fill a hundred pages of sources with purely scientific data to back my worldview up, because it’s not built on data alone: it’s built on experience, relationships, and other forms of knowledge. My worldview attempts to consider all that is not yet known, and may never be known. I realized that what was more powerful than simply trying to discredit him is acknowledging how I feel about his worldview, which led me to a pretty simple conclusion:
I simply don’t want to live in the world he’s selling.
A parallel could be made that the detractors of Monbiot and Reboot Food are like the Church rejecting Copernicus and imprisoning Galileo. They could position themselves as “revolutionaries” that society just isn’t ready for, and make the case that the criticism they receive is just a result of an anti-progress dogma (in fact, Monbiot makes this exact parallel in Regenesis, quoting from Machiavelli’s The Prince). They could point to themselves as “disruptors” and use that term to martyr themselves in the face of backlash. Monbiot is already doing and saying things to this effect, but I think, if you look at history with a critical lens, it’s not possible to position yourself as a “revolutionary” when you’re essentially advocating for more of the same— a regurgitated story sputtered out through the death gurgles of a culture in hospice.
Like Monbiot, I have a bias. My bias comes from the systemic alienation and disenchantment from the world that I have faced all my life. When I read the level of pomposity and disdain that he spoke about his grandmother’s food, I felt an aversion that I can’t quantify or put into a math equation. As someone who grew up in a time where that way of life that she had was not an option for me, I felt disgust that he would discard it so flippantly, particularly under the false pretense that it was mathematically unsustainable. His seeming disdain for the people who are working toward living a life more like his grandmother felt so callous, like he’s someone who doesn’t understand how privileged he is to have had those experiences at all. At the beginning of the book, he talks about the joy that his fruit tree allotment brings him, and how important it is for him to connect with land that way, and then ultimately concludes that this surge of interest in regenerative farming and other livestock-based food systems are an “indulgence” that we can’t afford. Some pastoral fantasy that’s harming the planet.
I can’t claim with certainty that he is aware of the cosmological bias that he is exhibiting and the history that precedes it. I can’t claim that he is knowingly perpetuating an epistemological point-of-view that reinforces a worldview which puts my future, and the future of all people, in jeopardy. As Eisenstein recently wrote, “I do not worry that our system is not sustainable. I worry that it is.” I agree with Monbiot, the current story isn’t working. Unfortunately, his story just feels like more of the same.
I’m sure he would summarily disagree with my assessment of this. But I stand firm: even if he is right — that the world will be saved by precision fermentation and removing people from nature through rewilding and intensive agriculture and the elimination of livestock — his unquestioning propensity to further disenchanting the world through this worldview leads to a future that I, as a young person with a lot of life ahead of me, don’t want to live in. I look around me at all of my friends who desire, above all else, to find connection to the world and to one another, to beauty and art, and to an engagement with what feels real and lasting. I see so much joy and purpose in the ones who have found that belonging through working with the land and husbanding livestock. I have so much hope knowing that it’s possible for us to connect to life through food yet again.
I think George Monbiot greatly underestimates the power of young people who long to feel belonging once again to the world. Food that is produced in a factory only creates distance, so we reject it. He underestimates how much we don’t want to live in an urbanized, globalized, and ultimately atomized world where we are nothing more than servants of debt and cogs in a machine that leaves us mentally ill and dislocated. He underestimates how tired we are of thousand mile supply chains and the novelties of promissory innovation. He doesn’t see that, due to the precarious economic instabilities we grew up with, we’re orienting our futures towards the local, the land-based, and the collective. We’re orienting ourselves to live within ecology rather than further distancing ourselves from it. I don’t want to spend my life measuring the coastline only to realize it’s not possible. I want to belong to the coastline, dig my toes into it— feel it. These are my biases, for whatever they are worth.
It’ll be easy for someone like him to dismiss this piece on these grounds, though he’ll likely never read this anyway. What matters instead is to fight for the right to intuition and the knowledge gleaned from experience. It matters to me to fight for there to be intellectual value outside of experimental, mechanistic, and reductionistic science. It matters to me to challenge the direction of a civilization that is hostile to life. It matters because the world I want to grow old into will not be defined by numbers: it will be defined by love, curiosity, integrity, honesty, the embrace of complexity, and yes, poetry.
And if that vision makes me wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Written by Maren Morgan
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Pierce, J. (2022) Will a Nile Canal Project Dry Up Africa’s Largest Wetland? source: https://e360.yale.edu/features/will-a-nile-canal-project-dry-up-africas-largest-wetland
Carbon Brief (2023) ‘Exceptional’ surge in methane emissions from wetlands worries scientists: https: //www.carbonbrief.org/exceptional-surge-in-methane-emissions-from-wetlands-worries-scientists/
Monbiot, G. (2022) Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (p. 212)
Ibid p. 225
Tarnas, R. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (p. 81)
Ibid p. 249
Ibid p. 257
Ibid p. 263
Tarnas p. 278
Ibid p. 277
Ibid p. 278-279
Ibid p. 272
Ibid p. 270
Berman p. 56
Tarnas p. 278
Ibid p. 273
Berman p. 59
Tarnas p. 271
Eisenstein p. 35
Berman p. 56
Monbiot p. 225
Ibid p. 202
Ibid p. 176
Eisenstein p. 42
Monbiot p. 196
Monbiot p. 189
Ibid p. 190
IEA electricity consumption: https://www.iea.org/reports/electricity-information-overview/electricity-consumption
Ibid p. 229
Eisenstein p. 42
Monbiot p. 224
Berman p. 69
Monbiot p. 199