I’ve finally got the chance to write a review essay, “Forget Fertility, Get Feral”, about the work of George Monbiot—one of my favorite writers. His career advice is the best anti-establishment pep talk on the internet and his work on ecology and social justice played a big part in focusing me on climate politics. I’m not sure he would agree with my review, with is in part a jeremiad against the overly pious “family values” language of environmentalists’ endless invocation of our children and grand-children. Oh well. But hopefully he’ll agree with me that Fera‘s prose is something special:
We might still wonder whether we’re ready to unleash the forces we’ve spent centuries working to master. Doesn’t nature belong outside of us, a realm of necessity to transcend? Monbiot’s prose exemplifies a more interesting perspective, expressing at once a childlike and erotic intimacy with the wild. “The oaks had put out embryo leaves as minutely serrated as mouse paws,” he writes. “The fronds of the horse chestnuts in town, which had hung like empty gloves, began to stiffen and splay. Bracken unrolled leaflet by leaflet like a Mandelbrot set.” I don’t even know what a Mandelbrot set is, but I’m enchanted, and I think I’d like to have one.
“[A] knot in brick-red breeding plumage ran along the sand dipping its head, then took off with a long swooping whistle,” he writes. “A bumble bee trapped in the surface film broadcast frantic barcode ripples: sound made visible.” Or: “[The spider crab] looked like the grab used to lift crushed cars in a scrap-metal yard. Its claws were more than two feet from tip to tip, powerfully ridged and bossed, crenallated on the cutting edges … It bulged with the suggestion of muscle like a Roman suit of armor.”
Over and over, Monbiot deploys the precise vocabularies and unexpected analogies that George Orwell implored us to substitute for bad abstraction in political writing.4 When politics get cruel, Orwell argued, lazy abstraction veils the authentic, troubling truth. Orwell did not pose precision and concreteness in opposition to the abstract per se. These were, rather, autonomous encounters with general principles, meticulous detail and fresh images exposing an active mind at work. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. Monbiot is as clear and sincere as Orwell could wish for—and he is hopeful, too.
Monbiot’s analogies not only perform intellectual vigor in general; their substantive threads entwine human and nonhuman activity, weaving the human spirit with creature, land, and sea. Human freedom depends on the freedom of the wild, but the magic of the wild depends on human art. Monbiot’s anthropomorphism of ecology is abstract and encompassing, an enlightened, secular pantheism for the 21st century. Getting feral, as I see it, means injecting environmentalism with the adrenaline of an insurgent, democratic modernism.
Ok. Now go read read the whole essay.
Later I’ll explain how this forms the final part of my first triptych on climate change and pleasure.