The Iron Mask

Living as if seen from the future.

By George Monbiot. A lecture to the International Conference of National Trusts, Cambridge, 11th September 2015

What sort of monsters were our ancestors? How could they live with themselves, in countries dominated by slavery, or serfdom, or imperial pillage; endlessly waging war, revelling in public torture and execution? How could they be so deaf to the treatment of women, of children, of minorities, of foreigners? Did they have no empathy? Were most of them psychopaths?

Well, we say to ourselves, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. You cannot judge its people by the mores of our time, because they weren’t like us.

So has there been a radical evolution of the human brain since, say, the 19th Century? Have we acquired capacities for empathy, horror and disgust, a sense of justice that our predecessors did not possess? Are we, perhaps, a different species?

Of course not. As any great work of literature from an earlier age will show you, we are the same animals now as we were then, with the same suite of emotions, the same ability to tell right from wrong. Indeed there were people in every age who saw things as we did, who could hear the voices of the oppressed, like Bartolemé de las Casas, railing against the treatment of the Native Americans in the 1520s, or Hester Biddle, preaching a recognisably modern feminism in the 1660s. Or, for that matter, Jacques, weeping over a wounded deer, much to the amusement of his companions, in As You Like It.

So how do we explain the difference? It’s simple. There isn’t one.

What I mean is not that our age is necessarily as bad as those that preceded it. In many respects it is better; in some respects it is worse. I mean that the same mechanisms for not hearing, or for unhearing, exist today as existed then. The people of preceding eras were surrounded by socially constructed silences, which permitted the horrors I have mentioned to persist. We are surrounded by a different set of silences, that permit a different set of horrors to persist.

A socially constructed silence involves an issue that, from any other perspective – a different place, a different era – would surely be loud and urgent. The issue is huge and obvious – to anyone except those it surrounds.

Before the antislavery movement took off, as far as most people were concerned, slavery was neither right nor wrong, it simply wasn’t an issue. It was not something on which they felt called to make a moral judgement, because it was not presented as such.

There might have been a few voices raised against it, but they were so marginalised as to present no general moral challenge. When Hester Biddle railed against patriarchy and misogyny, even before she had her head clamped in an iron mask to silence her, her voice to most people would have sounded like this: “mmmmm …. mmmmm.”

“Did someone say something?”

“I didn’t hear it.”

“It was probably just rats. Oh dear [consulting wristwatch], we’re about due for another bout of bubonic plague … God’s tooth! What’s this on my wrist?”

In centuries to come, people will look back on our age and ask themselves, “what sort of monsters were our ancestors?”. How could they have lived with themselves, in countries dominated by environmental destruction and theft from the future? How could they have been so blind to the treatment of foreigners, of their own underclass, of farm animals, of the living planet? Did they have no sense? No empathy? Were most of them psychopaths?

And if I were looking back on our own age, I would again say, no. It’s not that we have no capacity for discernment, that we lack moral range and a sense of justice. It’s that we simply do not hear. Those who dominate public discourse have no interest in ensuring that we do, and every interest in ensuring that we don’t. And the rest of us, instinctively avoiding trouble, deafened by the rising buzz of trivia, have neither the means nor the interest in hearing what they do not tell us.

Most of the issues that should loom large in our minds do not present themselves as issues at all, let alone issues of moral urgency.

I will name just a few, concentrating only on those concerning the natural world.

The failure in any international negotiations even to raise the notion of leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and the focus instead on trying only to mitigate their use once they have been extracted, an exercise which is evidently futile and self-defeating.

The soil erosion crisis that, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, gives us 60 more years of harvests before we run out of food.

The treatment of farm animals, particularly pigs and chickens, and its astonishing contrast with our belief that we are animal lovers.

The deforestation caused by our excessive consumption of meat, as rainforests give way to monocultures of animal feed.

The global land grab now taking place, which is by no means confined to the poorer nations. In England for example, though there has been no public discussion of this, we are experiencing the fastest consolidation of landownership since the enclosures of the early 19th century: a rate of 2% per year.

Farm subsidies, possibly the most regressive form of the use of tax revenues in the modern age, which transfer money from the poorest taxpayers to some of the world’s richest people, while simultaneously helping to wreck the living world.

The destruction of what would otherwise be wildlife refuges by uneconomic activities: sheep ranching, grouse shooting and deer stalking. I’m talking about the infertile uplands, where, in the UK, the rate of wildlife decline – 65% of species– in what we like to call our “wildernesses”  is even greater than the average (60%).

The continued ravaging of the marine environment, and our almost universal participation in it. How many of you have eaten fish in the course of this conference? And how many of you have wondered where it came from? Hands on hearts, how many environmental conferences have you been to at which fish and meat were not served? Any at all? And how many of you have questioned or challenged it?

I could go on all day, but I think the organisers would be grateful if I did not.

It’s not as if we lack for Bartolomés de las Casas or Hester Biddles in this age. There are people trying to bring these issues to public attention, but at the moment their voices are heard as “mmmmm …. mmmmm”. Listening is dangerous, disruptive, disconcerting. It plunges us into cognitive dissonance, a condition from which human beings will do almost anything – and I mean anything – to escape. The dissidents speak as if from behind an iron mask, excluded from polite debate, from the corporate press and public sector broadcasters that establish the limits of civilised discourse.

So in an age that our descendants might see as monstrous, unethical, populated by psychopaths, what should organisations such as the National Trusts do?

The first thing is to listen. To listen for the silences. To listen for the voices trying to break them. And instead of blocking your ears, both to hear those voices and to amplify them.

To help break the silences not just with words, but also in deed: with counterexamples that demonstrate we do not have to live in an age of social deafness; that the present, as viewed from the future, is not a foreign country.

What this means is that wherever the living world or other human beings are being treated brutally and blithely, the National Trusts should do the opposite.

While we condemn whole regions of the world to drought and famine through our excessive use of fossil fuels, the National Trusts should seek to decarbonise all their operations – from heating and lighting to the transport of visitors, and explain, loudly and boldly, why they are doing so. I know that some of you are already taking steps in this direction.

Where the soil is being stripped from the land, the National Trusts should pioneer new forms of permaculture and conservation agriculture, which feed people today without compromising the productive capacity of the future.

In a world in which we consume monstrous quantities of meat and fish, the National Trusts should make a point, in all their outlets, of serving only vegetarian and vegan food, of explaining why they are doing so, and developing such delicious dishes that no one is induced to complain.

As farm subsidies are a source of such social and environmental injustice, the National Trusts, which currently take millions of pounds of this loot, stolen from the pockets of the poor, should renounce them, and tell their members why they are doing so.

When infertile land, such as in the uplands of Britain, is burnt, cut and overgrazed, destroying watersheds, soil carbon and wildlife, for ranching that would not exist were it not for subsidies, or for bankers in tweed pantaloons to blast away at grouse or stags, the National Trusts should stop these activities on their own land, and set it aside for rewilding and the reintroduction of missing species.

But don’t rely on me to produce the list. Hire people whose role it is to listen for the social silences. Appoint them to interrogate the way we live and work and treat other humans, other animals and the natural world. Find the new Bartolomés de las Casas and Hester Biddles and ensure they are not marginalised. Ask how future generations might judge you, and live according to what they might ask of you, not just according to what the present demands. Create the better world in which our descendents might wish to live.