Down to earth advice

By Stephen Jewell

The Listener says exporters would lynch him if he ever set foot in the country, so it is perhaps for the best that George Monbiot will not be flying around the globe to Wellington.

The environmental campaigner and journalist - who mostly travels by bicycle or train - will be talking at the International Arts Festival's Writers and Reader's Week about climate change. He calls the issue "the moral question of the 21st century,", and he'll be addressing it from his Welsh hometown via a video link .

"We're doing it from the local secondary school in town," says Monbiot. "I hope it works. I've been trying to do video links with people all over the world in order not to have to fly. It's frustrating because while the technology has been available for 20 years or so, so very little investment has gone into it and if planes fell out of the sky as often as video links go down, no-one would dare to get into one.

"I've done five video conferences over the past year and three of them have failed for one technical reason or another, so I'm really hoping that this one goes right."

Monbiot has been exploring environmental issues for about 20 years, working as a radio producer for the BBC's Natural History Unit and the World Service before turning his hand to investigative journalism. He has written 11 books including 2006's Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning and the soon to be published Bring on the Apocalypse.

Formerly based in Oxford, Monbiot now lives with his wife, Angharad Penrhyn Jones, and young daughter Hanna in the mid-Wales market town of Machyllneth, which is also home to the Centre for Alternative Technologies, an innovative eco-centre dedicated to exploring sustainable ways of living.

But he cautions that it is not necessarily the advancement of technology that is responsible for global warming, but the irresponsible way in which it is often used.

"It depends which technology you are talking about," he says. "To say that technology is good or bad is not the point of it. It's what you do with it and what it is for. There are certain technologies that have got us into this trouble, and there are other technologies that will get us out of it, so you can't make a blanket statement about technology. It comes down to what the technology is. If it's technology that is dependent on fossil fuels then clearly that is going to demand a change, but if it's technology that allows us to replace fossil fuels then it's going to contribute to the solution."

Unfortunately, biofuels made from sources such as ethanol, which can be made from wheat or maize, can have an even more detrimental effect on the environment than the conventional fossilised supplies, such as petroleum, that they replace.

"You have to judge everything as objectively as possible and not be swayed by ideas that feel good," says Monbiot.

"A lot of environmentalists make the mistake of following their instincts. They loved the idea of mini wind turbines on top of your house because they fit in with the environmental ideal - they're small and beautiful and represent a kind of decentralised production. The trouble is they don't work. They produce so little energy that they are not worth having. In fact, one recent study suggests that they don't make up for the energy used in their manufacture."

Monbiot angered the New Zealand export industry by claiming that British shoppers are spurning imported products from distant places like New Zealand - regardless of whether they had travelled by sea or air - in favour of locally sourced equivalents, telling the Listener that "the majority of people will think it's obscene to import apples from New Zealand when our own apples are rotting on the ground".

British supermarkets, such as the biggest chain, Tesco, now label foods with information about their carbon footprint, measuring the distance they travelled to reach the shelf. But perhaps Monbiot should spend more time in London, which he admits he finds "a bit of a shock and a very high pressure place now that I'm so far away from it".

Looking around my local Tesco Metro in north London, I soon find not only trusted Kiwi favourites like New Zealand lamb chops and Anchor butter - subject to a savage and inaccurate attack from a rival British brand in 2006, suggesting that it travelled 17,000km from New Zealand to the United Kingdom on a rusty ship - but also Moroccan strawberries, South African grapes and Chilean nectarines, which directly undermines Monbiot's assertion that "the supermarkets have a responsibility to get people eating seasonally".

"There is a move towards a more general carbon labelling of food," he says. "Whether it is useful to consumers or not remains to be seen. But the fact that there is a general carbon count on most of the food we buy is at least going to give us some basis of comparison that will be handy."

It is Monbiot's most contentious assertion - that the number of flights taken worldwide needs to be quickly reduced by 90 per cent - that most threatens the Kiwi way of life. And not just through the exports that sustain the economy or the imports that fill the shops: that perennial institution the Big OE and the frequent trips that New Zealanders take across the Tasman are also under attack.

"You're so far away from most other countries and that is a particular problem for you," says Monbiot. "Particularly with the very large number of flights that New Zealanders take. Responding to the challenge of climate change is going to fall particularly hard on New Zealand."

It also appears to be a forlorn task in Britain where the world's busiest and most hellish airport, Heathrow, recently expanded its capacity by opening a new fifth terminal and is planning a third runway.

"It's insane," says Monbiot. "We're going in completely the wrong direction. We need to be closing runways. The immediate supply constraints are landing slots - if you increase landing slots you increase flights. It's just like roads, the more roads you build the more traffic you get."

And it doesn't matter if it is long-haul flights to otherwise inaccessible destinations such as New Zealand or the countless number of short-haul domestic journeys that could instead be made by rail.

"Unfortunately, we have to cut back on flying by 90 per cent or more irrespective of whether it's long-haul or short-haul because there are no good substitutes for kerosene-fuelled jetliners," says Monbiot. "The only way flying can fit with a carbon constrained world is to have much less of it."

At least he can enjoy a small oasis of calm in Machyllneth, a 4 1/2- hour train ride from London in the picturesque Dyfi Valley, nowhere near a domestic airport. But considering his passion for the ocean, it is a shame he won't experience the thrill of the Wellington surf.

The son of former Conservative Party deputy chairman Raymond and erstwhile South Oxford district Conservative councillor Rosalie, 45-year-old Monbiot became interested in the world around him while growing up.

"It's always been something I've been fascinated by," he recalls. "I was very interested in natural history as a child and that quickly gave rise to an interest in the environment.

"One of the wonderful things about living here is that it is one of the few places that you cannot fly to," laughs Monbiot in a rare moment of levity. "My wife is Welsh and she's a first language Welsh speaker. We were keen for our daughter to be brought up speaking Welsh. That's the main reason why we moved out here. It's a beautiful place, we're surrounded by hills and it's lovely to be so close to the rivers and the sea.

"I lived in Oxford, which has many virtues and is a lovely city, but there was really nowhere you would want to walk, if you like wild places. And it's a very bad place for sea kayaking, as it is about as far away from the sea in England that you can get."

THE WRITE STUFF

George Monbiot is one of the big names at the International Arts Festival, a showcase of music, theatre, dance, arts and writing which opened in Wellington last night.

Monbiot is taking part in the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, which runs from March 10 until March 16, and is part of the 23-day festival. Monbiot's live video hookup - gremlins permitting - is on Saturday March 15 at 9.30am.

Other big literary names booked for the festival include Booker prize winner Ian McEwan, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, Australia author Alexis Wright, Cuban novelist Mayra Montero and Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

The writers week programme includes a panel discussion on the costs of the Iraq war. Trudeau is one of the panellists, with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and British writer and journalist James Meek, author of an award-winning report on report on detainees at Guantanamo.

FOR FESTIVAL DETAILS GO TO
www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz

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