George Monbiot tells Tim Hughes about his latest campaign to stop us feeling so alone
Environmentalist, writer and political activist George Monbiot has lived through many hair-raising experiences and swashbuckling adventures.
He has taken the fight to big corporations, railed against the destruction of the natural world and campaigned on climate change and for human rights.
His adventures have taken him up the Amazon and into the wilds of Africa and New Guinea, and have seen him shot at, beaten up by armed thugs, sentenced to life imprisonment, shipwrecked, and stung into a coma by hornets. He once almost died after contracting cerebral malaria in Kenya.
But for his latest campaign, this counter culture icon, and resident of Oxford’s Rose Hill, is looking closer to home, fixing his sights on a problem which afflicts many of us, sometimes without our knowledge – loneliness.
It is, he insists, a problem which is growing – and not just among the elderly.
“It is something I have taken an interest in for a long time, not least because I have had some episodes of loneliness myself,” says the zoologist, broadcaster and Guardian columnist, who grew up near Henley and was educated at Brasenose, Oxford.
“After working abroad and coming back to Britain, I couldn’t communicate. My friends couldn’t understand what I was talking about and I couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
“It was an isolating experience which I have suffered from since.”
The subject has inspired an album with the folk musician Ewan McLennan, of whom he has long been a fan. The work, called Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, has inspired a live show, which tomorrow comes to the North Wall Arts Centre, in Summertown. It features music by Ewan and spoken interludes by George – who lists his greatest achievement as “still being alive”.
“One of the paradoxes of loneliness is you think it’s just you who is suffering while everybody else is having a good time. It’s closely linked with the fear of missing out. You get yourself in a mindset that everyone has an amazing social life, but it’s far from the case. It’s at an epidemic level and it’s hard for people to see a way out.
“We know it’s a condition that affects older people, but figures show it affects those of all ages, and particularly young adults – and that’s consistent with my own experiences.”
He cites breakdown in community, solitary living, and more alienating workplaces as having contributed to isolation, along with social media which turns exchanges between ‘friends’ into a popularity contest.
“It’s a powerful force for friendship but sets people apart,” he says. “There are terrifying statistics showing that for nine to 15 year-olds, the more they use social media, the more antisocial their values become. They are less concerned about generosity or community feeling, because it’s more about comparison. It’s all pretty meaningless and there’s a constant need to ‘big yourself up’ and show that you are better than you are.
“It is saying ‘look at me and all my friends’. Everybody else is apparently having a great social life, when they are just as lonely as you are.”
And the solution? “Connect, connect, connect!”
The musical project began with a piece he wrote for the Guardian about the age of loneliness, which struck a chord with readers.
He says: “I don’t understand why some things go viral and others die in the dust, but this went viral. Publishers got in touch and asked me to write a book, but there seemed an obvious paradox in writing a book about loneliness, when writing and reading is an isolating experience. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what.”
His fascination with the subject was piqued by what might otherwise have been an unremarkable encounter in an Oxford hardware shop.
“I had to buy some screws,” he said. “So I went off to the shop and was stood in a queue, and the person ahead of me told me their whole life story. I was struck by the revelation that this was what I had been writing about; that this person was talking to me because they had no one else to talk to and that maybe they went to the shop only because they wanted someone to talk to. It’s a powerful human drive to find company. Then I felt guilty.
“I wrote a poem about a woman who goes to a shop to talk, but the tills are replaced by automatic checkouts. Then I thought it’s not a poem, it’s a ballad... an anthem, and I am going to be a rock star!
“The only impediment was that my singing is so bad it is banned under international law. My voice is an obstacle in the way of making an album and it became pretty clear that if I was going to do this, I’d have to do it with the help of someone else.”
He wrote Ewan a fan letter and asked him if he wanted to make an album.
“Ewan thought it was a practical joke from a friend, as he read my articles and really liked my work,” laughs George.
He sent Ewan the ballad and asked if he could turn it into a song – which he did.
Together they wrote an album which, as the name suggests, aims to break the spell under which many of us exist. Some songs are stirring and others sad. Ewan’s music is accompanied by an essay and song notes written by George.
The live performance will see George not singing, but narrating the show, explaining the ideas behind the songs, performed by Ewan on guitar and banjo, and encouraging audience members to engage with each other.
“It has been delightful and we have had a riot touring the album around the country,” says George. “We are not just making music and addressing a problem, we are trying to bring people in the audience together.”
He adds: “The show is different every night as I always speak without notes, because I refuse to just read things out. Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely! And we end by getting the whole audience to sing We Shall Overcome... though obviously I hold the microphone as far away from me as possible, so no one can her me sing.”
He laughs: “This will change lives... whether you like it or not.”
- George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan present Breaking the Spell of Loneliness at the North Wall, Oxford, tomorrow (Friday, January 13)