The Sentient Media Podcast

032 George Monbiot Debunks Russell Brand's Far-Right Farming Conspiracy Theories

Episode Summary

In this special edition of the Sentient Media Podcast, we host our monthly series ‘The Correction’ where we correct misinformation in the media. In this episode, we welcome author, the Guardian columnist, environmental campaigner, former investigative reporter for the BBC, George Monbiot who debunks Russell Brand’s viral video against the Dutch government’s new law to reduce harmful nitrate pollution in livestock farming.

Episode Notes

George Monbiot and Sentient Media Executive Director, Ana Bradley, discuss in detail the link between the far-right and farming and why these conspiracy theories being spread by influencers like Brand are so damaging.  

Watch the video short here: 

Monbiot’s work: 

Monbiot’s column in the Guardian

Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet

TED Talk: Can We Feed Ourselves Without Devouring the Planet

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life

The Age of Consent; Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning

Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis

TED Talk: "How Wolves Change Rivers

Follow Monbiot on Twitter

Episode Transcription

George: We're looking about at the collapse of earth systems. And I don't think one person in 100 has grasped what that means and what the consequences will be. And so we just have to widen and widen the circle of people who understand what that means and are prepared to stand up against the forces driving us there.

Ana: We are here for our series, The Correction, where we call out and correct misinformation and ill-researched or poorly reported stories about agriculture, and the climate crisis, of course. Today we're going to look at the veracity of a recent viral video from Russell Brand that claimed that the Dutch government — or is it really Bill Gates, and the corrupt globalists? — are out to steal land from the farmers. So first things first, yes or no? George, are you on Bill Gates' payroll?

George: Well, apparently I am, because so many people are telling me but unfortunately, that check just hasn't come through the post. I had a very stern word with the postman this morning but he didn't seem to know anything about it.

Ana: We'll keep our fingers crossed for you. So could you lay out what argument Brand is repeating and why it's wrong?

George: Sure. So as we know, in the Netherlands, they've got a massive nitrate crisis, a huge crisis caused by over-fertilization, too many nitrates and for that matter, phosphates, going into the air, going into the water, going into the soil. And the major cause of this nitrate pollution is livestock farming. What happens is that you bring in nutrients from all over the world to feed to your pigs, your chickens, your cows, in big steel sheds. They poop out a lot of those nutrients and then you've got to put them somewhere and farmers spread them over their fields. But because of the huge number of animals they're keeping, the soil and the plants in the fields can't absorb all the nutrients that they're spreading. So they call it fertilizing the fields, in fact, they're dumping the majority of that manure. And so then it washes off into the rivers and causes eutrophication, which means overfeeding, that stimulates blooms of algae, which oxygenate the water during the day, but when they respire at night, they suck all the oxygen out of the water and kill much of the life that lives in the rivers. So it causes devastating impacts. It also causes a lot of greenhouse gas emissions from nitrous oxide — it's a very powerful greenhouse gas. And people have been warning successive Dutch governments that this is a huge problem since the 1980s, but because of the strength of the farmers' lobby groups, they never really took any serious action about it. It wasn't until 2019, when there was a ruling from the Dutch Council of State, which is kind of their Supreme Court, which said this is in direct contravention of  EU law to allow all these nitrates onto the land and into the water, you have to clean them up by law — that was the point at which the Dutch government got serious about it. So they then offered various routes to people to clean up that pollution. They could either radically change what they were doing, or they could take voluntary redundancy and the government would pay very handsomely for the farmers to stop farming and to do something else with the land. Or if they simply refused that the final outcome would be they could compulsorily purchase the land from the farmers, again at very generous rates. But you know, they just are legally obliged to stop this horrendous pollution crisis. It's a really massive crisis. Now, what's happened is that a whole bunch of extreme right people — fascists, outright fascists in some cases, white supremacists in the Netherlands but also from around the world — have latched on to this and used it as a modern version of a very old story. And it's a story that the Nazis told, and other fascist groups across Europe a century ago, and the story goes as follows: that alien and so-called cosmopolitan or globalist forces are trying to displace the true people from the land, the authentic people in whom our national identity is vested. And this was the myth put about by, particularly, the Nazis called Blut und Boden — blood and soil — and the idea that our identity is vested in the true racially pure people who are rooted to the soil, and they are the farmers. The Nazis claimed that the German farmers were the Aryan or Nordic folk who represented the proper people of Germany. And these cosmopolitan forces, by which they largely meant Jews, were trying to push them off and replace those people from the land. And this story continues with these great replacement and great reset myths which are put about by fascists today. That is the same story, exactly the same story. They've latched on to the situation in the Netherlands and say, aha, the real agenda is nothing to do with nitrates, it's nothing to do with pollution, it's to do with trying to throw the Dutch farmers off the land and replace them with asylum seekers and immigrants and give the land to them and turn the land into hostels for asylum seekers. And the rest of it. Of course, it's completely untrue, there's no such agenda. And, you know, the farmers have been given so many options to reduce their pollution and do something differently, perhaps not farm animals, for example. But it's become this massive cause celebre among far-right conspiracy theorists. So, I mean, I can scarcely express my sense of despondency to see Russell Brand latching on to this and promoting this basically fascist conspiracy theory now. Yeah, the guy used to be a hero of mine. I, years ago, appeared on his show, which was called The Trews. And in fact, when the Guardian asked me, I can't remember which year it was, it was a few years back, it said, who's your hero of the year? And will you write a short article about them? I wrote about Russell Brand because he was making such great waves in terms of sort of waking people up to some of the fundamental injustices in the U.K.  And I don't really know what's happened to him, but he's gone further and further over towards the conspiracy theories, and the far right, which thrives off conspiracy theories. My guess is that that's where the audience is — you know, if you want a huge guaranteed audience, you spout far-right conspiracy theories. It's a bizarre thing, but that's what gets you the millions of eyeballs for your videos. And he achieves that, you know, and every week he gets more and more extreme, he says more and more stupid things. He's now on this far-right channel called Rumble and spouting these very, very dangerous conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories which can actually kill people. Because, you know, as we should have learned last century, when you spread dangerous hatred and untrue stories about particular groups of people, other people step forward and say, we've got to act on this and do something about this terrible conspiracy, this noxious cabal, and that's when they get violent. And in fact, in the Netherlands, we've already seen violence, some considerable violence taking place, including buildings being torched and various attacks on people taking place because people believe this nonsense. And to see Russell spreading it is heartbreaking. Then he sort of throws in all this stuff about Bill Gates. Bill Gates has got absolutely nothing to do with this. Now I'm no fan of Bill Gates, I think, actually, he gets things profoundly wrong. He's really mistaken about some of his environmental statements. And he's a billionaire. I'm not a fan of billionaires with an enormous environmental footprint, but he has precisely zero to do with what is going on in the Netherlands. But his name is like a trigger for right-wing conspiracy theorists, a bit like George Soros, you know, or Klaus Schwab, there's a few people — or Anthony Fauci — you know, a few people you just say the name and yes, yes they're the enemy. They're the enemy. And so he throws in Bill Gates, what the hell, and he throws in the great reset. Now the great reset — actually, it's slightly embarrassing for me because about a month before the World Economic Forum said it, I wrote an article saying what we need is a great reset, but I think it's completely unrelated. But then the World Economic Forum writes some report saying — this was during the height of the pandemic — you know, when we come out of this, we need a great reset, we need to do things differently. Now, it's a totally vacuous report. From an organization, again, I've got no sympathy with it, you know, it just brings together some of the richest and most powerful people, but it's not in itself powerful. And its report was basically meaningless. I mean, the great reset was just words. But again, the conspiracy theories have latched on to this — a great reset, they're trying to change us, they're trying to take away something from us, we're not sure what it is, but they're trying to take it away. And it's a conspiracy. So Russell throws in talk about a great reset. What the hell, what's that got to do with it? Nothing, you know, no part of what the Dutch government is doing has anything to do with the World Economic Forum. And on it goes, all these sort of trigger words, these trigger terms, which are just thrown in as red meat to these fascists and supremacists that he's now appealing to.

Ana: So how do we get Russell Brand to repeat the correct narrative that you started out explaining at the beginning?

George: You know, I think he's lost. I just, I don't think we're going to, because that is not, you know, that's not his trademark. Now, if he started doing that sort of thing, his audience would just fall right away, you know, he would lose three-quarters, nine-tenths of the people listening to him, because people come to hear those stories. And it's an interesting question as to why. I think it is that they are very afraid. And that might sound weird, because, you know, these are terrifying conspiracy theories, but actually, they're much easier to cope with than the realities we're facing. You know, if somebody's saying climate science is all a big conspiracy, there's no such thing as climate breakdown, it's just a few scientists in their labs trying to make money and governments trying to tax you — well, that's a lot easier to deal with than this huge existential crisis. Someone is saying COVID doesn't exist, or it's not a dangerous virus, it's Mr. Fauci, who's trying to manipulate you — well, Mr. Fauci, he's got no power at all. He's not scary. Nor is Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum, he's not scary. You can latch onto non scary things like that, instead of reality. And so I think, you know, it's people who are really, really afraid, and they listen to these videos and watch these videos in the same way they might listen to lullabies. It's a soothing story, which is being told to them. And then of course, in this classic projection, they call people like me and you, they say oh, we're snowflakes, we're melts, we're bedwetters and stuff, but we're the ones who've got the courage to face this stuff. We're the ones who can actually deal with it, but they can't deal with it. They can't face the bad news. So they turn to people like Russell, to tell them the comforting fairy tales.

Ana: It's a really good point. I mean, you alluded to it earlier, but I wonder if you could explain this clear connection between the farming industry and the far right, this direct connection between those two spaces.

George: Now, I'm not for a moment saying that all farmers belong to the far right by any means, that would be evidently untrue. But the far right has always championed farmers as being the true authentic people who it feels an obligation to protect against anyone else. And unfortunately, in some cases, as with the current situation in the Netherlands, some farmers have happily embraced that and have joined forces quite explicitly with the white supremacists and fascists who claim to be defending those livestock farmers. And, you know, in the short term that might do them a favor but in the long term, I would say just from the farmer's point of view, that's a totally disastrous strategy. That's a really stupid thing to be doing. You do not want to associate with these people. They might say they're your friends, they're nobody's friends. Their whole shtick is hatred and violence, viciousness and cruelty and violence. You do not want to be allied with them.

Ana: Yeah, I mean, there's an interesting projection that I think is coming from the far right at the moment who are accusing, you know, climate campaigners and governments and etc., of taking land, when of course, that's what they are doing to Indigenous people in the Amazon and elsewhere in the world, so…

George: Yeah, sorry, I was gonna say this is a really — I didn't mean to interrupt — but this is such an interesting situation because yeah, you're absolutely right there. Both the capital riot, the January 6 riot in the U.S., and the attack on Brasilia, these two attempted coups — the cattle ranching industry was very heavily involved in them. And this is a part of the story which has really been lost. So, two of the leading militias that attacked the capital in the January 6 riot instigated by Trump were the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, and both of them consolidated around these ranch invasions, these invasions by ranchers of public land in the U.S. — Cliven Bundy and his bunch, who were saying, you know, we can stick our cattle on public land and no one can stop us — and the Oathkeepers and Three Percenters turned up armed to the teeth and drove away the state officials and the federal officials, the wildlife protectors, the rangers who were trying to protect those public lands, in some cases kidnapped people and basically got away with it, like, you know, the authorities weren't prepared to stop them. And so they were massively encouraged by this and they then went on to lead the attack on the Capitol. But these were originally people who were white supremacists defending cattle ranchers, very similar to the situation in the Netherlands. And then in Brazil, a big part of the attack on the presidential palace and Supreme Court and the rest in Brasilia was driven by cattle ranchers who want to be able to keep expanding into the Amazon, cutting down the forests, grabbing the land of Indigenous people and dispossessing them. And so that is a sort of organic connection between cattle ranching in particular and far-right politics. Cattle and sheep ranching are the biggest agents in history of dispossession of Indigenous people. Whether you're looking at the Americas, both North and South and Central for that matter, Australia, Myanmar today, Madagascar, I mean, all over the world we see, because they are so land-hungry, because they demand so much land, this expansion into other people's land and the dispossession of those people from the land. And that's allied with these far-right, racist, colonialist, imperialist narratives, which justify the grabbing of other people's land — those people are inferior, those people weren't using the land properly, those aren't developed people, we're the civilized people who can use it properly, these are very strong narratives. I worked in Brazil for three years and clashed, well, or rather was in some cases beaten up by ranchers and their stooges who were advocating exactly these positions. So I'm painfully aware of how these things are tangled up.

Ana: Yeah, it's almost like a partner who's accusing you of cheating or something while they're doing the cheating themselves. It's a strange, it's a really messed up way to present this argument. And I was thinking whether — you know, Glenn Greenwald obviously came in to defend Russell Brand, and Russell Brand is — they're distilling these really complex, or they're ignoring these really complex nuances behind everything that you've just explained, and whether knowingly or not repeating this really damaging industry line and making it even more mainstream and giving it even more kudos.

George: Yeah. I think — and again, Glenn, you know, another guy I really used to respect — and in both cases, they just seem to have succumbed to telling people what they want to hear. And that way you get a massive audience, you make loads of money, you get loads of people talking about you, just as we're talking about them right now. You know, and as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. And so it's almost got a gravitational pull, these far-right wing conspiracy theories, and even good people like them, who, you know, once good people get sucked into that black hole. And once they're in, well, they lose their credibility. There's really no coming back from that, you know, I mean, you say, what can we do to persuade Russell? I'm not sure I want him on my side anymore because he's so dirtied by the game he's been playing.

Ana: Yeah. And it's like the influencer being influenced by their following rather than actually influencing.

George: Exactly. That is so true. And I think, you know, you can be loved, loved not wisely but too well by your followers and your audience, and you can then start trying to give them what they want every time, or maybe, you know, I'll upset them if I've said this so I've got to say that, and then you end up being owned by them and not being able to think for yourself. It's a really dangerous transition which you can see happening with quite a few of these people.

Ana: Thinking back to the Dutch government, is there anything that you think they could have done to avoid the reaction, the initial protests and the reaction from the farmers? Is it a problem that they've been dragging their feet on climate change or climate action for too long now, and they're now having to kind of abruptly, you know, impose regulations?

George: This, in microcosm, is the problem we're seeing worldwide, that they delayed and they delayed and they delayed until they hit the cliff edge. You know, if they'd done this slowly and gradually from the 1980s, in response to scientific advice, no one would have batted an eyelid because you could have given people plenty of time to make the changes. We could have had a program where you just bring in a bit more change every year, and make sure everyone's compensated, everyone would have been happy, things would have looked very different from now — no one would have complained about it. But instead, you sit there twiddling your thumbs saying, oh, we'll leave it for the next government, leave it for the next government, you get this Council of State ruling, and bang, you hit the cliff edge, you've got to change everything right now. And the result of that is massive political chaos. The same is happening with climate breakdown. The same is happening with so many other environmental issues. They've just been leaving it and leaving it and leaving it, saying, well, that's a second term issue, that's a third term issue, that's a fourth term issue. And then it hits a cliff edge. And then a lot of people get extremely upset when you've got to take sudden action, rather than gradual action.

Ana: So obviously, you have the narratives coming from the government, you have the narratives coming from the far right, and then you have the pervading mainstream media narratives around our systems collapse and climate breakdown. And I feel that this space is, you know, the work that you're doing, and that we're trying to do at Sentient media, it's so important right now. But you have been, obviously, in this space, you know, for an incredibly long time battling the shutdown of investigative journalism at the BBC, and all of these things. What's your take on the current situation, as it is now? Like, where do you think we should be putting our energy?

George: I mean, we need just to persuade as many people as possible to get behind the effort to foreground our environmental crisis, because it makes everything else look petty by comparison. We're looking at the collapse of earth systems. And I don't think one person in 100 has grasped what that means, and what the consequences will be. And so we just have to widen and widen the circle of people who understand what that means, and are prepared to stand up against the forces driving us there. And these forces, they're not Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates, and, you know, however miserable those people are —I've got no brief for any of them — but they're much bigger forces than that, you know, this is us, and it is corporations, and it is big money, and it is big governments. And you can't shy away from those truths, that this is a systemic problem and requires a systemic response, not the scapegoating of a few people who've got absolutely nothing to do with it.

Ana: This is the frustrating thing, because I feel that we kind of agree with these people up to 90 percent. Like, yes, there is a problem. There is something happening on a huge scale that we need to take control over. But they just get it wrong as to who?

George: I don't know, I don't see it like that at all. I think it's a cynical attempt to deflect blame. And to scapegoat people who aren't responsible so as not to deal with these things. They are never going to be our friends. They will never be won over. They are not in any way our allies. They are trying to undermine effective action and one of the ways of doing that is to point to other people and say they're to blame. And one day it might be Klaus Schwab, the next day it might be asylum seekers on a dinghy, and so they want the opposite of what we want. They don't want action which interferes with the profit-making of big corporations and big finance, which interferes with the power relations which they celebrate, you know behind every far-right movement is a billionaire. That's always been the case. Big money backs the far right and the far right never fights big money. The far right is hand in glove with big money. That was the case with Hitler, that was the case with Mussolini, that's the case with all the far-right movements today. So they're not in any way our allies, actual or potential.

Ana: So hope is lost with these folk, we'll focus on action elsewhere.

George: Exactly.

Ana: Amazing. George, thank you so much for your time. I'm sorry we didn't get into precision fermentation.

George: No no no, it's all good. We can talk about that another time.

Ana: I'd love to. I appreciate your time so much. Thank you, George.

George: All right. Thanks a lot then Ana. Great to talk. Bye bye then, bye.