George Monbiot: How Does This Moment Call For A "Great Reset"?

Jun 19, 2020

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Greater Good?

To achieve radical change, writer George Monbiot says we need a new story that explains the present and guides the future. He offers a vision built around our innate capacity for cooperation.

About George Monbiot

George Monbiot is a British writer known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books, including Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, The Age of Consent, and Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. His latest book is Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.

He began his career in journalism with the BBC, first producing for their Natural History Unit and later as an investigative journalist for the World Service.

He holds degrees from the University of Oxford, and has held a series of academic positions as a visiting fellow or professor at the universities of Oxford, Keele, Bristol, and East London.

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On the show today - how this moment of crisis has brought up a lot of questions about what it means to act for the greater good.


GEORGE MONBIOT: The only way really we can get through this is by supporting each other to a greater extent than we have done in living memory.

ZOMORODI: This is writer and activist George Monbiot.

MONBIOT: We have to come together even more than in wartime to ensure that our neighbors are ok, to ensure that people who have been forgotten by everybody are no longer forgotten, to ensure that highly vulnerable people are not exposed. We have to show solidarity with the vulnerable people in society.

ZOMORODI: And even though the pandemic has exposed our greatest weaknesses in health care, in the economy, in our long history with racism, George says we can work together to turn this crisis into what he calls The Great Reset.

MONBIOT: So we are in a terrible situation, certainly in the U.S., U.K., several other nations where I feel our governments have woefully failed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. But we also have to try to see the positive side of this horrendous situation, which is to say we learned several things from this. First of all, the political and economic system we have is not robust. It's highly susceptible to shocks. But secondly, all these things we were told were impossible - oh, governments can't borrow beyond a certain point, universal basic income, don't be ridiculous, of course, we can't house homeless people - all of these things we were told, sadly, we just can't do that, there is no alternative, immediately turned out to be possible when the need arises and governments want to do it. And so we say, oh, so hang on a minute. It was just a lack of political will. The only thing that stands between us and the better world that we might want is a lack of political will. So let's work out what world we want, and then let's use every democratic tool in the toolbox to achieve that world, and we can do so in the knowledge that radical change is possible.

ZOMORODI: And to achieve that radical change, George says we need to come up with a new story.

MONBIOT: So we are creatures of narrative. The trick that we have learnt - in fact, more than learnt, which is hard-wired into our brains is to look for a story that explains our situation, whatever that situation might be, which tells us where we stand, how we got there, where we're trying to get to and how we're going to get to that place.

ZOMORODI: George Monbiot picks up this idea from the TED stage.


MONBIOT: And it's not just stories in general that we are attuned to but particular narrative structures. There are a number of basic plots that we use again and again. And in politics, there is one basic plot which turns out to be tremendously powerful. And I call this the restoration story. It goes as follows - disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. But the hero will revolt against this disorder, fight those powerful forces, against the odds overthrow them and restore harmony to the land.

You've heard this story before. It's the Bible story. It's the "Harry Potter" story. It's the "Lord Of The Rings" story. But it's also the story that has accompanied almost every political and religious transformation going back millennia. In fact, we could go as far as to say that without a powerful new restoration story, a political and religious transformation might not be able to happen. It's that important.


ZOMORODI: George says we don't have to go back too far to hear that restoration story. It's what we heard during the Great Depression.


MONBIOT: Disorder afflicts the land...


MONBIOT: ...Caused by the powerful and nefarious forces of the economic elite which have captured the world's wealth. But the hero of the story...

ZOMORODI: And when that restoration story fell apart, neoliberals came up with their own version.


MONBIOT: You'll never guess what's coming.


MONBIOT: Disorder afflicts the land caused by the powerful and nefarious forces of the overmighty state. But the hero with the story - the entrepreneur will fight...

ZOMORODI: But once that narrative crumbled with the 2008 recession, George says we never came up with a new one. And that's a problem.


MONBIOT: And that is why we're stuck. Without that new story, we are stuck with the old, failed story that keeps on failing. Despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. When we have no story that explains the present and describes the future, hope evaporates. Political failure is at heart a failure of imagination.


ZOMORODI: So, George, what is the story that we need right now to help us focus on the future and maybe the greater good?

MONBIOT: So my very rough sketch of the story would go as follows - the world has been thrown into disorder by the powerful and nefarious forces of neoliberalism who have torn society apart in their efforts to atomize and rule, ripping down our economic safety nets, ripping down our public services. But the heroes of the story, who is potentially almost all of us, can, against the odds, work to overthrow those powerful and nefarious forces by rebuilding community, by creating, through mutual aid, the powerful communities which we have an almost innate disposition to try to create. And through those communities, we start to build a far more participatory, deliberative democracy than we tend to have at the moment. And in doing so - by rebuilding community, by showing that there is such a thing as society - we can restore harmony to the land.


MONBIOT: I admit that all this sounds like a bit of a tall order. But I believe that in Western nations there is actually a story like this waiting to be told. Over the past few years, there's been a fascinating convergence of findings in several different sciences - in psychology and anthropology, in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. And they all tell us something pretty amazing - that human beings have got this massive capacity for altruism. Sure, we all have a bit of selfishness and greed inside us, but in most people, those are not our dominant values. We survived the African savannas despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey by an amazing ability to engage in mutual aid. And that urge to cooperate has been hard-wired into our minds through natural selection. These are the central, crucial facts about humankind - our amazing altruism and cooperation.

ZOMORODI: I want to ask you about this moment that we're in right now. We are facing two crises - the pandemic, the protests happening across the U.S., and it, you know, it feels like this country is being pulled at the seams sometimes. But could this be a turning point?

MONBIOT: It could be. And the land has certainly been thrown into disorder, so heroes wanted. And basically, this is where we have to come together. And I think we've all become even more aware of the urgent and desperate need for restoration. A harmonious land is a land without injustice. It's a land in which all people are equal and have equal rights. It's a land in which we live within natural limits so that we don't destroy our own livelihoods and the prospects of future generations. And so what we're looking at is a political economy which is based on fairness - fairness towards each other, fairness towards the living world, fairness towards people who are currently marginalized, ensuring that everybody's needs are fully met. No one is excluded. No one is shoved to the sides of the economy, shoved to the sides politically. And we start to rebuild. We restore through building community.

ZOMORODI: I guess I'm wondering how you bring everyone together when the story that Americans and actually those in many other countries are telling themselves is that we are more divided than ever.

MONBIOT: Well, our politics and our societies have been deliberately polarized and we are very divided. But in a way, you know, one of our powerful, dominant values is belonging. We all strongly feel a need to belong to something. And if we don't feel we belong to something, we desperately cast around to find something where we feel we can fit in and be recognized and known and express our humanity. And there are really two kinds of belonging. There's what psychologists call bonding networks and what they call bridging networks. And bonding networks is where you say I belong to people who are like me, who look like me, who talk like me, and everybody else is an alien and threatening. And that can often be a very toxic form of belonging, and it's taken to its extreme in the form of fascism.

But then there's bridging networks, where you create belonging by creating shared interests with people who might be very different to yourself, very different backgrounds, don't look like you, don't talk like you, but where you say, oh, we've got something in common. We both want a better neighborhood. And what we've seen in the United States has been a tremendous expression of bridging community, of creating bridging networks, bringing together different communities to fight for justice side by side. And that's exactly the sort of restoration that we need to see.

ZOMORODI: So when we look back, I don't know, let's say 20, 30, 50 years from now, what do you think we'll say about this time? What story do you think we'll be telling each other?

MONBIOT: I hope very much that 2020 will be seen as a tipping point, a time of dreadful crisis and injustice where people were exposed through government neglect to a horrible pandemic and many, many people died unnecessarily, where we saw horrendous expressions of institutional racism, but also where we've seen an incredible community response right across the world, people helping each other through the pandemic and people standing shoulder to shoulder against institutional racism and oppression. And I think the combination of that mutual aid and that incredible power of civil disobedience that we've seen unleashed in recent days - this could be a turning point. This could be the moment at which it becomes unsustainable to try to maintain power in its current form - this oppressive power, this power over people, rather than mobilizing the power of people. This could be the year in which the people reclaim power over our own lives, and we start turning this into a world fit for its people. This is my hope that we look back on this time as the great reset.

ZOMORODI: George Monbiot - you can see his full talk at

Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about the greater good. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin and Yan Cong. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.