Franny Armstrong - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Do you vote?
Of course I vote!

How optimistic are you feeling about solving the challenge of climate change?
Earlier generations managed to solve the big issues of their time, like slavery or apartheid. And there is nothing stopping us - no technology or knowledge - other than ourselves. The past 30 years we've known about this problem, and now we're right at the end of the time when we can still do something. I'm very optimistic because of the number of people across all sections of society who are realising this and are focusing all of their energies on it.

Do you think it all hangs on Copenhagen?
The only chance is an international deal. Nothing else can do it and Copenhagen is when they are supposed to make the deal. If they fail to make an international deal that's as strong as the science demands, then we're up shit creek.

What's next?
On 1 January, the 10:10 campaign kicks in. Whatever happens at Copenhagen, whether the politicians succeed or fail, the people and businesses of Britain are going to start cutting their emissions. Understanding climate change and how close to the cliff-edge we are, I couldn't work on anything else. It would be like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

If you weren't doing this, what would you do?
I could never be a politician because I can't stand the process, but politicians are the ones who get to decide. I would also like to do little things, like getting water fountains installed in Tube stations to encourage people not to buy plastic bottles. I would have liked to be a music producer, in a studio recording music and tweaking drums. Basically, I want to have ten lives so I can do ten different things at the same time.

How do you find time to do everything?
I get bored very easily. I don't want to sit in the pub or watch TV. I was always making up schemes when I was younger - let's put on a pop concert, or get all the teachers to stop driving. Also, I feel very lucky that I have been born in this era, in a great family, with good health. I remember telling a school careers adviser: I want to direct a play, I want to make a feature film, I want to write a book. They said "Jesus, you can't do all that". But we don't have any limits. We are the most privileged who will ever live because everybody who comes after will have to deal with climate change. And for everyone before us, it was a lot harder.

Why don't we all do more about climate change?
I think that nobody wants to cause climate change. It's a mixture of our whole society being set up wrong and laziness. Put those two factors together and it all goes pear shaped. But if I had to pick one fundamental problem with climate change, I would say it's the time-lag. It's the 30 years between what we do and what happens as a result of what we do. And that's an intellectual challenge.

What made you an environmentalist?
My grandmother never used to throw things away. She would say there are only a certain amount of things in the world and so we have to share them. That's the core of environmentalism. We have to use only what we need and consider other people. I argued against her, because she used to shout at me for ripping all the wrapping paper off the presents. But she was clearly right, and I guessed I should change.

Do you argue a lot?
Yes. With my best friends I argue all the time.

Is there a plan?
There isn't a plan. You don't get long in terms of your working life. You only have a short period when you don't have that many responsibilities and you have all your faculties, meaning you have to be fairly young and energetic to push all these kind of projects. So you have about 20 years and I've always felt like I don't want to waste those 20 years doing something pointless. I want to do really good, high-quality stuff, whether that's a film or a campaign or whatever.

Does activism work?
You only have to look at history to see that it does. Nobody can argue that the US civil rights movement didn't work, or that Gandhi didn't work. A lot of people are looking for excuses not to change their lives, and that's one of them. We'll just ignore them.

Do you feel the responsibility of being seen as a leader?
The McLibel defendant, Helen Steel, told me, it's not that she feels brilliant that she did McLibel, but she knows how bad she would have felt if she hadn't, and if she had apologised to McDonald's. And that's kind of the same for me. I have to do this. I have to fight as hard as I can to prevent our species getting wiped out. And if other people think that's good, then I'm glad.

Do you think about climate change all the time?
Yes, but I don't get frustrated, because I am a glass-half-full person. I'm inspired by the people who are working on it. I almost forget that 99 per cent of the population don't give a shit, or that 99 per cent of the population is ignoring the problem.

Will you ever feel like you have done enough?
I feel like I have done enough now, I feel like I have made a good contribution. And if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I would feel like I did well, which is a profoundly good feeling that I've never had before. My whole life I've been feeling like I want to help, and now I feel I've done something. One of my motivations for working so hard is that I'll hate myself if, when I'm old, I think I stood by. If you stand by and let something happen, you are responsible, too.

Do you have time in your life for anything else?
We are thinking of restarting our singing bar. Karaoke, but around the piano. We used to have that but we had to put it on hold to make The Age of Stupid. But we're going to get it back, at Copenhagen actually! To keep the delegates amused. And we have a football team.

Is there anything you regret?
Only tiny things. We've made mistakes along the way, but I couldn't have done it with a more inspiring group of people.

Are we all doomed?
No. The scientists tell us - the peer-reviewed climate scientists, not the oil industry scientists - that there is still time from a science point of view. But nine out of ten of them don't think that the politics is going to pull it together. And that's where everybody needs to pitch in. At the moment, we, as in humanity, are not going to save ourselves.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood