Updated: Nov 10, 2018
Jonathan Porritt on the changing face of environmental activism
by Shannon Osaka
On a sunny day in early February, Jonathon Porritt – one trouser leg rolled up from cycling – stepped into the Swallow Café in suburban Cheltenham. The 67-year-old sustainability activist looked fatigued but was in good spirits. While he has been called “Britain’s most influential green thinker”, his life has always been international. He had recently returned from Malaysia, as part of an ongoing project with his non-profit to reduce the environmental impacts of palm oil plantations. Just a few years ago he completed a global tour, promoting his most recent book – the surprisingly utopian and optimistic The World We Made.
Porritt is an environmentalist who has lived many lives. The former chairman of the UK Green Party, he also served as a key advisor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has been, by turns, a radical for ecological change and an advocate for green capitalism. He has written a children’s book called Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth, narrated a documentary on consumerism, and authored nine books on environmental and social change. Even in the midst of Brexit and the rise of Trump, he has continued the sustainability work he started over four decades ago. In some ways his life mirrors the fluctuations and upheavals of the environmental movement over the past that half-century – its compromises, its enduring values, and its continued hope.
Born in 1950, Porritt’s early life hardly signalled his ultimate activist lifestyle. He carries two titles – a CBE for service to the environment, and a Baronetcy, inherited from his father, which affords him the appellation “Sir”. He attended Eton as a child, and afterwards studied Modern Languages at Magdalen College in Oxford. The Telegraph once cheekily referred to him as “the greenest of blue bloods”.
In his studies at Oxford, Porritt had little engagement with environmental issues. In 1968, when he began his course, campus politics were lively but the environment was not yet a central issue. He was active in student politics – “You couldn’t not be involved in politics in the late 1960s”, he told us wryly – but his first experience with environmental ideas came from outside the classroom, when he spent two gap years in New Zealand and Australia planting trees and working on farms.
Those years were formative. A few years later, at Oxford, he read Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen’s Blueprint for Survival, released in 1972. It was the early days of environmental thought, and talk of runaway populations and disrupted “life-support systems” was on the rise. Four years earlier, Paul Ehrlich had published The Population Bomb, setting a generation on edge over food scarcity. Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, and Small is Beautiful followed soon after – books that, in one form or another, critiqued the capitalist idea of infinite growth and the threat of soaring population.
Porritt was hooked. After graduating Oxford, he moved into his parent’s basement flat in St. John’s Wood, in Northwest London. He taught English drama at a West London comprehensive, and saved money to fund his early political campaigns as a member of the Ecology Party – which would later be rebranded as the UK Green Party. It could not have been a stranger location to launch an environmental career. St. John’s Wood was deeply Tory and posh, and Porritt recruited friends and colleagues to, as he wrote in a blog post, “put in long stints of stuffing envelopes with election material, fortified by plentiful supplies of cheap wine.” The locals were polite, but “somewhat bemused” by his attempts.
Porritt never was elected to office for the Ecology Party, but he did rise quickly through its ranks. By 1979 he was the deputy chairman of the party, and wrote its manifesto: “The Real Alternative”. It included a brief mention of climate change, but climate had not yet emerged as a popular environmental issue. “It was quite low-key,” Porritt says. “It was one of those things that was out there on the horizon.” Stamped inside the front cover, however, was an aphorism that could serve as a motto for climate activism: We do not inherit the world from our fathers – we borrow it from our children.
Porritt’s environmental credentials and organising ability did not go unnoticed. In 1984 he was appointed head of the UK branch of Friends of the Earth, an international grassroots organisation. The group focused on activism against nuclear power, the destruction of biodiversity, and excessive waste. Membership grew dramatically under Porritt’s leadership, but he became disenchanted with the traditional tactics of the green movement. What he saw as the traditional tools of environmental activism – guilt, fear and anger – no longer seemed capable of providing concrete answers. “I spent the first 25 years of my life in the green movement doing guilt, fear and anger,” he told us. “And I got quite good at it, and felt quite comfortable doing it, but…I started to realise that I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. It’s impossible. You can’t sustain the psychological wear and tear.”
He left Friends of the Earth, and in June of 1992 flew to Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – also called the Earth Summit. It was a momentous occasion, one that later came to be seen as the institutional birth of the environmental movement. The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change – conventions that would define future international action – were both opened for signature in Rio.
At the summit Porritt wandered the Global Forum, the civil society gathering a few miles from the main conference. He heard Fidel Castro speak, and spent two days listening to spiritual leaders preach on environmental issues. And, most surprisingly for Porritt, he began to value the role of business and government in solving environmental problems. He told us: “It was kind of an eye-opener. This wasn’t about environmentalists in their NGOs trying to take on the world, trying to persuade governments to do this and castigating business for doing that. This was a much bigger thing about how one persuades people in society to move faster to address these issues, and how one could play into more positive emotions. Ever since then I’ve believed that everyone has a role to play, all the way through to global institutions, to massive UN treaties, to everyone. The whole lot is crucial.”
So he turned away from negative campaigning and tried to create something new. In 1996 he co-founded Forum for the Future, a non-profit that collaborates with corporations and the public sector. It was a bold attempt to put the Earth Summit’s lessons into practice. “At the time, people thought that we’d sold out,” he said. “But now everybody works with business.”
This new angle led Porritt to write one of his most popular books: Capitalism as if the World Matters, first published in 2005. In it, he walks a fine line between criticizing capitalism as an unsustainable system – predicated on infinite growth with finite natural capital – and calling it “the only game in town”. The book is in some ways unexpected for a former Green Party activist. Porritt rejects eco-Marxism and other more radical perspectives. A new form of capitalism, he wrote, does not require “some revolutionary taking to the barricades”. It demands “a reform agenda, not a revolutionary one.”
Instead of disavowing capitalism per se, Porritt took aim at conspicuous consumption and the central premise of growth as an economic indicator. He wrote:
"Macro-economic goals might include financial stability, fair taxation […] and, of course, year-on-year increases in exponential economic growth – but absolutely not making people feel happier about themselves and their lives. If happiness has any political salience at all, it is as the assumed by-product of achieving all those other 'grown-up goals'."
The idea of a happiness-focused capitalism is enticing. A growing number of activists, however, seem to have lost faith in the potential for green capitalism. Despite companies and countries worldwide adopting the concept of “sustainable development” for their policies, such statements often ring hollow – seeming more like attempts to rebrand corporate image than heartfelt endeavours to create a new way of life.
Porritt, however, remains guardedly hopeful. His vision of sustainable development – unlike the vision of his associates in the business world –is not one in which materialism, consumerism, and growth can continue unabated. “I have come to accept,” he wrote in 2008 in the Independent, “that we have got no immediate solution other than to promote a radically different kind of Capitalism – genuinely sustainable and equitable. I believe such a thing is (just about!) possible if those who care about Capitalism (and are its principle beneficiaries) realise the terrifying consequences of the entire system collapsing in the not too distant future.” To the rich, Porritt warns: get on board or accept the potentially catastrophic consequences.
In 2050, the fictional Alex McKay lives in Ashton Vale, a suburb of Bristol, in a flat-pack house just hundreds of meters away from the community college where he teaches. There is a community farm outside his home, and three electric cars parked nearby serve 100 households. This is Porritt’s hope for the future in The World We Made. Alex (perhaps a foil for Porritt, himself a former teacher) has embarked on a research project with his students. The resulting book is part speculative fiction, part scrapbook – the story of how humanity became, in the space of 37 years, relatively sustainable.
There are not many utopian visions of our environmental future. Today we are more likely to have ogled the disaster scenes in The Day after Tomorrow or winced at the surging floods of 2012 than imagined a legitimate sustainable society. In the media, disaster narratives about climate change are rampant, and newspaper headlines routinely warn that the warming climate will ruin the economy, increase terrorist attacks, and trigger mass extinctions. These are the messages of guilt, fear, and anger that Porritt has tried to escape.
The World We Made is overwhelming in its sheer ambition. Although the book seems almost childish from the outside – it has a bright yellow cover and its title is written in a handprinted scrawl – it takes a synoptic view of global change. Along with Capitalism, it is at the heart of Porritt’s gradual transformation from an outspoken, radical member of the environmental movement to someone else, someone still outspoken but more interested in the practical options for the future. Unwilling to leave a single stone unturned, Porritt addresses the future of medicine, cybersecurity, corporate governance, recreational travel, and of course, energy and climate.
There is much in the book to make any environmentalist happy. By 2050, catastrophic climate change has been averted through a combination of rapid advances in renewables technology, geoengineering, and a global carbon tax. Coral reefs, although damaged by severe ocean acidification through the 2030s, are on the mend. A “bioeconomy” has sprung up in plastic-replacement materials, which either decompose or can be recycled into new products. Meanwhile, the new capitalism that Porritt called for in his earlier book has come to pass. GDP has been replaced by “The Index of Sustainable Economic Wellbeing”, a new metric for companies and nations. Britain has introduced universal basic income, and consumption of material goods is on the decline.
Although Porritt rejects the ‘optimist’ label – “I talk about hope rather than optimism, because if you’re optimistic these days you’re probably not keeping your eyes open” – there is much in this book that could easily be called techno-optimism. Robots are ubiquitous, from “litbots” which help teach ch