Sustainability on the Horizon

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.


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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.


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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.


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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 children to read, to personal home assistants that support the elderly. Virtual travel has become commonplace, as have hybrid-electric planes. Although Porritt does envision a popular revolution leading to several capitalist reforms, it is new technology – whether in the form of artificial meat, nitrogen-fixing wheat, or geoengineering advances – that seems to drive his world.


It is a message that some environmental activists may not like. In 2015 a group of environmental scholars released what they called an “Ecomodernist Manifesto”, a call for humanity to leverage technologies and economic resources to create a “Good Anthropocene” – a world where humans direct and steer the natural environment for the better. They encouraged the development of nuclear energy, increased urbanization, and intensive farming. Most importantly, they critiqued existing forms of environmentalism as inadequate and profoundly negative. It was a calculated move, intended to provoke irritation and anger as much as political discussion. Although initial media response was relatively positive, mainstream environmentalists soon responded in kind. Author George Monbiot called them “ignorant of history”. Climate scientist Michael Mann tweeted: “I’m guessing that most Californians, Pacific Islanders & residents of Kivalina would question the concept of a #GoodAnthropocene”, referencing areas recently affected by climate change.

To be clear, Porritt would not be caught dead with his name on the manifesto – he is stridently opposed to nuclear power, and The World We Made calls for increased small-scale agriculture rather than industrial farming. But he is an ecomodernist in his enthusiasm for technology, and in his belief that capitalism and development is the best way forward. He rejects environmentalism that is more against possibilities than proposing them, and environmentalism that seeks a return to a pre-industrial age of subsistence farming. “The cruellest story for young people is to envision that there is no hope,” he told us. “We can’t do that. If you want a book that is exciting and aspirational for young people, you better not suggest that all we need to do is live in a yurt in West Wales.”

What Porritt provides that most ecomodernists lack is a perspective on global inequality and a sense of humility born, perhaps, from his years of working on the front lines of political action. We joked about what his book, released only five years ago, has gotten wrong (and right) about the future. He was proud that his projections for drops in solar prices have been borne out over the past five years, and sheepish about his 2013 hopes that the United States would pass a “Cap and Prosper” cap-and-trade bill by 2017. (We briefly started discussion of Trump, only to have him sigh heavily and say, “Let’s not go there.”) In the end, The World We Made is both utopian and pragmatic. Amid flights of fancy including jetpacks and depression-fixing nanobots are sobering discussions of massive cyberhacking, catastrophic weather events, and the permanent evacuation of low-lying areas. In the postscript, he is honest with the reader and himself:

"I hope the balance of ideas in The World We Made makes it abundantly clear that such a technotopia is not a panacea. It doesn’t even deliver many of the things I care most passionately about; a world in which today’s vicious gaps between the rich and the poor are dramatically reduced; in which our love of nature can be sustained without having to put a monetary value about…But what I hope it does deliver is the prospect of some breathing space, to be able to go on working away at those and other precious causes."

“I’m not a technology freak,” he told us. “My real interest is social justice and politics. But what’s happening with technology now is so breathtaking that you have to go with that sense of ‘Bloody hell! This makes it doable.’” More soberly, he added: “I have no illusion that it needs to be handled with great sensitivity, because technology itself doesn’t deliver fairness.”


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When not on a book tour or doing activism, Porritt continues to speak on one of his greatest, and most controversial, interests: the importance of limiting population. He is a patron of the London-based charity ‘Population Matters’, which encourages increased availability of contraceptives and smaller families. He’s in good company – other patrons include Sir Richard Attenborough and Revenge of Gaia author James Lovelock. But his vocal support of population limits has at times made him the enemy of the mainstream and other environmentalists. In 2009, after commenting that having more than two children is “irresponsible” for the environment, Porritt found himself likened to Hitler and criticised on Fox News. Later that year, George Monbiot criticised Porritt’s position in an op-ed for the Guardian, writing: “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.” Monbiot added, flippantly: “It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men.”


Today, environmentalists are often split between those who critique per-capita overconsumption – particularly in the Global North – and those who prioritise population control overall. Those more concerned with overconsumption argue that attempts to limit population growth in the global South are missing the point at best, and neo-colonialist at worst. Those concerned with global population argue that any decrease in population – in the North or South – will alleviate pressure on the environment. Monbiot is one of the former, Porritt one of the latter.


Despite substantial pushback, Porritt remains firm. His interest in population began in the 70s, when Blueprint for Survival and other books explicitly and frequently drew the connection between population growth and environmental degradation. He told the Sunday Times in 2009: “I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate.” While population is notoriously a taboo topic in the public sphere, Porritt says that the idea of limiting population is “hidden in the mainstream”. “We can’t think about a sustainable world unless we talk about a world where numbers – to be simple about it – plateau as soon as possible, and then gently begin to decline,” he told us.


Porritt does not advocate for coercive techniques, such as China’s one-child policy, in order to achieve a slowly shrinking population. But he does approve of substantial education programs for women and freely available contraception. “It’s always been a human rights issue for me — a woman’s rights issue,” he says. “Just start there, the millions of women who don’t get to manage their own fertilities.”


In the 90s, Porritt made a documentary film called Sex, Sin and Survival which was shot partly in the Philippines. He filmed a woman who had received an illegal abortion when pregnant with her sixth child. (The Philippines, a highly Catholic country, continues to outlaw abortions). The abortion went poorly, and she was left in critical condition in an informal women’s hospital. They interviewed her for a day, then returned the next day to finish the shoot. Overnight, the woman had passed away due to complications from the botched procedure. “To me, that brought all of these statistics down to this one empty bed when we walked back to the hospital,” Porritt said. “But—” he paused. “I don’t get any more traction with this stuff than I did back in the 70s.”


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In recent months, Brexit has weighed on Porritt. In the lead-up to the referendum, he spent months advising an organisation called ‘We Are Europe’, a campaign run by millennials to encourage young voters to vote Remain. In the aftermath of the result, he said, he hasn’t summed up the energy to continue campaigning about Brexit. “It’s just heartbreaking,” he told us. “This is a dark time for the environment.” He is deeply critical of the current administration’s environmental policies. “There’s not a single enthusiast for climate and green issues…at the heart of the government anyway,” he says.


Nowadays, when he is not working for Forum for the Future – the non-profit he founded in 1996 – Porritt writes, gives talks, and serves as the Chancellor of Keele University. In the post-Brexit world, he is also a supporter of a new UK political movement called ‘More United’ – a group that crowdfunds support for candidates who are progressive, committed to greening the economy, and who push back against the “tribalism” in current politics.

When asked about the rise of fake news and false information – he has written that well-informed environmental journalists are a “vanishing breed here in the UK” – he says he can imagine the light at the end of the tunnel for the post-truth era. “My feeling is that in time, and not so very far away, there will be places [for news] where their principle exclusive promise to people is total transparency, and as close to the truth as you can get,” he told us. “I think people will seek out truth and integrity.”


It’s an upbeat message for a man whose primary hope for the future – technology – has also been the cause of the partial breakdown of public discourse. But Porritt has always believed that you can have the best of both worlds: technology without dystopia, sustainability without autocracy. He criticises the “despairing activists” who think the solution to climate change is to establish dictatorial policies similar to those in China. “I’m still hanging in there for sustainability through democracy, even if it is a harder road to travel,” he told us. Dictatorships, he likes to point out, don’t last very long – and so aren’t sustainable anyway. “The personal bit is crucial,” he says. “There’s simply no way that you’re going to have this transformation without the vast majority of citizens wanting it to happen.”


And Porritt, despite his 40 plus years fighting for environmental and social change, despite the rise of Trump and the Brexit, still believes that, sooner or later, the vast majority of citizens will get behind a sustainable future. In April 2013, just a month before the earth hit the 400 ppm CO2 threshold for the first time, Porritt stepped onto the stage at a TEDx event at Exeter University. He talked briefly about The World We Made, and then flipped over to his next slide. “I’ve come to one simple conclusion,” he said, as a sentence flashed on the screen behind him. “A brilliant, genuinely sustainable way of life is still available to ALL of us.” Interview conducted by Shannon Osaka and Sofia Blanchard.


Illustration by Adam Story


Shannon Osaka reads an MPhil in Geography at Worcester College. She is a poet, environmental journalist, and climate scholar.

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