Jonathon Porritt

Earthscan, 2005, 336 pp., £20 h/b – ISBN 1 84407 192 8

Sir Jonathon Porritt is the UK’s leading environmentalist, who has been Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission since 2000 and Co-Director of the Prince of Wales’s Business and the Environment Programme for the last ten years, in addition to being Co-Founder and Programme Director of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity. In these capacities he is in a unique position to indicate the ways in which capitalism can be reconciled with sustainability, drawing as he does on a vast range of data and experience.

His thesis is that our current model of capitalism is on a collision course with the planet’s resources – business as usual is not a long-term option – and that sustainable development is an imperative that must be incorporated in a new model of capitalism. He spells out the current tension between these views:

‘Sustainability is all about the long term, about working within limits, about making more for less, about accommodation with others to secure equilibrium – and it demands a deep and often disconcerting engagement with the natural world. Contemporary capitalism responds to the shortest of short terms, abominates the very notion of limits, celebrates excess, accepts the  “invisible hand” will fashion as many losers as winners – and has no connectedness with the natural world other than as a dumping ground and a store of raw materials.’

As Porritt indicates in this passage, our very attitude to the natural world creates an underlying pattern corresponding to a citation from Tom Gladwin about the difference between a technocratic and a holistic world-view where the former is characterised by power, manipulation and control while the latter stresses harmony, balance and working with nature. He also draws on Tim Kasser’s book The High Price of Materialism to reinforce his point that economic prosperity cannot be equated with happiness and wellbeing: ‘the kind of materialism driven by our contemporary consumer capitalism is leaving people unfulfilled and is killing the human spirit even as it degrades and despoils the natural world.’ This means that we need new forms of metrics beyond the discredited notion of GDP, as is explained in a chapter on this topic.

The book is divided into three parts. Our Unsustainable World provides an overview of where we are in terms of both human and environmental crises as well as analysing our unsustainable economic system and responses by government, business and civil society. Part Two provides a framework for sustainable capitalism through the Five Capitals system developed by Forum for the Future: natural, human, social, manufactured and financial. In Part Three Porritt sets out his recipe for a transformation of our existing framework. Here he looks at the strength of our collective denial and the need to redefine security, the development of an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, the business case for sustainable development, the role of civil society, the necessary vision and values, and finally the outlook in terms of what he calls the converging imperatives of biophysical limits and the wasting of the human spirit.  However, as he recognises,  proving the necessity of change is ‘a necessary but not sufficient condition for change actually to happen.’

Herein lies the rub, of which Porritt is acutely aware. Having eloquently made the case for reforming and adapting our political systems to cope with the necessary change, there can be no guarantee that things will actually happen smoothly. Even if we admit that the kind of changes he describes are inevitable, the adaptation may not occur in time. Politically, Porritt concludes that the progressive politics of the 21st century will have to redefine itself ‘at the interface between the non-negotiable necessity of profound and radical change and the desirability of putting the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of people absolutely at the heart of our political and economic systems.’  He upbraids the progressive left for being over-preoccupied with the challenges of material poverty and inequity ‘without noticing the simultaneous impoverishment of the human spirit.’  He also feels that the same forces have failed to understand the environmental agenda and still treated as a second order priority.

In our current International Futures Forum project on climate change and energy security I have been struck by research indicating that futures work tends to lead to investment and action only post-event – i.e. post-catastrophe. So does this condemn the prophet to cry in the wilderness? Will the frog inevitably be boiled alive? Of course we individually have the intelligence and foresight to anticipate future trends, but do we have the political and economic will to act pre-emptively? In this respect, action on climate change will provide a test case.

An effective ‘presponse’ entails both faith and hope: faith that human nature can rise to the challenge and the generation of hope to provide the energy and commitment required for a ‘different level of engagement’. Positive visions have more driving force that fear of nightmares, despite the current political climate. In this brilliant and timely book Porritt has thrown down the gauntlet and provided the necessary data and analysis on our collective dilemma. We now need debate and action at national and international levels to take his agenda forward. See


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