A new type of capitalism

In an EB exclusive, Jonathan Porritt says change in the face of a failing environment is hopelessly inadequate. But we can't go against the grain, we must embrace capitalism - or a form of it

The book Capitalism As If The World Matters revolves around two simple observations. Firstly, capitalism is basically the only economic game in town, and the vast majority of people (in both the rich and poor world) are content for it to remain so for the definable future. Secondly, learning to live sustainably on the only planet we’ve got is a non-negotiable imperative if we want to avoid an accelerating descent into resource wars, collapsing eco-systems and traumatic social and economic decline.

So which of the following assertions do you not agree with? It’s all but impossible any longer to deny the need for profound change in the face of today’s gathering ecological crises. The science on which that analysis is based is rock-solid, and more than sufficient to justify far more radical political interventions than are currently occurring.

The fact that profound change is necessary is obviously not sufficient in itself, in that the pace of change remains hopelessly inadequate. Conventional environmentalism has so far failed to win over hearts and minds either within the electorate at large or within today’s political elites.

Change will not come by threatening people with yet more ecological doom and gloom. The changes have to be seen as desirable changes, good for people, their health, their quality of life – and not just good for the prospects of future generations. This is a here-and-now agenda, as well as an agenda for tomorrow.

That means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it. It means embracing capitalism as the only over-arching system capable of achieving any kind of reconciliation between ecological sustainability and the pursuit of prosperity and personal wellbeing. That said, today’s particular model of capitalism is clearly incapable of delivering that kind of reconciliation, dependent as it is on the accelerating liquidation of the natural capital on which we depend, and on worsening divides between the rich and the poor.

At its heart, therefore, sustainable development comes down to one challenge. Is it possible to conceptualise and then operationalise an alternative model of capitalism – one that allows for the sustainable management of all the different capital assets we rely on, so that the yield from those different assets sustains us now as well as in the future?

The case for sustainable development must be reframed if that is to happen. It must be as much about new opportunities for responsible wealth creation as about outlawing irresponsible wealth creation. It must draw on a core of ideas and values that speaks directly to people’s desire for a higher quality of life, emphasising enlightened self-interest and personal wellbeing of a different kind.

It is only this combination (sustainable development seen as answering the unavoidable challenge of living within natural limits, providing unprecedented opportunities for responsible and innovative wealth creators, and offering a more balanced and more rewarding way of life) which is likely to provide a serious political alternative to today’s economic and political orthodoxy.

Unless it throws in its lot with this kind of progressive, political agenda, conventional environmentalism will continue to decline. It’s remarkable how reluctant most environmentalists are to engage in that sort of debate. Environmental organisations (especially charities) have got so good at pretending to be above party politics that they’ve ended up marooned in an ideology-free zone where contemporary capitalism is some sort of given which they can do nothing about.

Reconciling sustainable development with capitalism is today’s most critical intellectual challenge. But the amount of time or money devoted to it by today’s environment movement is miniscule. It’s just not what they do, leaving it to the likes of the New Economics Foundation to fill the gap.

To be fair, it’s true that Friends of the Earth continues to campaign with passion on human rights, international trade, governance issues and so on. Greenpeace has steadfastly maintained its work on security issues and nuclear weapons. And WWF has worked tirelessly to get the chemical industry to face up to its full responsibilities in today’s global economy.

But millions of people in the UK who are happy to be described as “environmentalists” remain acutely reluctant even to acknowledge the ideological heartland of what they call “environmentalism”, so depoliticized that any mention of the bigger capitalist picture sends them running off back to their bird-boxes and gently simmering organic lentils.

Hence my contention in Capitalism As If The World Matters that the environment movement is going to have to raise its game. We have got to get better at presenting the overwhelmingly positive benefits of the proposed transition in terms of new opportunities for entrepreneurs, new sources of prosperity and jobs, a higher quality of life, safer, more secure communities, a better work-life balance, and so on.

Unfortunately, that’s just not happening, not even in Europe, let alone in the US. We’re still the people who like to say no, to talk more in terms of nightmares rather than visions, and we still rely on a very narrow socio-economic and ethnic base in holding our ground. Our ideological discourse is incredibly naive at best, and non-existent at worst. This may explain why we’re still losing the world, even though to a large extent we’ve won the intellectual argument.

But our relative failure as environmentalists is nothing like as great as that of the progressive Left. It, for the most part, is still unapologetically in thrall to the great god of economic growth, sees all talk of “environmental limits” as crass eco-fundamentalism, and remains besotted with a variety of techno-cornucopianism that renders them all but irrelevant in today’s sustainability debate. It’s hard to exaggerate just how damagingly the Left has been corrupted by today’s dominant neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

Hence the chronic political vacuum around sustainable development. While we bang on about the burning necessity of urgent and comprehensive change, electorates remain unmoved by this rhetoric and apprehensive about the implications of any such change for their own quality of life.

Although they know our current system of capitalism is seriously flawed, there is little recognition that it is completely unsustainable. There’s little deep awareness of what interdependence really means. John Muir’s observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” means little in today’s culture of instant gratification and atomised self-indulgence.

Paradoxically, few people in the rich world seem to be getting any happier – and neither the environmental movement nor the progressive Left have much to say about that extraordinary state of affairs.

The new European constitution fails to find any form of words that reflect either real awareness of the biophysical limits to future growth, or any equivalent to those stirring words in the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It seems unarguable that the bipolar challenges of the biophysical limits to growth, and the terrible damage being done to the human spirit through the pursuit of unbridled materialism, will compel a profound transformation of contemporary capitalism – and sooner rather than later if we want to avoid dramatic social and economic disruption. Hence the idea of capitalism as if the world matters – an evolved, intelligent and elegant form of capitalism that puts the Earth at its very centre and ensures that all people are its beneficiaries in recognition of our unavoidable interdependence.

From that perspective, it is only sustainable development that can provide both the intellectual foundations and the operational pragmatism upon which to base such a transformation. This is why sustainable development remains for me the only seriously big idea that can bear the weight of that challenge, and why the core values that underpin sustainable development – interdependence, empathy, equity, personal responsibility and intergenerational justice – are the only foundation upon which any viable vision of a better world can possibly be constructed.

Jonathon Porritt is Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (www.sd-commission.org.uk). Capitalism As If The World Matters is published by Earthscan

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie