Just exactly guru are you?
Green guru Jonathon Porritt may have long quit the classroom at the London comprehensive he used to work at, but he is still very much the teacher. Erik Jaques goes back to school and gets a lesson in sustainability
If there was such a designation as environmentalist national treasure, Jonathon Porritt would claim it. For more than three decades – from barricade agitation to Whitehall pragmatism – he has coaxed, harangued, and inspired people and organisations to do the right thing in the name of sustainable development.
He was co-chairman of the embryonic Ecology, later Green, Party – of which he remains a member – and he brought science, reason and passion to bear on the radical Friends of the Earth during his tenure as director. He has also been chairman of the United Nations Environment and Development Committee for the UK. Tony Blair dubbed Porritt his green guru, and said he was “one of the most prominent voices promoting green issues over the past 25 years”. Blair also appointed him chairman of the independent, non-departmental Sustainable Development Commission in 2000. Prince Charles is also known to value his sagacity – Porritt is co-director of the Prince of Wales’ Business and Environment Programme.
In 1996, he founded the irrepressibly buoyant sustainable development charity and capacity builder, Forum for the Future. More than 100 graduates of its masters degree in sustainable development have infiltrated the business community as inspired change agents, while some 120 organisations – including big hitters like Marks & Spencer, Tesco and BP – have sought tutelage or collaboration.
Porritt is not your typical green activist, though. Eton and Oxford educated, he is the son of Lord Porritt, 11th Governor-General of New Zealand – who was surgeon to King George VI and an Olympic athlete – and a holder of a baronetcy – a title he abhors, and only accepted so as not to upset his mother. Although he loved the natural world as a child, his environmental eureka moment was born of human compassion rather than ecological abstraction or ideals. Working as an English literature and drama teacher at a rough comprehensive in White City, London – a post he chose after spurning his training as a barrister – Porritt was saddened to learn that the majority of his students had never visited the British countryside. Neither had they experienced such things as complete darkness and silence, or come face to face with a cow.
In the days before health and safety, he bundled them into a minibus, hotfooted it to Wales and set them loose to commune with their surroundings. It was an eye-opener for student and teacher alike. And it is a formula today reprised in Forum for the Future’s master classes for business leaders.
Porritt recalls: “It sort of started me off on a journey, which I then followed through in terms of the things I began to read.”
He rattles off a reading list that includes such luminous eco-touchstones as EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Matter, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “That’s how I got into it really, and it seemed completely and utterly logical that we had to totally change the way we created wealth, otherwise we were just heading to, well, roughly where we are now, actually,” he says.
We are sitting in the plush surroundings of a private members’ club in London. Amid the besuited folk perusing the FT, sipping tea and diligently Blackberrying away, Porritt – bear-like, windswept (a proud urban cyclist of many decades) and clad in crumpled corduroy – seems both at home and righteously alien.
“I spend a huge amount of time thinking how to encourage people to think and behave differently, which is basically what teachers do,” he says. “I think good teaching has always involved empathy, this ability to relate to the people you’re with and think about life from their perspective.
“So basically I’m not doing anything different now from my ten years in a London comprehensive. It’s a slightly different set of audiences – nothing was ever quite as difficult as 3B on a wet Friday afternoon, that’s for sure.”
Perhaps the most pertinent lesson Porritt has been teaching of late is the provocative hypothesis that capitalism is the best means to avert irreversible climate change and banish global inequity. The argument is elegantly synthesised in his book, Capitalism: As If The World Matters, which posits that capitalism – although deeply flawed and often morally and environmentally reprehensible – has the capacity to be remoulded into a force for good. To this end he proposes a framework for progress predicated on five categories of capital – natural, human, societal, manufactured and financial. The book’s ballsy, lucid logic has been widely praised. It has also been heavily criticised – mainly by environmentalists.
Porritt’s a seasoned feather ruffler, after all.
“I had a lot of my mates in the Green party coming back and asking ‘have you sold out to capitalism?'” he says. “I sort of said ‘what do you mean sold out?’
“Even when I was chair of the Green Party we weren’t actually advocating the end of capitalism, we were always in the business of trying to make a wretchedly, wretchedly bad system infinitely better.
“I’m just trying to be logical about this. We’ve got 10-15 years to do what we need to do, there ain’t going to be another system through which we can do it. The logic is quite simple, but not necessarily very comfortable.” The thoughts contained in Capitalism… are expanded upon in his latest book, Globalism & Regionalism, an impassioned call to arms for an overhaul of globalisation based on decarbonisation, acceleration of the Millennium Development Goals, and through a greater emphasis on regionalism.
It is clear that Porritt is a workaholic. In addition to Forum for the Future and the Sustainable Development Commission, he has served as a board member of the South West Regional Development Agency since 1999, and as a non-executive director of Wessex Water since 2005.
He’s also an avid, instinctive blogger, as well as an in-demand documentarian and op-ed journalist. What drives him is an unrelenting sense of purpose. Although our consumption of planetary resources continues to spiral out of control, Porritt is sanguine that 2008’s ignoble demise of hegemonic “red in tooth and claw” models of economic progress has paved the way for new, more sustainable and equitable ways of conducting both ourselves and business. “There are still some people that want us to get back to the old system as fast as we possibly can, with as little pain as possible,” he says.
“In the meantime, an awful lot of people are now acknowledging that this particular model of capitalism is broken. I don’t believe we’ll ever revert to that model of capitalism.
“I’m heartened by some of the speeches coming out of the government now. There is recognition that the adventure of the past 20 to 30 years has been fundamentally ill-judged, it has done a massive disservice to society, and to hundreds of millions of people.
“I don’t hear much contrition yet in the voices. It’s more a sense of ‘oops, that was unfortunate’, but I think there’s now more scope for looking at it differently. I’m more optimistic than most people, to be honest.
“If all we needed was a combination of compassion and logic, I can tell you green ideas would have been dominant decades ago.” So what does he think of the current government’s facility to change? He chuckles. “I’m one of those people who think that the Labour party has nothing to lose anyway. They might as well rethink some of the core propositions that were once a critical part of what Labour stood for, and bring some fresh, dramatically different ideas to the electorate. So I am hoping, for instance, that Labour will put together a 21st Century New Deal equivalent, based on sustainability thinking, based on low-carbon futures, based on the up-skilling society – creating jobs in the green economy to offer people a really exciting, dynamic route through into a different kind of economy in a quite short amount of time.
“We’ve only got decades to sort this out. Maybe it’s pathetic to be optimistic still, but I still tell myself ‘yeah, surely now they’re going to do it.'”
His optimism is boosted by the victory of Barack Obama. Porritt does not conceal his contempt for eight years of retrograde neo-conservatism. “I think the world – and not just America – needs Obama so badly.
“The world can’t do what it needs to do in terms of getting to a more sustainable future without America. If America ain’t playing the game, it’s not going to happen.” He pauses. “At least it’s not going to happen nicely. It’s going to happen, there’s no choice, but if America isn’t part of those that want to make it happen proactively, rather than in a despairing reaction to trauma, then it will be a very gritty business.
“It is interesting how palpable this need for optimism is. This need for something fresh and different, and clear cut, and seemingly more informed by humanitarian impulse rather than by aggressive self-interest.
“That’s the big change. It is all very well talking about a transition from a carbon-intensive to a low-carbon society, but actually a much more profound transition is the transition out of societies and economies being driven by aggressive, self-interested greed into economies that are driven by a much more ready acceptance of shared responsibility, the power of empathy, humanitarian responsibility, and so on.
“And we have to do that. That’s a huge transition.”
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