Why Jonathon Porritt’s next step is focusing on intergenerational climate work

Image: Luke Nicholls for edie

Porritt announced his resignation with immediate effect on Thursday (4 May) and marked the occasion with an event held at Unilever’s UK headquarters in London.

Recounting his extensive career in the global sustainable business space, Porritt bemoaned “30 wasted years” of climate opportunities since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro.

He said: “Our reality is extraordinarily simple. Things are going to get worse. And, then, they’re going to get worse again. And, then, they’re going to get a lot worse after that.”

Porritt argued that many businesses whose executives want to take more action on environmental sustainability are held back by “utterly useless” politicians who may set long-term climate targets but are ultimately failing to “rewrite the rules” to make market conditions as such that the trillions flow out of high-polluting, nature-destroying activities and into low-carbon, regenerative activites.

“We all know these governments are where the failure really lies,” Porritt said, adding: “Honestly, after decades of working with various feckless, venal, incompetent, self-serving, willfully ignorant politicians, it is extremely difficult not to find anger bubbling up pretty much all the time.”

He called the UK Government, which often refers to itself as a global leader in reducing domestic emissions, a “world-beating” leader in “setting targets instead of doing things”.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) most recent progress report to Parliament on the net-zero transition concluded that “credible” policies only exist to deliver one-third of the emissions reductions by 2050 that the Government is legally committed to. While thousands of pages of green policy were subsequently published this March, the consensus is that they will not fully close this gap.

A glimmer of hope

To help change course, Porritt implored business leaders to put more pressure on policymakers.

He also alluded to his next steps – namely becoming more involved in green policy advocacy.

Porritt, who has been a Green Party member since the mid-1970s, said that he gets his “real hope” from youth activists working with and through causes such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil.

“Vicariously, I am so proud of young people as they take their campaigns to the streets and confront people with the reality of what we’re doing,” Porritt said.

“I still – and this may be a completely forlorn hope – want to be proud of my own generation. This bystander generation. Disproportionately blessed by extraordinary entitlement, but… complacent, cruel and uncaring.

“If I still have anything to give… it will be in that intergenerational justice space that I hope to make a bit of a difference.”

Porritt has dedicated much of his life to environmental activism. Porritt was a prominent member of what was then called the Ecology Party in the 1970s and 1980s and, in 1984, he became director of Friends of the Earth in Britain. More recently, he has supported not only XR and Just Stop Oil, but also Stop Ecocide International, Stop Hinkley and Stop Sizewell C.

Reflecting on his own membership of his generation, he said: “In all of my good fortune, how could I not have done something vaguely useful with my life?”

For the 2020s, Porritt would aptly describe the nature of positive change as a “contagion”. This is a word which, of course, has negative connotations.

But Porritt spoke of “contagion in amplifying the works of those incredibly courageous young people, contagion in sharing the grief that we must all feel today in order to see the world differently, and contagion in laughter, joy and celebration.”

His speech was met with cheering and applause in a packed room of peers from across the sustainable business movement. To name but a few of those dozens of people present, attendees included former Unilever chief Paul Polman, current Unilever chief Alan Jope, Volans’ founder John Elkington and former M&S sustainability lead Mike Barry.

editor’s note: Porritt was the recipient of the 2019 edie Lifetime Achievement Award.

editor’s note: edie and Forum for the Future recently formed a strategic partnership, so watch this space for more though leadership from the Forum’s team. 

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