Jonathon Porritt, Britain’s most influential green thinker, tells Alicia Buller why he’s staying positive on climate change and why he thinks Pope Francis is quite a good bloke.
Perched in the peaceful environs of London’s St Barnard’s members club (it’s a social enterprise, he insists), Jonathon Porritt cuts a relaxed figure. Here is a man who has spent the best part of four decades ensconced in the colourful business of trying to protect our planet from the baddies. It hasn’t been easy – and it wouldn’t have been everyone’s choice. Over the years his fierce opponents have included everyone from big business to politicians, to economists and, well, everyone really.
But things are different these days. The fight is not quite so tough. Today’s numerous scientific reports ¬– bleak and credible in equal measure – have all but silenced even the most radical of agenda-driven climate change deniers.
“Getting people to acknowledge that it’s a man-made crisis has taken a ridiculously long time. There comes a point when you cannot any longer ignore what is science is saying. It’s got stronger and stronger over the years,” Porritt says. The celebrity environmentalist then delivers a wry, lopsided smile, “awareness hasn’t quite translated into the action we need, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
“I have often speculated about how amazing it would be if you could reengineer the brains of politicians and economists. We would have to take them to a rainforest and show them what the impact of collapsing environments looks like.”
And he should know. In the 1970s, Porritt led the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) with aplomb, building up its membership from a few hundred to over 3,000. He also advocated a more professional organisation with more identifiable leaders; this success would have played no small part in the eventual surge of the Greens in this year’s UK General Election. Fresh-faced party leader Natalie Bennett successfully gleaned over a million votes for the party in May – a record to date.
“Most people knew that their vote would not lead to the Green Party being elected but they were facing a dilemma. In the end, they got more than one million principled votes because we need to see green voices.”
In his early years as a teacher at a west London school, Porritt devoted much of his spare time to green activism – “I trained to be a lawyer but I hated it and I failed.”
He tells Salt he fared better as a teacher amid a national shortage at the time: “They said to me, ‘Well, you don’t have any training but, frankly, you’re tall and you’ve got a loud voice. You’ll do.”
But it was the urban school confines of Shepherd’s Bush that really got Porritt thinking: “I’d had a privileged upbringing and I’d had a great relationship with nature because of it. But for these kids growing up in the city there was nothing. There wasn’t any opportunity to connect with the natural world.”
Porritt reacted by taking his pupils on field trips to Wales so they could discover the joys of nature and, with this, his life’s journey of environmental advocacy had begun.
His passion for the environment would eventually lead him to become director of Friends of the Earth, chairman of Whitehall’s Sustainable Development Commission for nine years, and then co-founder of Forum for the Future – an 80-staff-strong corporate-focused sustainable development charity that still commands most of his time today.
Of Forum of the Future, he says: “When we launched it, people were skeptical about getting radical greenies to work in the business community, but then we started to get our beneficiaries and partners on board and it grew from there. We are proud of our work in supporting companies get their sustainability strategies sorted – including Marks and Spencer and Unilever. It matters to us that they now embed sustainability into their business.”
But Porritt has his eye on an even bigger green pie.
“We want to change whole systems. So we’re running big campaigns, with the shipping industry, for instance, to try and get them to change, to move their industry towards a new position.
“We’re also doing a project with tea-makers encouraging them to come up with social and environmental solutions, we’ve been at that now for three years. We are focused on these breakthroughs in system change. Even a huge company like Unilever cannot bring about the scale of change that’s really needed today. At Forum of the Future we have the opportunity to harness the energy of corporates and turn it into a system-wide movement.
“A lot of the power for change today lies with corporates. Companies are nervous sometimes about showing the softer side of what they do. But they care about it emotionally, not just cerebrally. It matters to them – they are parents, brothers and sisters too. They are just normal people who happen to work in a business.”
More than anything Porritt is unapologetically positive about the future of the world. His most recent book, ‘The World We Made’ is written from the point of view of a young teacher, Alex McKay, from the perspective of 2050. He diarises all of the technological solutions that have been put in place in future to create an environmentally sound world. It’s a hopeful book about answers rather than problems. But as Porritt penned the book in 2013 – does he still feel the same strength of enthusiasm today?
“Now that’s a mean question,” Porritt says with a smile. “Regrettably, I will say that now we have wasted so much time, we will have to take four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air for the next 20 years. The geo-engineering aspect is doable but a regrettable necessity.”
“Writing the book made me more hopeful as I looked into the science around it. The science is getting more disturbing by the year, but it wasn’t until I looked at renewable energy and so on, that I saw that we already have everything we need and we don’t need a last-minute solution. I’m hopeful about businesses and faith leaders. But I am worried about politicians – they are useless.”
“I have really serious contempt for [Conservative politician] George Osborne as he hasn’t done his research. The green economy would drive everything he wants – growth, economy and jobs. It drives conventional business metrics, yet he wants to go back to the same old earth trashing economy that we had before and that just lengthens the whole process and holds back private investors.”
It seems those four decades of activism haven’t done all that much to tire Porritt out or dilute his venom for those who trash the planet. Will we ever see him back in the Green Party?
“I’ve have been around for a very long time. So I’ve got the experience,” he laughs. But would he ever lead the Green Party again?
“No, my time in that position has gone, coming back now would be wrong. But am I thinking about my commitment and what I can do to help? Yes, I am. It’s no good me whinging – I have to get stuck in. I’m thinking I’d like to be more involved by 2020.”
“Even a huge company like Unilever cannot bring about the scale of change that’s really needed today. At forum of the future we have the opportunity to harness the energy of corporates and turn it into a system-wide movement.”
What drives you?
Well I am a bit obsessive about this sustainability stuff I have to be honest, there’s no point in pretending otherwise. It’s about the planet and it’s about social justice. We don’t live in a fair and equitable world. We live in a world, which is basically being trashed for future generations, and we should be doing a lot more about it. So that is what drives me – I want a fairer and more equitable economy. Every morning I’m out of bed thinking, ‘right, here we go!’
If there were one thing you could do to make the world a better place, what would it be?
I’d introduce a good price for carbon per tonne overnight, but don’t write that – it sounds really geeky and boring! I have often speculated about how amazing it would be if you could reengineer the brains of politicians and economists. We have to do something about the fact that economists’ brains are wired in the wrong way – they just haven’t understood what natural capital looks like. We would have to take every single politician and economist to a rainforest and show them what the impact of collapsing environments looks like.
Today’s your last day on the planet. How do you spend it?
I would spend some time in nature because that’s my normal route to rebalancing myself. But I would also just spend it with family because if I was genuinely thinking it was the end, I’d think ‘I’d better clock in with the girls and see what they’re up to’!
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