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PacificEdge | November 22, 2017

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Words of advice to environmentalists

Russ Grayson

Author: Russ Grayson 2006


THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT — Gleebooks has become the literary centre of Sydney. Not only does the bookshop in Glebe Point Road have a wonderfully diverse range of titles, it has a constant program of talks and book launches in its upstairs room. These literary evenings can be crowded.

So it was when veteran UK green, Jonathan Porritt, spoke about his latest book there in January 2006. Entitled Capitalism as if the World Mattered, the event provided Porritt a forum to make observations about topics such as environmentalists, the culture of consumerism and the role of government in promoting sustainability.

Porritt is a tall, slightly thick-set man whose black hair is becoming somewhat thin on top. Articulate as you would expect somebody who stood for the UK Parliament (he got 4.5 percent of the vote) and who started the charity, Forum for the Future, and who was a member of the SouthWest Regional Development Agency, Porritt started making an impact in the sustainability milieu in the UK while director of Friends of the Earth. He was awarded an CBE in 2000 for services to environmental protection.

Dressed in dark blue shirt and trousers, Porritt spoke to those crowded into Glebooks upstairs room in a voice educated and cultured and that somehow epitomised his role as middle class UK environmental spokesman.

Environmentalists should change their expression

First up was advice for environmentalists, some of it critical but qualified by his long and distinguished history in the environment movement.

Mocking environmentalists, Porritt tells the audience that a “hangdog countenance in the face of empirical reality” has become “a must” for environmentalists.

“It is difficult for environmentalists to say they are having a good time. It is almost important never to be optimistic”.

We have to ask some hard questions about where we are

Citing an “apocalyptic tendency”, Porritt says that there is “an escapist tendency in the environment movement that is dangerous .

“Environmentalists are regarded negatively as party-poopers. The challenge is to make sustainability appear desirable so as to get the numbers. I think it can be done”.

Environmentalists have to “stop whacking people around the head” he tells an audience many of whom probably have environmentalist tendencies themselves.

Losing ground

For Porritt, a period has now ended in which environmentalists could easily influence government.

“It ends a 30-year period”, he says, adding that the “seductive power of the business community” has gained the ear of government.

“Greens? There are none in power in places like the UK and Germany now. This is not a good place to be. We have to ask some hard questions about where we are”.

Referring to a Sierra Club USA article, Porritt explores further environmentalism’s falling influence, referring to the Bush administration:  “Neo-conservatives took the high ground and US environmentalists were pushed off by a bunch of fundamentalist nut cases. They have been more convincing to US voters than the appeal of  environmentalism”.

This, he says, is due to environmentalists’ failure to address American values “whatever they are”.

Capitalism the only game

Porritt addresses issues of more philosophical content when he asked: “Is a sustainable future for nine billion people possible with a capitalist economy?” at a time when companies engage in “systematic Earth trashing”.

It is not possible with the current version of capitalism, he assures listeners. “It’s just not possible. It will never happen”. We need a different version of capitalism to achieve sustainability, but “there is nothing that will shove capitalism out of the way over the next 20 years”. We have to work within it for change and there are no alternatives to this. “It’s the only game in town”, he says definitively.

Governments the world over are pathetic. Some politicians have given up and just don’t care. It is a denial of reality

Capitalism in its current form is inextricably linked with the culture of consumerism.

“There are people living in the OECD countries in the thrall of consumerism but the growth economy does not make them happier. People do not feel better about society or themselves.

“Where are the politicians who would once have campaigned on happiness?

“There is no resonance to transformation apparent  in university student bodies. The only source of change comes from the teaching staff and the communities in which they are embedded, not the students.”

New model for business

Business, said Porritt, must realise that “we destroy value by destroying nature. It is hard to get people to live more responsible lives as consumers.

“We have to create wealth differently, use the tax system and create different outcomes… we need new patterns of prosperity. It is about the desirability of sustainability and opportunity and sustainability should be about making people feel good about themselves”.

Porritt believes that we are heading towards “the end of what we hold of value. Governments the world over are pathetic. Some politicians have given up and just don’t care. It is a denial of reality”.

But government can use public money to drive sustainability, he asserts.

“We have to get real about the use of tax and so on through procurement policy and the like. Governments can shape markets to what we need. Business needs government to do this as it cannot do it itself”.

Finally, in regard to the reality that sustainability advocates have to live with one foot in the world they are creating and the other in the world of present reality, Porritt believes we must acknowledge our contradictions.

“We all have contradictions in life. How do you think I got here? I didn’t swim.

“We have to find responsible paths of consumerism and make them smart in media terms”.

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