Jonathon Porritt has been on the front line of environmental campaigning for more than 45 years. He has worked tirelessly to promote the solutions to today’s converging environmental crises – including as Director of Friends of the Earth (1980s), co-chair of the Green Party (1980-83), of which he is still a member, Trustee of WWF-UK (1991-2005), Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (2000-2009), and Chancellor of Keele University (2012-2022).
Jonathon is Co-Founder of Forum for the Future – the UK’s leading sustainable development charity – and President of Population Matters and The Conservation Volunteers. His work as author, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development has had a huge impact over the years, and he is involved in the work of many NGOs, charities and campaigning organizations as Patron, Chair or Special Advisor.
His latest book, ‘Hope in Hell’, a powerful call to action on climate change, was published in June 2020. His other recent books include ‘The World We Made’ (2013), ‘Capitalism As If The World Matters’ (Earthscan, revised 2007), ‘Globalism & Regionalism’ (Black Dog 2008) and ‘Living Within Our Means’ (Forum for the Future 2009).
Jonathon received a CBE in January 2000 for services to environmental protection.
Michael Liebreich Before we start, if you're enjoying these conversations, please make sure that you like or subscribe to Cleaning Up, it really helps other people to find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini foundation. Hello, I'm Michael Liebreich, and this is Cleaning Up. My guest today is Jonathon Porritt. He's a longtime environmental campaigner, he's a writer, he's a founding member of what became the Green Party of the UK, and he's a Founding Director of Forum for the Future. Please join me in welcoming Jonathon Porritt to Cleaning up, Jonathon, thank you for joining me here.
Jonathon Porritt Nice to be here, on your sofa.
ML On my sofa! I'm a bit worried, of course, because those who are watching on YouTube will see the bottom part of a Union Jack and they might think that my sofa is this sort of jingoistic shrine. So I'm just going to show people, what actually happens up there, if I just tilt this back, they should be able to see it's actually a suffragette flag. Original, there you go, votes for women. So it's all incredibly on message for what we're going to be talking about.
JP And now you've buggered up the camera position.
ML I think it's fine. We'll survive. I'll tilt it a little bit down and we'll survive. So Jonathon, thank you very much for joining me here on Cleaning Up. We first met, I'm going to say 2008/9? We were working with the Zayed Future Energy Prize, and you were chairing one of the panels? And I was on it, I believe.
JP You were. I was chairing it for a little bit. Not the first one, but the two or three after that. And it was, it was always a bit of a surreal role, for me, to be honest. I mean, flying out to Abu Dhabi twice a year to chair a panel looking into the future of energy systems when you're sitting on one of the world's largest puddles of gas and oil, was very surreal. But we did have some quite lively conversations, Michael, you will no doubt recall.
ML We did. You know, I ended up being very involved over a number of years, I ended up helping the jury with their deliberations. And of course, you have to question, you're invited to do this... It is Abu Dhabi, they are sitting on these enormous oil reserves. And then the first question you have is is this sincere? Is it greenwashing? Or is the prize and the philosophy behind it sincere? And I sort of decided that it was and therefore I was okay to, you know, to be involved in it.
JP I thought they were genuine. I didn't feel manipulated or used in any respect during the eight years or so that I did it. I thought they were acting in good faith. Even though you couldn't put away the surreal sense of what was really going on in that economy as a whole. You just couldn't put that away completely.
ML I think in one way, it was really interesting, because we talk about the transition, and the transition is a 20, 30, 40 or 50 year or longer process, but I have no doubt that it'll be done by the end of the century. And the question is, how long will it take? It is not an abrupt stop of all the bad stuff, and an immediate start of all the good stuff, it is a transition. So when you actually spend time in places like Abu Dhabi, that are really trying to navigate this very difficult, the decades in between. It was quite an education, I found.
JP Yeah, I think they are genuinely trying to navigate the decades in between. I think many other oil producing countries have absolutely no intention whatsoever of getting on board with that navigation. Their primary intent, as far as I can tell, is to delay the inevitability of that transition for as long as possible, and use every single tactic at their disposal to do exactly that, however much it costs them, and however many politicians they have to buy in the process. So I do think Abu Dhabi is different in that regard. But I wouldn't write that as a kind of commendation for the integrity, the moral integrity, of the rest of the many oil producing, oil and gas producing, countries.
ML When we're filming this, obviously, it's a six month mark of Russia's aggression on Ukraine. So when we talk about moral integrity on climate action, I think at the moment, we have some even bigger moral integrity issues with some of the oil producing nations. But, just bring me up to date, because I've not seen you in the flesh... it's gotta be... certainly before COVID, and possibly quite a few years before that. So, what are you currently working on?
JP I'm still spending most of my time with Forum for the Future, the organization you mentioned in the intro, that's three days a week for me. And that means I'm still doing quite a lot of work with Forum's biggest global partners, including Unilever. We get ourselves involved in lots of interesting and feisty issues, which is the bit that I like about sustainability, when it's contested and not obvious, and not black and white, the gray areas in between, but that I'm intrigued by. Beyond that, I'm still doing quite a lot of campaigning work, very involved in different anti-nuclear campaigning organizations, for instance. I'm involved in working with young people, when I can, to help them. And I've just stepped down as Chancellor of Keele University, which I did for 10 years, which was great, which would connect me to a lot of the Higher Education kind of context for sustainability.
ML Thank you, and you have opened up various cans of worms that I was going to bring in anyway, I can assure you, but you've got us started down that route: anti-nuclear campaigning, corporate connections and so on. But let's just start if we could with a thumbnail bio - just for your information, the audience is very diverse. We've got I think just under half that probably are in this country. But then we do go out, obviously, on the internet as a podcast. Four fifths of our audiences is actually podcast. About 20% then on YouTube, but it's around the world. And they've got varying levels of knowledge, they'll be pretty knowledgeable, but they've got varying levels of knowledge about UK politics, or about the minutiae of any individual issue. So talk me through you... I introduced you as a founding, leading member of the UK Green Party, even before it was the Green Party. Is that not right?
JP Yeah, I joined when it's still called the People Party. And the People Party then became the Ecology Party. And the Ecology Party, eventually, bless it, became the Green Party. So it had to go through a number of different changes.
ML I didn't know it was called the People Party.
JP The original founders weren't into ecology, per se, but they were definitely into demographics and population concerns and impact on natural systems. So 'People' just seemed to be the title that popped up most instantly in their deliberations.
ML Okay. The reason I kind of jumped on it is because there are connotations of egalitarianism, socialism, all sorts of things that now come along with the People's this and the People's that, People's Republics and so on...
JP Yes, it wasn't really that. I don't think social justice feature terribly large in the early days of the People Party. It was more to do with the comparison between the sheer number of human beings on the planet, and planetary resources. It was really pre-Limits to Growth kind of stuff about exactly what those impacts are going to look like.
ML So it was more People's Princess than People's Republic.
JP It definitely wasn't. It certainly didn't have any, any sort of streak of deep subversive politics behind it. But it was, yeah, it was pretty radical for the time because actually even talking about these things, at that time was pretty radical.
ML Okay. And then in 1984, you wrote a book, which was called Seeing Green: Politics of Ecology Explained, which is a fantastic segue, because, of course, green politics has become heavily identified with the left, at least in the UK, not everywhere in the world, but certainly in the UK. Was that what you were writing about?
JP Yeah, it is what I was writing about. And that combination was very explicit in most European Green parties, in fact, particularly in Germany with Die Grünen, which was deeply imbued with principles from the left, and very strongly with the anti-nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear power movement. And in those days, most Green parties were explicitly leftist. There would be a cliché rolled out from time to time when people felt 'Oh, this is getting a bit uncomfortable', which is we are neither left nor right, we are ahead. Honestly, it was just completely meaningless. I don't think Green parties in Europe have really ever held much attraction for the right wing. There is a lot of commandeering of Green ideas now by right wing parties and eco-fascism, unfortunately, is a problem that we're all gonna have to deal with. But there was never any serious right wing engagement in Green parliament, in Green politics in the 70s and 80s.
ML You say that, but we maybe need to get into definitions - we certainly need to get into a definition of eco-fascism. Because you know, there is an entirely parallel narrative, which is one that I somewhat subscribe to, which is actually that some of the most rapid progress on environmental issues has come not from the left, but actually from the right. So whether it's the Clean Air Act in the UK, whether it's Margaret Thatcher in 1992 at the Earth Summit, whether it's the national parks in the US; these were not pushed through by the left, they actually came from traditions on the right. But then it may be a difference between what you call right wing because I... there are so many different... there are corporatists on the right, and there are agrarian parties on the right, you know, there's all sorts of things on the right. But you used the word eco-fascism, so you need to define what that is, at the very least.
JP We're seeing today quite a deliberate attempt by right wing, and often deeply authoritarian - I would call them sub-fascist parties - to lay claim to certain aspects of the green diaspora of ideas, particularly a xenophobic focus on immigration, and the degree to which countries and civilizations are at risk because of the huge surge in the numbers of migrants from one country to another. And if you look in both the US and in many European countries, particularly former USSR countries, this link between protection of the environment and anti-immigration is now very explicit, and they're using it very deliberately to try and bring people in from different political persuasions.
ML I wouldn't say that it's a strain of argument here in the UK... You get a little bit of 'oh, they're building over the countryside because of all the immigrants.' But it's a tiny voice.
JP It's not a big thing here in the UK, but in European countries, particularly former Eastern European countries, it is huge. It really is. You look at the fascists - I call sub-fascists - in Poland, in Hungary, in Italy, now increasingly, with this election coming up with this new coalition of right wing parties, and time after time, what they're doing is pressing the immigration button, theoretically, in the name of protecting the environment, the land, the people, the folk, whatever it might be. So a lot of us in mainstream Green politics are very focused on that now, and aware of the fact that we need to be smart about how we address them.
ML I think I'm very grateful to be sensitized to it, because it's something that I am somewhat aware of, but I don't see it as being one of the major discourses out there. I am aware, by the way, at the risk of sort of spiraling into historicism and so on, that the fascists, the Nazis, they drew on all this iconography around the urwald, the ancient forests and some of the imagery of dancing naked in forests if you're a true Aryan and so on. That was certainly a much more substantial theme back then, than I see what you call eco-fascism today.
JP It was a big part of it, although to be honest, whether it actually touched any of the ways in which the Nazis chose to exercise their power is another matter. It was mostly out there as a kind of romantic trope, looking back culturally and musically, all the rest of it...
ML Although it gets thrown into the discussion as 'the greens are drawing on these Nazi traditions of vegetarianism and tree-dancing. But here's the question, though. The environment being bound up through the Green parties with the politics of the left - has that advanced the agenda? Or has it actually sort of crystallized the discussion and made it tribal and actually retarded it, in your view?
JP I think you've got to distinguish between environmentalism, which is a whole suite of activities that are designed primarily to protect the natural world in one way or another, whether it's from pollution or biodiversity concerns, whatever it is, and a much deeper analysis about the root causes that lie behind the damage being done to the environment. So I would be perfectly content with the analysis, in terms of environmentalism, that many of the most important interventions by government have come from right wing governments as much as left wing governments, I think that's absolutely clear. And in the past, a lot of Conservative Party politicians in this country would have found it completely acceptable to say that we're very concerned about the environment, and would do something about it. And Chris Patten was, for me one of the exemplars of what green Toryism looked like. But there is such a difference between that and a more root and branch definition of why the economy, as it is currently constituted, based on the pursuit of exponential economic growth indefinitely into the future, will continue to trash the environment, whatever any politician right or left, continues to do to try and mitigate that damage. And when you get at that deeper level of analysis, there are definitely very strong social justice, redistributed elements involved in that politics, which for me, are crucial. I don't believe you can do serious green politics unless you're committed to fundamental redistribution in the global economy, and a commitment to social justice right up front in every single aspect of the body politic.
ML Although, the focus on GDP and growth is not a right wing, or left wing premise. If you go back to the Soviet Union, it was all about we will grow, we will match the West.
JP What did Keir Starmer say? It was one of his, 'I'm going to sort out my image now and demonstrate that I'm a really decisive, well-based politician' when he said the Labour Party now is going to be focused on growth, growth growth, as if he wanted to find a sort of resonance with Tony Blair's education, education, education. Except for Keir Starmer to go straight to growth, growth, growth shows me that the Labour Party, in its essence, which is a productivist, union-based essence, is just as much wedded to progress through growth as the Conservatives.
ML Let's come back to this in a second, because you wrote that book in 1984, Seeing Green: Politics of Ecology Explained, and then you went off and you became Director of Friends of the Earth, but you ended up also chairing the Sustainable Development Commission. And that's where you really worked a lot on this question of growth. Is that correct?
JP That is correct. Yeah. So when Tony Blair... He was under a lot of pressure at that time, because he made a lot of appointments which were deemed to be a bit too close and friendly to him, so the phrase Tony's Cronies was being used a lot.
ML Dipping into Goldman Sachs for his economics team, those sorts of things?
JP That sort of thing. So, come the year 2000, I think, I put my name forward as a prospective chair for the Sustainable Development Commission, which was a completely new body that - there had been a precursor, but operating in a very different way. And I honestly think that this determination to be seen to be not beholden to his cronies was what was uppermost in his mind. And he was guided at that time by a number of other people [saying] you know, he may be a member of the Green Party, but he won't be doing Green Party stuff while he's chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, which I didn't for nine years. And probably we need that level of robust political presence in the government today. So you know, fair play, they went ahead and they made the appointment. I don't think Tony Blair ever regretted it. I think John Prescott did... He endlessly got pissed off with the Commission for pointing out things that he thought were inappropriate and unnecessary critical.
JP So you don't buy the John Prescott as a sort of champion of the environment, 1992, banged the heads together, got it done?
JP I do not, funnily enough, although I love the way history often gets rewritten.
ML So one of the initiatives that you worked on was on growth. And you then encouraged Professor Tim Jackson to write Prosperity Without Growth.
JP Prosperity Without Growth? Question mark.
ML Question mark.
JP It sounds so peculiar here, but we were in extended negotiations with the Treasury who were really cross about the Sustainable Development Commission bringing out this report, but obviously we were a completely independent body. In the end, we did not give in to any of the changes they wanted in the text. And so the compensation that we gave them was the title of the report would be Prosperity Without Growth? Question mark. When Tim Jackson, Professor Jackson then went on to publish the fuller report as his own book, because it was almost all his work, then he dropped the question mark.
ML I'm glad you said that because I've read his book, I debated him on BBC Radio 4. And so I read his book, which was painful going because I found some of its assumptions, they were just wrong. So it starts with this whole, 'you can't have infinite economic growth on a finite planet', which is... There's a whole tradition: Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Jeremy Rifkin. They have this kind of pseudo-thermodynamic reason why you can't have economic growth, which is based on essentially fake thermodynamics; we have a big ball of energy in the sky that could power molecular recycling. We know it can work, because nature does it. So you start with everybody sort of nodding wisely and agreeing you can't have infinite growth.
JP I'm not particularly worried about whether the principles of thermodynamics are or are not breached by virtue of one's commitment to economic growth.
ML So can we have infinite growth on a finite planet?
JP If you mean by that a continuation of the kind of growth that we've had for the last 70 years, the answer to that question must, demonstrably, be no. I mean, whatever you do, if you just take a look at what growth in its current form is doing to the planet, and the speed with which it is doing it...
ML But it's the physical aspects of that that is doing it. It's not the economics of it, it's the physical. It's the fact that we mine more and more...
JP But we don't have a model of economic growth that isn’t based on massive material throughput in the economy, it doesn't exist. And indeed, much of what people like you are advocating for, which is the electrification of pretty much everything in the economy, depends on a level of mining, which will actually pretty much wipe out the rest of the bits of nature that are left. So I don't see anything at all, in the advocacy for continued growth as a way of getting to the point that we need to get to that has actually taken on board any of the lessons of the last 70 years. I've seen no serious attempt to internalize cost made by any government anywhere; to be honest, I've seen no serious attempt to treat biodiversity in nature as something of intrinsic value in and of itself, regardless of its use to us; I've seen no serious attempt to force polluters at every level to pay properly for the continued pollution they do. In fact, if anything, Michael, you know, we're going in the wrong direction in that regard.
ML So where to start? First of all, I would disagree with quite a few of the statements about what we have and haven't seen. Emissions have peaked and are declining on an import adjusted basis in OECD countries, right. So we know that this can happen. When people say, when you say, this has never happened, it is actually happening. It's happening in the OECD.
JP I didn't say that. I said that on the whole, we have failed to internalize the externalities of our growth model. We have achieved some decoupling, that is for sure, particularly in the OECD. But that limited decoupling does not give us a trajectory through to a stable climate, let alone a stable global economy.
ML I have to be very careful, because I don't want to oversell what has been achieved so far. But what I will say, a few data points: the UK economy is something like 85% services. So this idea, the Karl Marx idea of an economy that is essentially about adding value to stuff, and then it's a zero-sum game between all the participants in the economy, I just don't buy into remotely. More of what we do is actually about intellectual property and services. Emissions have been flat since around 2011. Right? This is never talked about in green circles. It's almost never talked about in any circles. But we have achieved during a period when we've had economic growth - and we should come back to GDP and what growth looks like - but in the period of the last 10 years, we've seen something like an increase of 25% in GDP, and only a couple of percent increase in emissions. So the idea that everything is sort of spiraling out of control, I don't buy into. And to your point on mining, we are going to be... Any sort of transition is going to require an enormous amount of minerals and metals. There's just no question. The idea that it will strip mine every last piece of nature, though, is not true. And at the same time, we'll be enormously reducing the amount that we extract in terms of fossil fuels and steel for pipelines. And there's just fascinating things out there, which are not part of the public discourse, like 40% of all ships and shipping, actually do nothing but move fossil fuels around. So, the shipping industry, which is so big, doesn't need to be that big. And I think... I see a long-term trend towards circularity. In a sense, it's the glass half full, glass half empty; we will be mining an enormous amount of minerals and metals, but luckily, those are things unlike gas and oil and coal, that you can recycle. So I subscribe to the sort of David Attenborough view that we've got to kind of get through this pinch point, and we will end up circular, and things will be fine. And then we can have hundreds of thousands of years more humans enjoying themselves.
JP I admire the confidence as well as the optimism, which I suppose is what underpins that...
ML I'm not sure how confident I am. I think I can persuade myself that it is a vision worth fighting for. We are somewhat on track but not fully on track, not remotely.
JP I can't persuade myself of that because I don't believe that we will be able to do that efficiency, circularity, minimization of fiscal impact, fast enough to offset the continued pursuit of economic growth, and perhaps even more problematic, the way politicians use growth as a substitute for genuinely achieving progress in society. And to a certain extent, the much deeper issue here is that growth has become the only way in which politicians can offer the prospect for better lives, better society, better communities, for progress as we saw it. And just like we have to decouple our economic wellbeing from emissions of greenhouse gases, so we have to decouple our notion of what progress means for 10 billion people from the automatic assumption that progress will only come through economic growth. Because if that stays as the core assumption, for the future of humankind on a planet which is definitely a little bit stressed out, Michael, at the moment, then I think no amount of shiny technological optimism will get us through that pinch point.
ML So let me split that into two issues. One is what do we define as growth, but the other is a defense of GDP, which I'll come to. The first is, I equate growth in human progress, not growth in GDP, but growth... I actually think that the definition of growth that I ascribe to is actually an asset-based one. What we need is an increase in our physical infrastructure, an increase in our natural capital, an increase in our intellectual capital, an increase in our social capital, and - because actually, these things do correlate with happiness - our financial capital as well. So, it's kind of a balance sheet rather than a P&L version of measurement. And there are there are plenty of people working on it - Cameron Hepburn was actually the first episode on Cleaning Up, working on a full set of capitals that we should be measuring. So if politicians will say, right, I came into power, and we had this much forestry and we had this many motorways, and we had this many artists, this many teachers and I want to leave office with more, I don't think we would be disagreeing. That is a sort of point that we can subscribe to.
JP I'm very comfortable with all that. When Forum for the Future launched in 1996, we launched on the basis of a five capitals model of what prosperity could look like. So we have been based in that sort of area for nearly 30 years. So that for me, I'm completely comfortable with. The idea that politicians understand that, or that the politicians anywhere, not just in this country, but anywhere, are prepared to think about a different dashboard...
ML I think David Cameron went to a focus group once that talked about it...
JP Don't be so cynical! That's probably, mind you, the best summary. But really they will not budge from this notion that as long as you are looking after the manufacturing infrastructure, physical capital and the financial capital, the rest will kind of look after itself, we'll kind of make do. We know we're depleting natural capital at an unsustainable rate. There's simply no discussion about that. Political efforts to address that over the last 20 years - well, since the Earth Summit in 1992 - have let's face it been utterly pathetic, a complete failure from top to bottom. There's been no progress on the Convention on Biological Diversity, and it looks to me as if we're not even going to see much of a new biodiversity treaty or an update on the treaty coming into play this year. Social and human capital? Bit of a mixed picture: in many respects the lives of many, many people have improved very significantly, that's for sure. But not universally, and not to the degree that you could say this this is a gently rising curve for more than, I believe, 20% of humanity. I don't see a gently rising curve for most humans on this planet.
ML But that's not what the data... The data shows incredible improvements, whether it's health, whether it's life span, whether it's women included in the workforce, education. All of the major indicators show hundreds of millions of people benefiting and extreme poverty - we have to see how the statistics go during COVID and the last few years...
JP The extreme poverty story is still pretty extreme, Michael. And it depends what you mean by poverty. So if you go from whatever the minimum income expectation might be today, which is $4.50, and you take it to, as Jason Hickel has pointed out, if you just say $10 a day. Let's go with that, $10 a day, probably you would accept might be a reasonable figure for the lowest viable income level to sustain people with dignity. There are today more than 50% of people on this planet at less than $10 a day. So for all the stats tell us that we're a healthier, happier living longer and better educated, I'm sorry, I don't believe much of this stuff pans out in reality in many of these countries.
ML So I'm glad you brought Jason Hickel into this because, of course, he had this huge spat with - and I'm trying to remember the name of the founder of Our World in Data - because what he says about 'you can choose some other measure of poverty, which is going the other direction' turns out not to be the case. And the bigger problem is the jump from that statement to what a lot of people - I'm going to have to be careful not to use disparaging words, I can just kind of, you know, sort of climate lefty blob -but the immediate jump then is to degrowth: therefore, the number one thing we need to do is to actually reduce GDP, because if the problems are caused by a bunch of folks focusing on growing GDP, then you have to focus on reducing it. And if you look at the work of - I'm trying to remember his name, the Founder of Our World in Data [Max Roser], but anyway - and his spat with Jason Hickel, is that the only way that you're going to increase the wealth and the outcomes and happiness and the health and the education and so on of those very poor is by doing two things. Raising the mean... you can try and redistribute, or you can raise the mean and redistribute. This question of the mix of the two. But you cannot achieve anything like decent lifestyles for those people without raising the mean, without raising the mean. If you just tried to do it through achieving sort of Danish levels of egalitarianism. You end up with still enormous numbers of people incredibly impoverished.
JP Yeah, I'm not disagreeing with that; I've never argued for for degrowth. It's never actually been part of my advocacy for what we need to do to sort out growth. And had you found points of agreement with Tim Jackson rather than points of disagreement, Michael, you would have found that Tim, in that book, and in his subsequent writing, has said very clearly [that] before we jettison our dependence on economic growth, we have to answer some absolutely critical questions. One, is what are we going to do about very poor countries who clearly have an expectation of improved material wellbeing, which is wholly legitimate. Two, what are we going to do about investments and pensions in particular, where people's expectations are built up, unless you've got a mechanism for doing something about that. Then three, what do you do about public services? So Tim... the book is quite careful because it doesn't... Prosperity without growth is not a model of degrowth. It is not a model of degrowth. It is a model which says, firstly, we've got to get growth much more accurately characterized for the good things it does and the bad things it does. We don't do enough of that. Secondly, we've got to have lower levels of economic growth. Tim has argued that we're probably in that now with secular stagnation in the economy, we may well be in a period of permanently low growth in western economies anyway. So maybe that's the answer. And thirdly, you do have to address the redistribution story. Because without that, I can't believe any raising of the bar, as it were, at the lower end is going to do the job.
ML But it's bit disingenuous, isn't it? To launch these vast broadsides against growth, and then say, but it's not about degrowth, to say what it's not about....
JP Not necessarily. Stable state economics means that you're not actually... Degrowth implies, as you've quite rightly said, that we will aim by policy intervention to see GDP reduced year on year on year. Whereas if you hold a certain level of GDP constant, and then you improve everything that you hoped you would want to improve in society, without necessarily looking to 1, 2, 3, 4% economic growth every year, that is not degrowth.
ML Where it falls down, though, is I wanted to come back to GDP, my defense of GDP - is that humans are smart, and we invest and we build infrastructure, we get better at doing things. And so steady state, actually, if you have a steady state of activity, year in year out, you will be reducing the number of jobs in an economy. And jobs correlate to... another way of putting it is that jobs, job creation correlates with GDP. Because you can go into all this kind of, you know, sort of very worthy, woke or you know, 'some of these jobs are not worth having.' But the fact is, growth in GDP correlates with jobs and jobs correlate with self-worth; they correlate with the ability to make life choices; they correlate with happiness; correlate with all sorts of things. And so if you have to choose one metric that would maybe not appeal in, how can I put it, you know, Richmond, Islington, Notting Hill Gate where we are, Cheltenham, but might be really important in the rest of the UK, and certainly in countries that are trying to better their economic situations, GDP growth is a pretty damn good proxy for what you want to achieve as a government.
JP But what if you put the emphasis on the jobs rather than the GDP growth? You say, quite rightly, that GDP growth correlates to the jobs. It's not the only way in which you could increase the labor intensity of an economy.
ML So dig a hole, fill it in and expect people to be happy?
JP There are many, many things we could be doing far more of. For instance, if you look at the whole care, or social side of the economy, we are massively under-resourced from a human point of view. On that side - not infrastructure - but on the actual side of looking after human beings in terms of health, social care, community concerns, education, we're massively under-resourced. If we were really serious about growth in jobs, it makes a great deal more sense to think of that as the priority rather than a lot of - in my opinion - highly damaging, physically damaging infrastructure growth as the only way of getting your GDP going.
ML I think that that's then just the tyranny of.... and I agree with you that I would like to see much more, better health care, better senior care, better mental health care, lots of things. But to say that we don't like your focus on GDP because we want to have some sort of set of unelected commissars, decide what would be a much better set of GDP.
JP You're being a touch tendentious. I have not said unelected, I do not subscribe to...
ML So you were elected as Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission?
JP No, heavens above no!
ML So you were unelected?
JP Of course, but that was an advisory role. It's not an executive role. We couldn't do anything. Far from it! All we could do is advise politicians who were quite reluctant to do anything we suggested. I've never said anything about the alternative to doing this through democracy. And if people who subscribe to the kind of ideas that I have, are unable to make that case effectively and persuasively through the ballot box, then that is the reality I have to accept. And that's been absolutely central to my political life, Michael, never deviated from that. So I'm not talking about unelected commissars, defining what will or won't constitute progress or growth. I'm not in that space whatsoever.
ML I think we should move on because we could go down that rabbit hole, of essentially those people who are against growth or actually for growth, as long as it's the sort of growth that they approve of. But I want to move on, because also, you made a decision to engage with business, in a way that a lot of people who would otherwise share your concerns have not. They just think that business is evil; you appear to believe that a lot of business' practices are deeply evil. And yet, you have engaged... I mean, you were Non-Executive Director of Wessex Water. Willmott Dixon now, since 2008, and Sustainable Retail Advisory board for Marks and Spencer. I mean, these are quite good gigs, are they not?
JP I have loved being a Non-Executive Director, I really enjoyed being a Non-Executive Director of Wessex Water. and it taught me a lot about the water industry. Shame things have gone downhill so much since then. And I enjoyed very much being a Non-Executive Director of a construction company, which again, teaches me so much more than I could possibly get about how construction and contracting operates in this country. So for me, these are really important experiences. Those two things have nothing to do with Forum for the Future. I mean, all my fees for whatever I do go to support Forum to the Future, outside of those Non-Executive Director roles. So the basic thrust of your of your line of inquiry, if I can put it like that, is that is there not some deep compromise involved in working with large businesses?
ML Well, thank you for articulating! I was gonna be much too polite, I should just come out and say this stuff...
JP It's not an easy one, to be honest, it's as difficult now as it was when we set the Forum up. And there were three of us, and we were all ex-Green Party. Well, I'm still in the Green Party, but my co-founders, Sarah Parkin and Paul Ekins were both ex-Green Party. We brought a radical intent to that, although, as a charity, we had no party-political involvement on this. But the idea was to bring those radical thoughts into the heart of business through the advisory work and the critical friend role that we still play today. I don't retire from that at all. If you take a realistic view of what the future holds for us, business, big or large, is going to be fundamental to getting us to where we need to be. So unless you're an absolute purist, and you say that all these businesses are going to have to collapse and we will rebuild the economy from the ground up, without any corporate structures of this kind... Unless you're a person who subscribes to that view, which I absolutely don't, then you've got to accept that business will be significantly involved in our success or failure in getting through to a sustainable future. So once you buy into that, pragmatically speaking, you've got to buy into the idea of trying to make them as good at that job as they can be.
ML So you wrote a book, your first book, 2005, Capitalism As If The World Matters. Your third book? I'll have to complain to the editors at Wikipedia.
JP Third. Because you already mentioned my first book, Seeing Green, so there you are.
ML Oh, yes, yes, yes, you're right. You're right. So you've got Seeing Green... I thought this was your second anyway, never mind. You wrote an important book called Capitalism As If The World Matters. What was the number one change that you advocate? Or that you would like to see? How do we make businesses actually price in these externalities?
JP Those are two different questions. And, there is a chunk of that book looking at the role of corporates, undoubtedly, and what they can do within the rules of the game, as they are defined by governments. They don't define the rules; they either comply with them, or they abuse them. But the rules are set by governments either democratically or autocratically. So for me, I've always been very alert to maximizing the scope of a business within the rules of the game, and then urging that business to be involved in thinking about how to make the rules work better for humankind as a whole, not just for the elite of the world today, for whom those rules are largely designed. So the Forum's advice is, what can you do within those rules? And how do you push further to encourage others then to make a more challenging approach to this work? That doesn't get rid of the need for politics, because if you don't change the rules of the game, even the best companies in the world can't do what they really should be doing. And cost internalization by companies, to the extent they become uncompetitive where they lose the advantage they might have? You can't ask companies to do that.
ML Let me rephrase the question, I want to come back at it, though, because I phrased it as what's the one thing companies should do. But actually you're right, that's not the issue. The issue is, what's the one thing that we should all do to make companies do this stuff, right? Whether it's civic society, whether it's government, tell us the answer...
JP Well, I'm very old-fashioned in this regard. Michael, I am absolutely convinced that this has to be done by regulation, and through standards, and through the implementation of the rules that we have as to how these economies should work. And we've moved so far away from an acceptance of really smart regulation. Today, after 40, at least 40 years of de-regulatory zeal driven by right wing ideologues, in the US and the UK...
ML Including Tony Blair, who was on this podcast.
JP Including Tony Blair.
ML I think Episode 50 [Episode 38]
JP I couldn't agree with you more. The Labour Party at that time got badly corrupted by the notion that you could step back from intervening in the market and allow the markets do more of the heavy lifting.
ML But he had the third way! He talked about it on Cleaning Up.
JP He did have the third way, but that didn't entail a shift in the balance of power by putting government back into the frame. So let me give you a concrete example. Okay, because I think people just miss the point of this unless you make it concrete. So back in 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum, perhaps the biggest and most influential body of companies in the consumer goods world, manufacturing through to retail, made a voluntary pledge to ensure that all their supply chains would be free of deforestation by 2020, within 10 years’ time. Come 2020, not a single company had achieved that. Not one of those pledges had been achieved. We've now got a cohort of companies that have made voluntary pledges to do it by 2023. In my estimation, only one company will get there by 2023. That will be Unilever; the rest will fail again. The vast majority of members of the CGF won't get there before 2030, 20 years later. Now, what is the point of that? In the meantime, forests have been crashing down all around the world. If you had governments that regulated for this, and you had a set of legal instruments, which put you at risk, from the perspective of your fiduciary duty, if you were seen to be importing or using products sourced from deforested areas, it would change the rules. The UK, good for them, have actually done it now. Came in last year, 2021. We will now see a shift now that they've introduced this regulation, and the EU, for once, is following in the footsteps of the UK. This is such a weird thing to say because it hardly ever did happen, and certainly won't happen in the future. So you have to intervene. If in 1990, the governments of the world had said, sorry, this deforestation thing is really problematic, and we're going to create here a minimum set of conditions for trade in forest-based products. Sorted within, what? Five years? Yes, levels of deforestation massively reduced. Notwithstanding the fact that politicians get elected occasionally, of course, who want to reverse this legislation. So, the voluntary principles on which corporate best behavior are based are to me hopelessly inadequate.
ML Now, I'm trying not to go down the rabbit hole of giving you a long list of areas, for instance, climate change, decarbonisation, where the UK is actually leading, by far, the EU. But never mind, I won't do that. What I will do, though, is ask, is there not a risk... So you've got these sort of authoritarian liberal democracies, which are the only ones that are going to follow, potentially follow your route. And they could all be enormously virtuous by banning all sorts of things. So you can have the EU, UK, in some order, you could have Canada, maybe the US, depending on how things play out there, and maybe a few places like Japan and South Korea. And then you're going to have the Indonesias, the Malaysias, the Indias, the Bangladeshes, the Chinas, most of Africa, large parts of Latin America, Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro? Absolutely not going to do that, they're going to regulate in the way that you want. So don't you just end up with a two-speed economy? So, virtuous Eloi, then sort of evil morlocks, just destroying the planet?
JP Well, you'll certainly get a bit of that. But the regulations, the rules have to be completely fair. So there's not a disadvantage to your own economy, in Europe and America or whatever.
ML Which is a Get Out of Jail Free card, is it not?
JP Border tax adjustments, for instance, on exports of steel from China will be the single most instrumental, effective way of stopping China, with its utterly reprehensible oversupply of cheap subsidized steel into the global market. If you don't have a border tax adjustment for that around carbon, what happens?
ML Is that your number one policy recommendation?
JP No, it's an important recommendation. I'm just trying to give you a concrete example. So, America has a really surprisingly strict rule about not accepting imports into America from countries which are not able to guarantee an end to slave labour, and trade child labour in particular. The palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia is far more worried about that regulation, potentially banning imports, or exports from them, imports to the US, far more, than they are about any number of NGO campaigns, which they basically know are pretty irrelevant. So if the US can do that, why couldn't every single country do the equivalent? So, the countries that want to take the lead, they've then got to make sure that those countries that don't want to follow are sanctioned, and their economies will suffer - yes, sorry, saying this out front, upfront - if they don't take that leap.
ML So I'm an advisor to the UK Board of Trade. And I'm interested in your advice. Should we A focus on banning bad stuff in trade? Whether it's palm oil, deforestation, and so on? Or should we focus on accelerating trade in all the technologies that actually have the chance of moving us off fossil fuels?
JP Why is that an either / or?
ML Well, I'm just interested in your view of which... Because you've focused on border tax adjustments and all these bad things. And I'm worrying about how do we get more solar panels, more batteries, more smart meters more HVDC cables...
JP Yeah, I want all of those things too. Well, probably not as much as you do, because I don't want, for instance, I don't want to see a great burgeoning successful electric vehicle sector. I don't want a billion internal combustion engines to be replaced with a billion EVs. So for me, it's very clear, I'm not going down that path. But I don't believe these things are mutually incompatible. I want to ban the bad stuff. Yes. Because if you don't ban the bad stuff, particularly on issues that we obviously won't have time to talk about today, but you think about animal welfare issues... If you're not thinking carefully about what you will or won't allow into the country from the perspective of the appalling conditions under which so many farmed animals are subjected, the conditions they're subjected to, then you're not doing right, by the expectations of your own citizens. So for me, banning is an important part of it. But it doesn't mean to say I'm not interested in accelerating the technology curves elsewhere.
ML Do you ever get accused of neocolonialism? For saying, well, you know, we have these animal welfare standards in the UK, you must have them in, in India and Indonesia, and Thailand and all these places...
JP Certainly I get accused of that. I don't really care.
ML Okay, well, that's very honest. I've got one other topic I want to open up, because we don't have infinite time, though you and I could certainly use it. And that is coming closer to the energy transition, actually coming back to events in Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the handbrake turn that is now happening, that is being undertaken by all European economies, particularly Germany. This is very long intro to the question. Have you changed your mind on nuclear power?
JP No, no, but then, let me give a caveat.
ML Many Germans have. Two thirds of them now support maintaining...
JP Let me just give a caveat. When Germany decided to close down its nuclear reactors, well ahead of their end of life, I was totally opposed to that decision. I thought that was completely mad. Although the Green Party was very vocal about this, I said these are the probably the safest, best run, most efficient nuclear reactors in Europe. What is the point of pushing that part of your total energy economy out of the mix, and needing therefore to go almost certainly to fossil fuels, as you keep bringing up the renewables and so on? So I was not in favour of that. Would I have supported keeping the nuclear reactors open, that they could have done in Germany, after the war in Ukraine? Yes, I would. Keeping existing nuclear assets open, as long as they meet all the safety requirements, etc., makes a great deal of sense. So, I am not some purist in this respect. It's the notion of building new reactors, which is so totally bonkers.
ML I'm slightly amazed because in my researches, I didn't come across any statements from you that said...
JP I can send you my blog.
ML I will happily read it. In fact, what we'll do is we'll put a link to it in the show notes because that's what we do. So you would be in favour of keeping them open? If they can still be salvaged, they can still be kept open, you would push for that?
JP In Germany, yes.
ML Belgium? Switzerland? Sweden? The UK?
JP I'm not familiar with the Belgian situation. I don't know... You have to be a tiny bit careful...Well, what are we keeping open in the UK?
ML Well, we've got some that very, very definitely are near to the end of their [life-cycle]
JP You can only do this once you've established minimum safe operating conditions. And in those countries, I'm not familiar with what the safety regulations are...
ML The UK's old Magnox are a little bit sui generis, of their own time. But around the world, we've got a lot of nuclear, and it doesn't have a natural lifespan, it doesn't just... you can actually prolong lives. And you can prolong lives that were originally 14 years, you can prolong to 60 years, you can prolong to 80 years...
JP Well, happily Michael, neither you nor I are nuclear engineers.
ML Happily, I am. I was trained as a nuclear engineer, back in the day, back in the very ancient past, yes.
JP Ok, I take that back. That explains a lot... But my sort of rule of thumb here is each of these countries has sophisticated safety regulators. They have to be independent, as they are in France and Germany. They're less independent now in the UK as a consequence of some of the changes made by Conservative government to the Office of Nuclear Regulation, much less independent. As long as you can guarantee the integrity and the independence of your safety regulator of the nuclear industry, maintaining the life of an existing nuclear reactor up until that point where its safety can no longer be guaranteed, makes sense.
ML Okay, that's good. And I once drew a two by two matrix of where nuclear was okay. And you need a whistleblower culture, and no earthquakes. You get that area. But you know, luckily, lots of Europe is in that, and Canada and places like it. But then the question is, you've now accepted, keep them open, you've accepted life extension. If somebody comes along with the technology that says, we can now build new nuclear, that will be safe, that will be economic - and that's where I have my issues. But if it could be done, what's the difference? Existing, maintain its life or build some new? What's the problem with nuclear?
JP You may be surprised to know, Michael, that I've always said that if all these smart people in the nuclear industry could come up with a reactor design that actually met all the conditions that I have for making nuclear power relevant in this world, then society would need to look at that with an open mind. I've always said that. When I was director of Friends of the Earth, we actually said, if the industry can come up with answers to these problems, itemized all the problems, including cost, but also waste, safety, etc, etc, then we should not have an a priori, ideologically based approach to nuclear power. This is an industry that fails year after year to come up with anything which will meet those criteria. Anything.
ML And you would be in favour of funding them to research those?
JP I have said that it is fine for governments to include nuclear technology in its research budgets. Subsidizing development is different.
ML Okay. Again, you'll send me your blogs on this, or we'll include them in the show notes, because you are on the record as criticizing Friends of the Earth for failing to campaign vigorously against nuclear. Now, we had on Episode 94, Julia Pyke, the Financing Director for Sizewell C. And she of course would be... we'd have an equally charming discussion, but she would disagree vigorously with those statements.
JP Correct. Look, I'm still 100%, anti-nuclear. Of course I am. Because, look, if you look at what they're offering us today, what the nuclear industry is offering us today - either big reactors or small modular reactors, or even the idea of a fusion reactor at some point down the line - none of it adds up. It doesn't add up economically, it doesn't add up from the perspective of managing our waste problems, I don't believe it adds up in terms of its role on new energy grid systems. For me, I then get into the whole story about proliferation, about safety issues, none of it stacks up. So, of course, I'm 100% anti-nuclear, because there's nothing in the nuclear kitbag, which makes any sense to me whatsoever, in comparison to all the alternatives that we've got. As long as she gets permission from government to go and fleece UK taxpayers or consumers to get the money they can't raise anywhere else.
ML Because your words on Sizewell C were 'just the latest nuclear scam.'
JP Indeed. I'm afraid that is my conclusion. Very good.
ML Well, what I'd love to do... We'll have to think of a format where I can get you and Julia to talk about Sizewell C. Meanwhile, we'll put the links into the show notes. And sadly, Jonathan, we're out of time. So thank you so so much for joining me here on my sofa. And all the best for your continuing advocacy for the planet.
JP It's been a privilege. Thank you.
ML So that was Jonathon Porritt, longtime environmental campaigner, Green politician, and founding director of the Forum for the Future. My guest next week is Professor Chris Rapley. He's the professor of Climate Science at University College London, and former Director of the British Antarctic Survey and the Science Museum. Please join me at this time next week for a conversation with Professor Chris Rapley. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation.