Cleaning Up Episode 101 Edited Highlights – Jonathon Porritt

Episode 101 Edited Highlights – Jonathon Porritt


Michael Liebreich In 1984, you wrote Seeing Green: Politics of Ecology Explained. Green politics has become heavily identified with the left - was that what you were writing about?


Jonathon Porritt It is what I was writing about. In those days, most Green parties were explicitly leftist. There is a lot of commandeering of Green ideas now by right wing parties and eco-fascism, unfortunately. We're seeing today quite a deliberate attempt by right wing, and often deeply authoritarian parties to lay claim to certain aspects of the green diaspora of ideas, particularly a xenophobic focus on immigration. 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. 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.


Michael Liebreich The environment being bound up through the Green parties with the politics of the left… has that advanced the agenda? Some of the most rapid progress on environmental issues has come not from the left, but from the right.


Jonathon Porritt 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. But there is such a difference between that and a more root-and-branch definition of why the economy, based on the pursuit of exponential economic growth indefinitely into the future, will continue to trash the environment, whatever any politician continues to do to try and mitigate that damage. 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.


Michael Liebreich Do you agree with Professor Tim Jackson, who says we can’t infinite growth on a finite planet?


Jonathon Porritt If you mean a continuation of the kind of growth that we've had for the last 70 years, the answer to that question must be no. 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 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 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; 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, we're going in the wrong direction in that regard. 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.


Michael Liebreich 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.


Jonathon Porritt 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. 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.


Michael Liebreich I see a big problem in jumping from that discussion, as many on the left do, to advocating for degrowth. The only way that you're going to increase the wealth and the outcomes and the happiness of the very poor is by raising the mean.


Jonathon Porritt 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. We've got to get growth much more accurately characterized for the good things it does and the bad things it does, and we've got to have lower levels of economic growth. 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. There are many, many things we could be doing far more of. If you look at the whole care, or social side, of the economy, we are massively under-resourced. 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 highly damaging, physically damaging infrastructure growth as the only way of getting your GDP going.


Michael Liebreich You wrote an important book called Capitalism As If The World Matters. What was the number one change that you advocated in it?


Jonathon Porritt There is a chunk of that book looking at the role of corporates and what they can do within the rules of the game as they are defined by governments. But 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? You can't ask companies to do that. 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 we've moved so far away from an acceptance of really smart regulation, after 40 years of de-regulatory zeal driven by right wing ideologues… Back in 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum made a voluntary pledge to ensure that all their supply chains would be free of deforestation by 2020. Come 2020, not a single company had achieved that. 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. 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? 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.


Michael Liebreich Have you changed your mind on nuclear power?


Jonathon Porritt No, but then, let me 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. 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 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. 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'm still 100% anti-nuclear. There's nothing in the nuclear kitbag, which makes any sense to me whatsoever, in comparison to all the alternatives that we've got.