31 Aug 2008
Jonathon Porritt environmentalist, explains his interest in the relationships between people and their environment and the need to co-create a future with the natural world.
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I’m not just interested in the environment; I’m interested in the relationships between people, the environment and an economy.’
Jonathon Porritt began his lengthy career in the environmental movement as an activist in what was then one of the world’s first green parties, the Ecology Party, which later became the Green Party. He went on to become a director of Friends of the Earth, before leaving to found the sustainable development charity Forum for the Future with Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins. Other contributions include chairing the UK Sustainable Development Commission and developing the Prince of Wales’ Business and Environment Programme. As the wider world begins to catch up with his way of thinking, he now enjoys a rare position as both a pillar of the movement and an advisor to governments and businesses.
The change that I want to see is people acknowledging the need to co-create a future with the natural world, to renounce completely this old paradigm of progress through subjugation of nature, and to start living out in practice a paradigm which is based on cohabitation with nature. This is a huge philosophical shift that I’m talking about on one level, a meta-transformation of the human mind and spirit. I start at that level because I’ve become convinced that unless we change mindsets fundamentally in that sort of way, then a lot of the behaviour change which is going on at the individual and community level will wither, will simply perish. If it’s not properly embedded in a philosophical, metaphysical shift of that kind, it’s very ephemeral; often it’s very vulnerable to the old world order, the old mindsets crushing energy on the part of new pioneers. So that’s the high-level place where I would want to start, and then one can translate that down through into all sorts of more practical, applied ways of being a change agent.
Forum for the Future is undoubtedly the biggest part of the transformative work that I’m involved in now. When we set that up, the whole idea was to work with people’s positive energy regarding their own lives and their relationship with other people and the natural world, to work with that positive energy to accelerate change processes that are already going on in the world. Now, the reason why I put it in those terms, working with positive energy’, is that much of my time before that as a green activist had been spent working with people’s negative energy: with people’s guilt about the terrible things that they were doing to the world, advertently or inadvertently; with fear at the prospects for themselves or their children if the environment were to go on disintegrating; and anger at the fact that the planet was being trashed on our behalf by incompetent and procrastinating politicians.
If I look back on the Green Party and Friends of the Earth, where I spent my first 20 years, that’s the energy that we worked with. I don’t think those organisations had any choice in those days; nobody wanted to work with any positive energy ó there wasn’t any sense of a transformation available to us at that stage, so it had to be confrontational, it had to be negative, stopping people doing things, because there wasn’t any sense of a licence to create new things. The opportunity didn’t really exist in those days to do it differently, but a young activist coming into the scene today has a choice: they can either go into campaigning organisations that will still take on the wrongdoers and those that are out to advance their own self-interest at the expense of other people and the planet, or they can go into a whole host of organisations that have emerged in the last 15 years which are about bridge-building, about working with positive energy, creating solutions. They’ve got a choice that wasn’t there before. But when I got back from the Earth Summit in 1992, which was a complete turning point for me, I realised that I couldn’t go on working any longer simply by criticising other people, it was kind of wearing me down. I needed to find a different kind of energy to release my own energy.
What the Forum does very simply is to work with many different partners in the private and public sector, and in education and the professions. We work alongside sustainability champions to challenge them, empower them, make them more effective change agents in their own organisations, and through that engagement process, accelerate this critical change going on. Now, that’s the high level thing that we do, and the combination of advice, support and challenge is obviously a very important part of how we do it. It’ll be different for different partners and different contexts as you can imagine. But in essence, the Forum’s work is precisely the same at that high level. It then cascades through into completely different projects, initiatives and ideas with different partners depending on what their priority is. We tend not to go in there and tell them, You must do this,’ as we’ve found that that isn’t always very helpful! What we try to do is support a process inside an organisation where they discover for themselves what the gaps are in what they are doing, what the priorities are, what they need to be doing next and how to do it. Once they’ve discovered what that is, then we work with them to make it happen.
Patterns of challenge
It’s gone through different stages. Early on, the main impediment to achieving any change was ridicule, basically. People who professed to the kind of ideas that I did in the 1970s ó lots of people like me, but tiny as a proportion ó were subject to large amounts of ridicule! When I wrote the Ecology Party Manifesto in 1979, we did some interviews on TV, and the basic line of questioning from the journalists was, Well, this is all a bit of a laugh isn’t it? How nice to have someone out there to protect the bees and the birds and all that, fantastic stuff!’ Even my friends thought that this was completely dotty, bonkers, that this couldn’t be turned into a political party. That was difficult and I had to get used to that constant level of good-humoured invective about the fact that I’d seemed to have lost my mind. I suppose I developed defences against that and gradually ignored it after a while. Ignoring things sometimes works.
The next phase was nothing really to do with ridicule, it was more to do with indifference and inertia, and that lasted for a very long time. I overcame that by getting cross. I would find this stimulated lots of new energy in me, and it would be a challenge to see how one could shatter the complacency that allowed people to be so inert in their response to what was even then emerging as an absolutely enormous challenge in our midst. That was easier to deal with, because I have a relatively easy route to ratcheting up my emotional energy to take people on at that level. I’m a bit more moderate about that these days.
But then underpinning all of that, and the most complicated bit in terms of coping with this, is dealing with the constant flow of totally depressing information about people’s lives ó particularly the lives of people in the developing world ó and the state of our planet, of our physical environment. This is a non-stop flow of negative information and stories and data that passes in front of people like me, day in, day out. I’ve had to develop ways of managing that, of not being crushed by the weight of that extremely depressing backdrop to what I do. I suppose that’s part of the reason why I set up Forum for the Future and other things like the Prince Of Wales’ Business and the Environment Programme, which again is all about solutions and not about the problems. I needed to be more in contact with people making things change, with solutions emerging from people’s energy of that sort. Otherwise I think my spirits would have been on a permanently declining trajectory, and I’m not sure then I could have sustained myself as an activist for that length of time.
So I have developed all sorts of ways of doing that, and tried to keep a sense of humour abo
ut this; I’m a great believer that the green movement could do with a lot more humour than it is normally exposed to. People get very gloomy very quickly, so I try and puncture the inherent gloominess. If I’m feeling really depressed, I’ll often just remind myself what this is all about and go for a walk and get back into contact with the natural world. That’s what provides me with a lot of energy in this respect; and I have a vague and rather loose spiritual practice which also helps me to come through some of the gloomier bits of being a sustainable development activist.
There are lots of joys, it’s absolutely fantastic! One is the joy ó I don’t mean this in any patronising way ó of the sinner converted, as it were. There’s a real sense of fun and uplift in seeing how people are coming to this agenda now, as if they’re discovering something completely new. Which I still find slightly baffling, but it doesn’t really matter! They’re just there, suddenly, and it’s wonderful to see how this liberates energy and determination in them. There’s a lot of that around at the moment, lots and lots of people.
I was listening to the radio yesterday and there was a story about a 16-year-old boy who had decided that climate change was really awful. He lived on a farm in Yorkshire, so he worked with his dad to make the whole farm completely self-sufficient in energy, by developing a biogas plant. It was an amazing story, this 16-year-old kid who from when he was 14 onwards had said, OK, we can do this. This is easy!’ There was his dad on the radio commenting with a mixture of horror ó remembering what it was like when his son had first got this bug ó and now this sense of real pride and satisfaction, since his son was saving him thousands of pounds a year, by virtue of running the farm so much more efficiently.
Now I listen to that and my soul leaps a bit. We need stories like that day in, day out on the radio, on the telly and in our newspapers, because what we normally get about all this stuff in the media is, understandably, just another great stream of all the things that are going wrong and destroying the world. We have to take joy from the success stories of those who are creating a better world right now.
I sometimes get a bit embarrassed about how much fun I have. In the green movement, you don’t really own up to that, because how can you have fun with the world falling to pieces around you? I keep my spirits up, by and large, because it’s always been enjoyable, even in the early days when I joined the Green Party and there was not much going on. It was still fascinating. It was enormous fun putting together an ideological infrastructure in my mind so that I could cope with all of these odd things happening in the world. And my feeling is that enthusiasm is infectious, and you will never change people unless you yourself are full of enthusiasm for what it is that you are trying to do. In a way, that’s always been the success model for social entrepreneurs and activists in any progressive movement. You have to share that enthusiasm and allow people to take a little bit of it, as a reinforcement of their own passion, and help to grow that and nurture that.
This is an excerpt from an interview featured in the book Be The Change: Action and reflection from people transforming our world.
Be The Change: Action and reflection from people transforming our world consists of a series of inspiring interviews conducted and compiled by Trenna Cormack and published by Love Books, ISBN 978−09555−213−00, £12.99. It’s available now from all good bookshops and at www.lovebooks.co.uk and www.bethechange.org.uk
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