The World We Made: An Interview with Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future and former Chair of the Green Party, has laid out a model for thinking about sustainable living in his new book entitled ‘The World We Made’, telling the retrospective story of environmental change from the perspective of a history teacher, Alex McKay, in 2050. I spoke to him about public and political attitutudes towards climate policy, raising environmental awareness, and his work at Forum for the Future.

Why is your model laid out in this form of narrative?

One of the major problems about trying to communicate ‘the world of sustainability’ is that it is invariably full of doom and gloom – and most people find this incredibly difficult to deal with! By going out to 2050, and then looking back to see how we got to such a good world in 2050, it’s possible to give people a much more upbeat, confident sense that this good future is still available to us. It’s known as the technique of ‘backcasting’: if you can see the destination we’re headed towards, it makes it a lot easier to work out the steps one needs to undertake to get there!

Do you expect people to respond actively to your book and if so, do you think it is easy to have faith in a model that relies upon scenarios that haven’t yet happened such as a Japanese tsunami in 2017?

I don’t expect anybody to ‘have faith’ in what’s in this book – that’s not really the idea! I’m absolutely not saying that this is how it will be; what I’m inviting people to do is to begin to think about the reality of the world we live in now, and how important it is to take actions over the course of the next few years if we want to have a good world in 2050. There’s a world of distinction between providing a form of blueprint, and inviting people to think for themselves how they think the future will develop depending on the decisions that we take in the short term.

A Future Detroit? ⓒ Phaidon
A Future Detroit? Image: Phaidon

What are the projections such as 15% unemployment by 2015 based upon?

In each of the different areas where I looked at the state of play between where we are now and where I think we might be in 2050, I did a detailed analysis of any projection I could lay my hands on! So, for instance, with these projected figures around youth unemployment, I started with the International Labour Organization, then looked at the EU figures, then at the UK, Spanish, Italian and other figures. But these only provided the foundation on which I then built my own projections, as ultimately it’s obviously a question of judgment at that point!

This idealistic future image seems in danger of suppressing potentially legitimate doubts about things like nanotechnology and GM mosquitoes, given we don’t actually have the benefit of hindsight yet. How do you justify this?

Again, as above, it’s not a matter of justification! The whole deal here is to provoke people into thinking about these controversial issues. For instance, it’s clear to me that nanotechnology is something that could bring absolutely massive benefits to the world of sustainable manufacturing, notwithstanding some of the dangers that people are quite rightly focussed on at the moment. But I’m not saying that’s what everybody must necessarily agree to! Everybody needs to work out for themselves what the consequences of some of these big technology choices look like.

How does your model deal with the housing demand increase, requiring more land, due to population growth?

The reality is that we do need to build a lot of new houses here in the UK – demand has exceeded supply for many, many years. And most of that demand is in the most congested parts of the UK – in the South East and South West. It’s difficult for those who care passionately about the countryside to accept this, but we are going to have to find ways of allowing some of those new developments to take place in the near future, rather than continuing to defer this uncomfortable decision. That’s one of the reasons why I’m quite a keen protagonist for new towns, particularly where one can find disused land (former airfields etc) on which they could be build. It’s disappointing to me that progress here has been so slow.

These kinds of crunch decisions will just get harder and harder simply because we fail to address the real elephant in the room: the rapidly growing UK population. Just look at the projections for what lies ahead through to 2032, and you’ll see what I mean. Rising population means rising pressure on all services in the UK, and on land use, and therefore on housing. It’s just part of the ineluctable reality of population growth.

A 2038 vertical greenhouse ⓒ Phaidon
A 2038 vertical greenhouse. Image: Phaidon

What do you think it will take to motivate people en masse into being environmentally active, such as you suggest in the ‘Enough!’ movement?

This is the key question! I suppose what lies behind my confidence here in using a technique of this kind is the twin realisation that we have no choice but to make these changes and also that we would be constructing a much better world in the process. Change is therefore both necessary (which is not sufficient in itself) and desirable. For young people, that becomes absolutely critical: once they’ve looked into their own crystal ball as to what the future holds for them, especially in terms of accelerating climate change, and combine that with a sense of the aspirational values that a more sustainable world brings with it, then it becomes part and parcel of the way they might begin to see their own futures.

Why do you think governments have been so keen to green-light fracking projects, rather than channelling the money and resources into improving sustainable energy sources?

The truth of it is that politicians find it incredibly difficult to think more ambitiously about the real essence of what a sustainable world means – ie zero hydrocarbons in the energy mix! Unfortunately, politicians have become both psychologically and financially dependent on hydrocarbons to the extent that they can barely free their minds to think about any kind of alternative energy world. They’ve completely failed to confront the reality of what ‘radical decarbonisation’ means, but without that kind of radical decarbonisation, our prospects are very grim indeed. And we’re nowhere near getting on track for that as yet.

Why do you think the British government has been so keen to oppose the EU ban on neonicotinoids?

The UK Government is pretty much incapable of making intelligent decisions about issues of this kind. To be honest, DEFRA is pretty much a total basket case now in terms of its ability to handle complex science around issues of this kind, not least as it’s in the pockets of large agrichemical companies. DEFRA is ‘led’ by a Secretary of State who is an unthinking evangelist for GM and every form of intensive farming, so nobody’s surprised when DEFRA makes a decision of this kind.

If we are now at the point of ‘no turning back’, why is there not a greater drive for public awareness in the press?

Good question! Again, we just have to be realistic about the fact that many media outlets in the UK (if not the majority) are mostly owned by right-wing organisations whose commercial interests will not be served by the transition to a more sustainable economy. Noam Chomsky warned many years ago that once the ‘nexus’ between big business, government and the media is dominated by large vested interests, then democracy itself is at peril. And that is clearly the case today.

A projection of Gothenburg in 2036 ⓒ Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Phaidon
A projection of Gothenburg in 2036. Image: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Phaidon

What do you think is the most effective way of raising environmental awareness in schools?

There are two routes into this: through the curriculum and through the school community itself. There’s a lot to be encouraged by in terms of the way the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools has adapted to reflect more and more sustainability issues, particularly in terms of things like climate change. It’s very different from what it used to be ten, let alone 20, years ago!

But beyond that, I think it’s really critical that schools should see themselves as working examples of sustainable living in every respect – in terms of energy use, waste, water management, land use, managing school grounds, biodiversity and so on. That’s the best possible way to ‘teach’ young people about what environmental responsibility really means.

How do you choose your partners for Forum for the Future?

When we set the Forum up in 1996, we developed a comprehensive set of Guidelines as to which companies we will and we won’t work with. That’s served us well over the intervening years. Any company we work with has to be capable of making a major contribution to a genuinely sustainable world – and there are a number of companies that simply don’t meet that condition. Beyond that, we ask for real commitment from our companies, in terms of senior management and board commitment, and a readiness to work with the Forum on making a real difference in areas of their direct responsibility.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the FutureHis latest book, ‘The World We Made’ (£24.95, Phaidon) is available from www.phaidon.com/store.

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