Jonathon Porritt discusses “The Growth Fetish and the Death of Environmentalism”

Yesterday evening, Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future and chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, spoke at the annual Burntwood lecture, hosted by Institution of Environmental Science.

In a dynamic talk, Porritt described the so-called “growth fetish” of modern society, in which emphasis is increasingly put on economic growth, measured by Gross Domestic Product, above all other indicators of success. He also spoke on the role of human rights and development NGOs in fighting the cause for environmentalism, stating that they had failed to address the root of the problem.

Population growth, he said, was a key factor in the debate on how to achieve “a sustainable low-carbon economy”, a piece of the puzzle that had thus far been ‘missed out’. As a result, natural and economic resources would continue to be stretched to unsustainable levels, with almost every significant trend in consumption- including water, food and energy- increasing steadily. He assured that establishing a ‘real’ global price on carbon emissions was also vital, if the world is to lower its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2050, avoiding the dangerous effects of climate change. This would be equivalent to 6g of carbon dioxide per US dollar ($) of economic growth by 2050, whilst current levels are approximately 750g of carbon dioxide per dollar of growth.

Mr Porritt then suggested the essential tools needed to get us to a ‘sustainable economy’. He supported the idea that innovation and technological advancement, driven by a need for sustainable consumption, would also bring huge benefits economically. ‘Marketisation’, or valuation of natural assets including Ecosystem Services, would help to create an economic model in which preservation of natural assets remains more profitable than environmental destruction. “It’s about using nature’s wealth more sustainably”, Porritt stated. He suggested that political corruption and the rise of ‘Denialism’ were responsible for the majority of inaction on global over-consumption, which has lead to runaway environmental destruction.

Mr Porritt then called on NGOs and environmental advocates to start focussing their effort towards promoting “limits to growth”, to stop what he regarded as “the systematic betrayal of young people today”. Relentlessly increasing levels of consumption were “completely non-viable”, he added. He commented that well-known NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth and WWF, should make more effort to address the economic developmental pressures of the world today, in order to remain the “lifeblood” of the environmental movement.

A lively question and answer session followed the lecture, in which Trewin Restorick – CEO of Global Action Plan– and representatives from WWF-UK disputed Porritt’s claims that the NGOs strategy on global sustainability was “inadequate”. Mr Porritt also acknowledged the significant positive effect” that had been made by thinking and research on ecosystem services, in making biodiversity conservation more effective. He believes that understanding the “economics of natural capital” will help to further expose the irreversible costs of environmental destruction.

Other questions from the floor related to the role of innovation and technology in achieving his vision of ‘a sustainable low carbon economy’. Mr Porritt commented that innovation in ‘green technology’ did not have to come at the expense of economic recovery. He also praised leadership from “forward thinking entrepreneurs” in partnership with the private sector, for contributing to a “thriving” portfolio of low-carbon technologies, against the backdrop of political failure to establish a “price on carbon”. Further progress was being ‘stunted’ by a lack of “market-based controls on carbon”, which would allow these technologies to become more economical, he said.