“I’m just trying to make sense of being a human being”

Sustainable development figurehead and Forum for the Future co-founder Jonathon Porritt tells Laura Smith why he's turned away from the media's ‘doom and gloom’ perspective and adopted a more positive outlook for the future of the Earth

Sustainable development figurehead and Forum for the Future co-founder Jonathon Porritt tells Laura Smith why he's turned away from the media's ‘doom and gloom’ perspective and adopted a more positive outlook for the future of the Earth

Laura Smith: How did you first get involved in environmental issues?

Jonathon Porritt: I came into this from a perspective of social justice, education, ideas to do with population resources. I am unapologetically anthropocentric. My starting point for all of this is trying to make sense of the weird business of being a human being.

I started teaching (in a London comprehensive) on the same day I joined Friends of the Earth, in 1973, and I joined the Green Party in 1975, so the two things were co-terminus. I don’t think there was any rhyme or reason to that. I had spent 18 months in the 1960s in Australia and New Zealand working on sheep farms. I spent month after month planting trees in rain and hail and wind and I absolutely loved it. That’s quite an important foundational experience.

You have described the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as “life changing.” Why?

Because it saved my life. I’d finished at Friends of the Earth in early 1991. I had a phenomenal time there, but it was utterly consuming. It took everything. And because it was and is a campaigning organisation trying to stop people doing bad things, much of the mood was what I call the ‘anger, fear and guilt story’. By the time I’d done anger, guilt and fear for six years, my psyche was in a bad place. I needed to find a more positive way of doing sustainability. The Earth Summit was brilliant. I came back having spent time with people saying, “Yeah, we can do this.” I just thought: “Okay, I’m going to go to the other side of this story, the positive news side of the story.” So it was a turning point.

You now do most of your work with business through Forum for the Future. Was there a time when you saw business as the enemy?

Oh, yes. At Friends of the Earth we were the good guys and all these businesses were the legions of Darth Vader out to destroy the universe. Business then didn’t feature in my life as a force for good. But business now is in a very different place. Now much of the innovation, the energy, the sense of this being an opportunity-driven agenda rather than purely risk- and threat-driven, comes from the business community. It’s really refreshing. They have can-do mindsets.

Why did you make the focus of The World We Made, your latest book, a positive one?

Most of (my previous books) start with where we are today and then explain how much worse it’s going to get, and by the end it’s impossible to get anybody to feel upbeat. This time I thought, we’ll start out in 2050 with a success story. It changes the whole tone completely, because you can write about it as a difficult but ultimately successful journey for humankind. It was just so much more fun.

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Can the actions of individuals make a difference?

They already do. Lots of people are already doing lots of small things that are making an enormous difference. We just need to get more of a sense of the movement behind it.

Do you fear for the next generation?

I do fear for the prospects for young people, because I think that my generation has always taken decisions without any concern for their interests whatsoever, and unless that changes very quickly I fear that they will pay a very heavy price for that. But then the other bit of me kicks in, in terms of hopes for this better world emerging, certainly in their lifetime.

How do you maintain your positive outlook?

I have a cheery disposition; I’ve always worried about the green movement having no sense of humour. I filter. I don’t read the endless tracts of doom and gloom that I once read. I would much rather read Positive News. I foreground all the stuff about solutions, about positive energy, about organisations and people and entrepreneurs who are making this better world happen right now. In the background lurks this hinterland of deeply disturbing truths about the state of the world and its people, which I don’t in any way try to ignore, but the more I can live in the foreground, the more, I hope, I am capable of reflecting that kind of positive energy for people.

The World We Made is published by Phaidon Press and can be ordered via www.phaidon.com