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22 December 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Capitalism as if the world matters more than we do
In his new book, Jonathon Porritt dresses up a demand for austerity in the language of environmentalism.

by Daniel Ben-Ami

Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism As If The World Matters, Earthscan, 2005.

Jonathon Porritt personifies the shift of environmentalism in Britain from grassroots movement to mainstream opinion. Back in the early 1980s he was co-chair of the Green Party - of which he is still a member - before becoming director of Friends of the Earth from 1984 to 1990. In 1999 he was appointed co-director of the Prince of Wales' Business and Environment Programme, and in 2000 Tony Blair appointed him chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

He is also co-founder and programme director of Forum for the Future, which bills itself as Britain's leading sustainable development charity (1). Along the way Porritt has collected a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) award for services to environmental protection. As the 'Great and the Good' have gone Green he has been brought in to advise them on the finer details of environmentalism.

As might be expected from someone who moves in Blairite circles, his new book, Capitalism As If The World Matters, presents itself as embodying a sensible third-way approach. Porritt concedes that there is a potential conflict between economic growth and the environment. His solution is to try to find a reasonable balance between the two. But a closer inspection shows his project is to repackage the idea of natural limits to make it acceptable to the majority of the population - who he sees as living a life of systematic denial.

Porritt argues that humanity faces two conflicting imperatives: a biological imperative to limit consumption growth and a political imperative to raise living standards. But he does not see the two as equally valid. On the contrary, biology is a first order imperative, which is determined by laws of nature and non-negotiable. In contrast, the political imperative is only a 'second order aspiration'. For Porritt the protection of nature is more important than raising human living standards.

Yet as the book draws towards a conclusion it becomes clear why Porritt doesn't explicitly call for lower consumption. From a pragmatic perspective it is far easier to sell his approach, which is essentially austerity-lite, than to explicitly demand lower living standards. 'Rather than "consume less", the thrust of any new debate here is likely to be "consume wisely" for the foreseeable future. That may not be sufficient, but it's all that would appear to be manageable right now in terms of mainstream political responses to capitalist economies.' So he poses the argument in terms of the need for a better quality of growth that, at least implicitly, can mean reducing consumption for all but the poorest.

But is Porritt's initial premise, that there are natural limits on human activity, correct? He proudly proclaims that 'it's the science of sustainability that provides the rock-solid foundations upon which the structures of sustainable development are now being raised' (original emphasis). But the scientific arguments he marshals are far too skimpy to justify such a grandiose claim. They boil down to little more than that the Earth is a relatively small place. As a result, he argues, humans need to limit their activity to avoid using up resources or overloading it with waste.

Living in harmony with nature means in effect making peace with scarcity
His most sophisticated attempt to argue the point is based on the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian-American twentieth-century economist. Georgescu-Roegen argued that, based on the laws of thermodynamics, the amount of energy in a closed system such as the Earth is finite. Therefore there must be limits on energy use in particular and economic growth in general. But as Porritt later concedes, the Earth is not a closed system since it receives energy from the Sun. In fact, about 10,000 times as much solar energy flows into the Earth every year as the total amount of energy used by the whole of humankind.

What is true of energy is also true of other resources. Humans have barely started to extract resources besides what is easily available in the Earth's crust. Other sources of resources - such as under the seabed or in Antarctica - are hardly touched. Yet Porritt cursorily dismisses the possibility of harnessing such resources as cornucopian optimism.

At root, the problem with Porritt's work is the conception of humanity it embodies. For him human beings are simply part of the natural world. The attempt to control nature is precisely why, in his view, human beings are so destructive. Yet human striving to master nature is a central element of progress. By taking control of the planet it is possible for human beings to reshape the environment in a way that best suits their needs.

Porritt starts with the assumption that there must be natural limits to human development, and then sets out to prove it - dismissing any contrary evidence or arguments as 'denial'. He assumes from the start that there are five types of capital - natural, human, social, manufactured and financial - and that natural capital is somehow primary. He then goes on to develop a theory to prove his premise. So he asserts that: 'The Five Capitals Framework unhesitatingly asserts the primacy (or "preconditionality") of natural capital: after nearly 4 billion years of life on Earth, of which we've been around for just a few tens of thousands of years, that has to be the right way of looking at things.'

But why does it have to be the case that the natural world should be considered primary? It makes no sense to assume that nature must take precedence over human beings just because it has been around for longer. Surely the rise of humanity changes everything. Before humans existed the Earth was essentially a lump of rock with plants and animals living on it. The rise of civilisation means that the environment can be reshaped to benefit humanity. In contrast, living in harmony with nature means in effect making peace with scarcity, disease, hunger and natural disasters.

Porritt pitches the case against the attempt to control nature in a way designed to appeal to as many people as possible. However, the fact that it appears so moderate, with its misanthropic message disguised as much as possible, makes it particularly pernicious.

Read on:

The dismal quackery of eco-economics, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(1) Forum for the future website

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