“As if the world matters”: reconciling sustainable development and capitalism

Jonathon Porritt
30 November 2005

My book Capitalism As If the World Matters revolves around two simple observations:

  • Capitalism is basically the only economic game in town, and the vast majority of people (in both the rich and poor world) are content for it to remain so for the definable future

  • Learning to live sustainably on the only planet we’ve got is a non-negotiable imperative if we want to avoid an accelerating descent into resource wars, collapsing eco-systems and traumatic social and economic decline.

So which of the following nine assertions do you not agree with?

  1. It’s all but impossible any longer to deny the need for profound change in the face of today’s gathering ecological crises. The science on which that analysis is based is rock-solid, and more than sufficient to justify far more radical political interventions than are currently occurring.

  2. The fact that profound change is necessary is obviously not sufficient in itself, in that the pace of change remains hopelessly inadequate. Conventional environmentalism has so far failed to win over hearts and minds either within the electorate at large or within today’s political elites.

  3. Change will not come by threatening people with yet more ecological doom and gloom. The necessary changes have also to be seen as desirable changes, good for people, their health, their quality of life – and not just good for the prospects of future generations. This is a “here and now” agenda, as well as an agenda for tomorrow.

  4. That means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it. It means embracing capitalism as the only overarching system capable of achieving any kind of reconciliation between ecological sustainability on the one hand and the pursuit of prosperity and personal wellbeing on the other.

  5. That said, today’s particular model of capitalism is clearly incapable of delivering that kind of reconciliation, dependent as it is on the accelerating liquidation of the natural capital on which we depend, and on worsening divides between the rich and the poor the world over.

  6. At its heart, therefore, sustainable development comes right down to one all-important challenge: is it possible to conceptualise and then operationalise an alternative model of capitalism – one that allows for the sustainable management of all the different capital assets we rely on, so that the yield from those different assets sustains us now as well as in the future?

  7. The case for sustainable development must be reframed if that is to happen. It must be as much about new opportunities for responsible wealth creation as about outlawing irresponsible wealth creation; it must draw on a core of ideas and values that speaks directly to people’s desire for a higher quality of life, emphasising enlightened self-interest and personal wellbeing of a different kind.

  8. It is only this combination (sustainable development seen as answering the unavoidable challenge of living within natural limits, providing unprecedented opportunities for responsible and innovative wealth creators, and offering people a more balanced and more rewarding way of life) which is likely to provide any serious political alternative to today’s economic and political orthodoxy.

  9. Unless it throws in its lot with this kind of progressive, political agenda, conventional environmentalism will continue to decline.

The problem with environmentalists

It’s remarkable how reluctant most environmentalists are to engage in this. Environmental organisations (especially the charities) have got so good at pretending “to be above party politics” that they’ve ended up marooned in an ideology-free zone where contemporary capitalism is some sort of “given” which they can do nothing about.

Reconciling sustainable development with capitalism is today’s most critical intellectual challenge. But the amount of time or money devoted to it by today’s environment movement is miniscule. It’s just not what they do, leaving it to the likes of the New Economics Foundation to fill the gap.

To be fair, it’s true that Friends of the Earth continues to campaign with passion on human rights, international trade, governance issues and so on; Greenpeace has steadfastly maintained its work on security issues and nuclear weapons, and WWF has worked tirelessly to get the chemical industry to face up to its full responsibilities in today’s global economy.

But millions of people in the United Kingdom who are happy to be described as “environmentalists” remain acutely reluctant even to acknowledge the ideological heartland of what they call “environmentalism”, and are so depoliticised that any mention of the bigger capitalist picture sends them running off back to their bird-boxes and gently simmering organic lentils.

Hence my contention in Capitalism As If The World Matters that the environment movement is going to have to raise its game. We have got to get better at presenting the overwhelmingly positive benefits of the proposed transition in terms of new opportunities for entrepreneurs, new sources of economic prosperity and jobs, a higher quality of life for people, safer, more secure communities, and a better work-life balance.

Such assertions irritate the hell out of some environmentalists. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth has taken me to task in the following terms:

“Jonathon Porritt is big on analysis but short on solutions when it comes to setting out how campaigners can render our capitalist system sustainable. This is the biggest job in history. Suggesting that environmental groups have somehow failed because they have not risen to this challenge is simply ridiculous. “Green groups have been pressing the ideology of sustainability for years – including in relation to how ‘growth’ and capitalist assumptions must change.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case, not even in Europe, let alone in the United States. We‘re still the people who like to say “no”, to talk more in terms of nightmares rather than visions, and we still rely on a very narrow socio-economic and ethnic base in “holding our ground”. Our ideological discourse is incredibly naive at best, non-existent at worst. Which may explain why we’re still losing the world, even though to a large extent we’ve won the intellectual argument.

But our relative failure as environmentalists is nothing like as great as that of the progressive left, which for the most part is still unapologetically in thrall to the great God of Economic Growth, sees all talk of “environmental limits” as crass eco-fundamentalism, and remains besotted with a variety of techno-cornucopianism that renders them all but irrelevant in today’s sustainability debate. It’s hard to exaggerate just how damagingly the left has been corrupted by today’s dominant neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

Also in openDemocracy on environmentalism and politics, a major debate on “the politics of climate change”, with contributions from writers (Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben), scientists and science writers (David King, Stephan Harrison, Dave Frame, Chris Mooney, Carol Turley), policy analysts (Mayer Hillman, Camilla Toulmin, Tom Burke, John Ashton) and activists (Sophie Harding, Angel Green, Rubens Born).

More recently, openDemocracy writers assess the climate-change aspects as well as the political fallout of hurricane Katrina, including:

Ian Christie, “When the levee breaks”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Hence the chronic political vacuum around sustainable development. While we bang on about the burning necessity of urgent and comprehensive change, electorates remain unmoved by this rhetoric and apprehensive about the implications of any such change for their own quality of life. Although they know our current system of capitalism is seriously flawed, there is little recognition that it is completely unsustainable. There is little deep awareness of what interdependence really means: John Muir’s observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” means little if anything in today’s culture of instant gratification and atomised self-indulgence.

Paradoxically, few people in the rich world seem to be getting any happier – and neither the environmental movement nor the progressive left have anything much to say about that extraordinary state of affairs. The now-shelved European constitution failed to find any form of words that reflects either real awareness of the biophysical limits to future growth, or any equivalent to those stirring words in the United States’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The planet’s one big idea

It seems unarguable that the bipolar challenges of, on the one hand, the biophysical limits to growth and, on the other, of the terrible damage being done to the humans spirit through the pursuit of unbridled materialism, will compel a profound transformation of contemporary capitalism – and sooner rather than later if we want to avoid dramatic social and economic disruption. Hence the idea of “capitalism as if the world matters”: an evolved, intelligent and elegant form of capitalism that puts the Earth at its very centre and ensures that all people are its beneficiaries in recognition of our unavoidable interdependence.

From that perspective, it is only sustainable development that can provide both the intellectual foundations and the operational pragmatism upon which to base such a transformation. This is why sustainable development remains for me the only seriously “big idea” that can bear the weight of that challenge, and why the core values that underpin sustainable development – interdependence, empathy, equity, personal responsibility and intergenerational justice – are the only foundation upon which any viable vision of a better world can possibly be constructed.

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