Saving the Earth and Humankind

by Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt spoke about the need for a spiritual vision as well as scientific expertise to deal with the problems facing us.

I do subscribe to the view that a better world is still available to us; I’ll be asking the question how much longer it is going to be available to us, but I think it still is at the moment. But what is the ambition level? Is it anything other than a better world for every single human being on it? Is it anything less than a better world for most of the life forms with which we share it? Where do you draw the boundary condition about the good life for you personally, for your fellow human beings, for other life forms and so on? And, for me, it is very simple; it has to be for the whole of humankind. It is not possible, morally or pragmatically, to talk about creating a sustainable future for a segment of humankind. For the lucky one billion, if you like, who live like we do today, or perhaps the lucky two billion who will live like we do today in a few more years. It is not possible to do that any longer for reasons that I will explain.

For the first time what might usually be described as ‘an environmental issue’ is suddenly seen to be much, much bigger than that characterisation would tell and much bigger than most of the challenges and dilemmas that we face in the world today. So David Milliband, our outgoing Secretary of State for DEFRA, before he became Foreign Secretary was very keen to stop anybody in DEFRA ever talking about climate change as ‘just’ an environmental problem; he wanted to get them into the bit of the political space that says that this is in fact about the future of society and about completely re-conceptualising the kind of economy that we need in the future to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Now this is a very lively debate in the scientific community. Some scientists think we’ve got a lot of time to get it sorted, not many, but there are some who actually think that the evidence to date gives us a sort of window of time of about twenty to thirty years to make the necessary changes to decarbonise, take the carbon out of our society. And there are a whole host of scientists who think exactly the opposite, who think we have either got very, very little time indeed or, especially if you subscribe to the views of the redoubtable Jim Lovelock, no time at all, because it is already too late. Jim Lovelock is firmly convinced that we have already crossed that threshold; we’ve put enough warming into the atmosphere to precipitate natural feedback loops in the system. For instance, to cause the permafrost across the whole of Siberia to melt so fast that all the methane trapped beneath it is released into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more powerful gas than CO2, twenty-one times more powerful than CO2, and if indeed we have put enough warming up there to cause that change in the natural system then you can begin to see how these systems could begin to run away, even if we wanted to do something about it. And in his most apocalyptic moments, Jim will stand in front of an audience like this and say, ‘Look, you are all wonderfully good people, I can tell, just by looking out at you; you’re here after all, you must be wonderfully good, spending an afternoon like this doing this kind of stuff, but I want to just let you know in the interests of good science that it doesn’t really matter what you do or what anyone else does in the world today, because even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow – a patent impossibility – it would still be too late.’

I don’t know where you are on this debate. I hope you are not with Jim Lovelock, because I don’t know quite how you would cheer yourself up if you were in the Jim Lovelock camp. I also hope you’re not with those manic optimists who believe we have got decades to go and don’t worry. I hope you’re somewhere at the point which says, ‘If we don’t get moving very, very fast, we may well cross that threshold.’ That was really the starting point for why I wrote this book Capitalism As If The World Matters, because I wanted to get to grips with the fact that we are totally dependent on making these solutions work in a capitalist economy; it’s got to be done in ten – fifteen – twenty years. I am sure you would agree with me there isn’t any other political, macro-economic system that is going to emerge in our midst suddenly, so we have to get it done through market-based capitalist systems. That’s one hell of an ask. And that’s really the conundrum that I tried to work out in that book.

So, that’s one bit of my life as a sustainable development activist. The other bit is much more geared to what Fritz Schumacher splendidly described early on in his life as a sustainable development activist as ‘the imperative for metaphysical reconstruction’. He wrote quite a lot about this in his life, including his last book, the wonderful Guide For The Perplexed. He said that unless we open up a different kind of discourse within society, one that goes beyond empiricism, beyond pragmatics, beyond the normality of what we do in our political lives as citizens, unless we open up a deeper discussion, it will actually be impossible to bring forward the right kind of solutions to the way we live in the world today. Although we now associate Fritz Schumacher with lots of very practical things to do with economics and technology and so on, actually he had this passionate belief that we need to dig a lot deeper to find any solutions to those problems. He was also the one, of course, who said that we have to find a more transcendent story, a transcendent reality, in people’s lives if we are going to be more effective in persuading them of the nature of the challenge and the change that we are now facing.

It was also of course Fritz Schumacher who taught me in the early days about the power of interconnection, about the difficulties of seeing everything in terms of segmented, compartmentalised, discrete realities that we choose to address each in its own right rather than to see them as parts of a connected whole. Many of the reasons why we are struggling with the reality of living sustainably on the planet is because we still deconstruct the world into these very narrow silos of meaning, silos of scientific interpretation, and because of that, we are pretty much incapable of understanding some of the deeper truths about interconnection and more importantly than that, interdependence.


Thomas Berry has also been a great inspiration to me, an enormously important writer whose book The Great Story is one of the most astonishing encapsulations about what we need to do in a more cosmological sense about re-interpreting the role of humankind in the world today; a beautifully elegant, passionate account of re-articulating the role of humankind.

Many writers have touched on this notion of interconnectedness. Jim Lovelock in his book about Gaia has gone a lot further and taken the concept of interconnectedness into a deeper analysis of interdependence. And I suppose if there is one huge construct that makes sense for me when trying to interpret the spiritual mysteries of this world it is this sense of absolute interdependence. Not just connectivity, not just links between us, but total dependency at every level, in each of the different systems of which we are a part.

We as a species have no lived reality of interdependence; we still carry around in our mind the inheritance of hundreds of years’ worth of Judaeo-Christian Enlightenment thinking which allows us to maintain the seductive illusion that we are somehow different and separate from what it is that makes up life on Earth. One of the reasons why our civilisation is in such deep difficulties is because our history has essentially inculcated in us an utterly fallacious notion of superiority and separateness that causes us to ignore that which makes life on Earth possible. And I am sorry about this, but the truth is that the history of Christianity tells us that for many, many centuries the Christian church exacerbated and worsened those fallacies and illusions about our separateness from, and independence of, the living systems on which we depend. We are paying a very, very high price today for that metaphysical ignorance; the ontological assumption of separateness is something that lies at the heart of the difficulties that we face today.

Now, I suppose it is fair to say, that this issue about interdependence could be construed in a purely secular way; you could take from the perspective of a good earth-system scientist looking at the carbon cycle, at the nitrogen cycle, at the hydrological cycle, at the way in which all of these cycles are dependent on each other and you could just say, well, there’s nothing particularly mystifying or difficult about this. However, for many people that is not adequate. Many people find it important to tease out a deeper, more spiritual understanding of interdependence and interconnectedness. For me it has been a massively important personal resource in the life that I live, and when people ask me, thirty-five years on, how do you go on doing this stuff, what is it that allows you to get up in the morning and even still crack the occasional joke; the truth of it is, for me, I couldn’t have done this without a sense of a very deep spiritual commitment to the process of change that I find myself involved in.

But I can’t deny that it is also a very political issue. Go back to Schumacher’s concept of metaphysical reconstruction. In his Guide for the Perplexed he talks about three big areas where we need to reconstruct our understanding of the relationship between humankind, the cosmos, the living planet, and so on.

The first of those and the one you will be most familiar with from a straight environmental perspective is re-configuring our relationship with the living world. This is a long, deep and very rich debate that has gone on in the environment movement for many, many years; do you take an instrumental approach to protecting the planet, an approach that says we need to look after the planet because that is the only way of looking after ourselves, or do you take what is known as a more intrinsic value approach: we need to look after it because we have a moral, spiritual, religious obligation to look after it, in its own right, regardless of its value to us? For me, it is impossible to imagine how today’s stripped down, narrow, instrumental environmentalism will ever get us to the point where we need to be, which is protecting and managing all of the resources and the life-support systems on which we depend with such skill, insight, intelligence that we really will create a sustainable future for nine billion people. That kind of instrumental, rational approach to environmental protection is always too little, too late in terms of what it offers humankind today. Religious and spiritual leaders have talked about the process of re-sacralising the Earth; bringing the sacred back into our understanding of what we owe the living planet and all life forms with which we share it – moving from that dried-up phrase ‘respect for nature’ to something much more akin to ‘reverence for nature’. Unless we begin to see that happening in many parts of the world, personally, I don’t think conventional environmentalism has a hope in hell of dragging people back from the abyss that now confronts us.

The second area that Schumacher talked about was the need for empathy at every point in our lives when looking out at every other human being with whom we share this planet and every other life form; for him, of course, empathy was a very powerful social justice construct. And then lastly and perhaps most importantly Schumacher also said that the only opportunity to move people away from the kind of rampant consumerist materialism that now dominates our lives is by celebrating the power of enoughness – not an elegant English word – there are many other words that capture the idea: frugality, voluntary simplicity, modesty. I am watching politicians struggle with the power of rampant consumerism in the world today; they honestly are completely baffled as to how to bring people back from a sense in their own lives that their future depends entirely on access to yet more consumption, increased purchasing power and all of those things that go with it. Will politicians ever come up with a sufficiently convincing antidote to the seductive appeal of consumerism?

So on all three of those things, seeing and feeling the world very differently, seeing and feeling the world of other people very differently from a more empathetic point of view and seeing and feeling our own role in that world as citizens very differently, it seems to me very difficult to imagine an entirely secular route to a sustainable world. Now, of course, saying that here in the UK is a little bit difficult; if you lived practically anywhere else in the world that would be blindingly obvious, our world is still an intensely religious world. Out of 6.4 billion people of that world today at least 5.5 billion, depending on how you construct religious practice in China, would officially be said to be adherents of or members of one faith or religious community or another. So it’s an overwhelmingly religious world in which we live; overwhelmingly religious and yet what for me is so absolutely fascinating is that when we talk about constructing these enormous solutions to achieve a sustainable world for 9 billion people, I don’t hear anybody talk about the role of the world religions in making that journey.

If we do ever hear about it, we often hear the things we don’t want to hear about, in terms of the fundamentalism, intolerance and bigotry that is still there in all the world’s major faith systems to such an extent that many people feel very turned off by them. I was astonished to be sent recently a summary of a conference organised by the Vatican, with the support of the Holy Father himself, the Pope, organised by Cardinal Martino, for those of you who follow the politics of the Catholic Church today will know that he is the primary fixer for our new pope today, who organised this conference under the pontifical council to reconsider issues to do with global warming, paganism and population reduction and I am going to give you a quote from the final resumé of this conference – just in case you still think the Christian Church, the Church of England or Catholicism, has got it sorted and are bound to be on the side of the angels when it comes to all of these things. Not quite. So here is Cardinal Martino in all his great glory:

Man has an indisputable superiority within and over all the rest of creation and in virtue of his being a person endowed with an immortal soul cannot ever be held to be equal to other living beings nor considered at any point to be a disturbing element in the natural ecological balance of the world today. The social doctrine of the church must deal with many current forms of idolatry of nature, worship of nature, pagan idiosyncrasies which lose sight of the superiority of man. Such ecologies often emerge from the debate on population and the relationship between population, paganism and the environment.

Then the conference went on to trash today’s consensus on climate change, the scientific, as having no proper validity. So, whenever I am advocating a slightly more spiritual approach to these matters, it is invariably the case that someone will say to me, ‘Have you looked at what the world’s major religions are doing out there?’ I wish I could stand up and say, ‘I feel so proud about what is being done by Christians today in defence of God’s Earth.’ But I honestly can’t. I look out there and see an immensely troubled church, excessively and, to me mystifyingly, preoccupied with issues of human sexuality. A church which has spent twenty years working out that women are fully-fledged human beings and another twenty years, it seems, that all gay men and women are also fully-fledged human beings in their own right. Twenty years for each of these issues; precisely the forty years when the church needed to be militant in defence of God’s creation. When people come to write the history of Christianity, assuming we are still able to write the history of Christianity in forty or fifty years’ time, this will be seen as one of the periods in church history which makes for the biggest indictment of leadership, of collective failure, of any other point in history.

So, I haven’t talked much about religion because I actually don’t think that our religion has a great deal to offer at the moment in terms of what now needs to be done to come to the defence of planet Earth and its people. I’m in this really paradoxical position, speaking personally, where I know that I couldn’t do the work that I do without the spiritual practice that lies behind it. I know that we are going to need a deepening of those spiritual insights in order to get us to this more sustainable world that we all, I imagine, aspire after, and yet I look out on a religious scene that seems at every point to act as a block and impediment to these changed world views and behaviours that we really need.


Jonathon Porritt is Co-founder and Programme Director of Forum for the Future. His book Capitalism as if the World Matters was published by Earthscan (London) in 2005. This is a shortened, edited version of a live recording of his talk given to the SoF Conference in Leicester in July 2007. Recording and Transcription: Oliver Essame.

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