We have no alternative but to commit to more radical political action, says British climate activist Sir Jonathon Porritt in a new book

We have just a decade left to confront and to begin to resolve the global climate crisis, Sir Jonathon Porritt, the British sustainability leader, lays out in Hope in Hell, his latest hard-evidenced, convincingly argued book.

“[T]his is literally the last decade in which authentic, grounded hope will be available to anchor everything we can do to serve our families, friends and future generations. Who knows what lies beyond this decade? But if we haven’t dramatically changed our ways by then, genuine hope will have become the scarcest resource on Earth.”

To make his case he draws on authoritative sources from around the world and his 40 years’ experience in many facets of sustainability, including politics, business, sociology and activism. He was, for example, the inaugural chair of the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission, a role he held for almost a decade under Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers.

In recent years Porritt and Forum for the Future, the business advisory organisation he co-founded in 1996, have become increasingly involved here in New Zealand. Most notably in 2018, he co-founded The Aotearoa Circle with Sir Rob Fenwick, one of our great sustainability leaders who very sadly died far too young in March. The Circle brings together business and government leaders on the crucial task of putting our abundant natural capital at the heart of all we do, so we can reverse its degradation that we are causing.

While Porritt argues we can decarbonise our economies, thanks to many currently viable and increasingly affordable technologies, he also strongly emphasises how we can help Earth systems remove huge quantities of climate changing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They can do so by recarbonising soils, wetlands, landscapes and marine environments through vegetation. “[T]his is one of the most exciting areas of potential transformation.”

Keys to it include changes in land use, farming practices and human diets. “[M]ixed farming, committed to high welfare, extensively grazed livestock integrated into a largely organic or regenerative farming system, will always have a case to make. And I really don’t think that today’s crude polarisation (‘animal foods bad, plant foods good’) is particularly helpful.”

Having laid out “Reasons to be Cheerful”, “The Climate Emergency”, and “Confronting the Emergency” in the first three parts of Hope in Hell, he deals in the last two parts with “What’s Stopping Us?” and “All in it Together”.

Our current economic system is a massive roadblock to transformation. “With today’s business-as-usual model of economic development, ensuring everybody could live on more than US$5 a day would take 207 years, and the global economy would need to increase to 170 times its present size. Farewell planet Earth.”

In addition, the system generates enormous inequalities in income and wealth, and powerful vested interests such as the fossil fuel sector, which further hobble progress. These in turn are undermining democracy itself through the rise of populism, the influence of money in politics and the exploitation of technology to manipulate public understanding and debate.

But the crisis is far deeper and broader. “In fact, climate change is a civilisational issue, rather than an environmental issue, going right to the heart of today’s growth-obsessed economy, challenging our very understanding of what we mean by progress.

“Given where we are now, we clearly need a global movement that is nothing like today’s environmental movement, but much closer in orientation to some of the struggles around social justice and human rights back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – a radically transformative movement inspired by those campaigns that made possible what was previously unthinkable.”

Porritt believes the Covid pandemic “makes it significantly more likely we will do what needs to be done – as long as we put the climate emergency at the heart of our post-Covid recovery; we ensure science informs all future policy; “we recognise ourselves once again as creatures of the Earth, governed by the laws of physics and the biological interdependencies of all living creatures”; and “we use the unprecedented shock of the pandemic to our way of life to rethink our basic values and, indeed, our ultimate purpose as human beings.”

A particular source of hope for Porritt is the rise of young people protesting about the climate crisis. From a lone student (Greta Thunberg) outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, their numbers swelled in just over a year to some seven million students taking to their streets in some 125 countries.

“The phenomena of ‘intergenerational rage’ will become one of the most significant factors of the next decade, not least as that kind of rage will be so important in sustaining young people’s hopes.”

He is also inspired by the surge in local environmental initiatives, and the networks that support them. With a sense of their unique place, each community is responding directly to its needs and interests.

But he is deeply worried that politicians and the systems they work in are responding far too slowly.

“There is only one logical conclusion given where we are now: we have no alternative but to commit to more radical political action. To get as many people as possible involved in campaigning activities just as often as possible. To bring such pressure to bear on our political systems, while we still have time, to shift from today’s wholly inadequate incrementalism to full-on emergency response. The case for civil disobedience is now overwhelming.”

This, he stresses, in non-violent direct action, such as practised by the suffragettes in the past and by Extinction Rebellion today.

As Sir Rob wrote in his foreword to the book:

“In confronting the depths of his own fears, Jonathon has been forced to shift gears, as you can hear in the urgency of his writing. The uncomfortable reality we all have to confront is that ‘business-as-usual’, relying on governments and large corporations, is not working. Not somebody who succumbs easily to hopelessness, Jonathon has found new inspiration in the determination of young people to take possession of their future.”

Join the discussion: The New Zealand launch of Sir Jonathon Porritt’s Hope in Hell will be hosted by the Sustainable Business Network and Newsroom, 6pm – 7pm on Thursday, August 27. He will join us live by video from the UK to talk about his book. If you’d like to join the online discussion, please register with SBN via this link.

Leave a comment