New book by Porritt argues that we need to reshape capitalism to deliver a sustainable future
We have just published the American paperback version of Capitalism As If the World Matters. The book is written by Jonathon Porritt, one of the foremost environmentalists of his generation and cofounder of my organization, Forum for the Future. The foreword is by Amory Lovins. As well as working with us, Jonathon is chair of the U.K. Government’s Sustainable Development Commission. Previously, he was director of Friends of the Earth.
In the book, he tackles the most pressing question of the 21st century: Can capitalism, as the dominant economic system, be reshaped to deliver a sustainable future? He argues that it can be and it must be. He then lays out the framework for a more “sustainable capitalism.”
At the heart of the book are two theses: that capitalism is basically the only game in town, with the vast majority of the world’s people content for it to remain so for the foreseeable future; and that learning to live sustainably on the planet is a non-negotiable imperative.
Jonathon asks why, when the science is now so clear and compelling, we haven’t seen more radical responses from government and business. He lays some of the blame at the door of “conventional environmentalism,” which he says has so far failed to win over the hearts and minds of the general public or the political elites because its message is too doom-laden. The necessary changes, he argues, have instead to be seen as desirable changes, good for people, their health, their quality of life today — and not just good for the prospects of future generations.
That means working with the grain of markets and free choice. Logically, it also 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 well-being on the other.
I think this conclusion is difficult to argue with, though some greens in the U.K. still see the capitalist system itself as the problem, and fundamentally irredeemable. That said, Jonathon rightly believes that today’s particular model of capitalism is incapable of delivering the kind of reconciliation we need because it is dependent on systematically destroying the natural capital on which we depend, and on worsening the divides between the rich and the poor.
Capitalism as if the World Matters sets out in detail the response to the challenge that Forum for the Future has been wrestling with for the past decade: can we conceptualize and then operationalize an alternative model of capitalism, a model that delivers a sustainable future?
For that to happen, the case for sustainable development must be reframed. It has to 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, emphasizing enlightened self-interest and new kinds of personal well-being.
We must also redefine what we mean by “growth.” The book highlights the need to distinguish between different kinds of growth. It argues that current economic growth does not bring us happiness. It suggests that we must not only reduce the material intensity of economic activities, but that we must change how we measure growth and progress.
Sustainable development as an organizing principle could help us to simultaneously live within natural limits, provide unprecedented opportunities for responsible and innovative wealth creators, and offer people a more balanced and more rewarding way of life.
The book is also an excellent primer on the current state of knowledge on sustainable development. Jonathon draws heavily on his work with Forum for the Future. He sets out the “Five Capitals” framework, which we have used with major businesses and public bodies. He draws on our experience of helping major companies like BP, Marks & Spencer, and Unilever. And he also writes engagingly about the importance of spirituality in sustainability.
However, when Capitalism as if the World Matters was published in the U.K., much of the press attention centered around the criticisms of the environmental movement. Jonathon challenges the positioning of the movement, and in particular, the fact that even though reconciling sustainable development with capitalism is today’s most fundamental intellectual challenge, the green movement devotes “a miniscule” amount of time and money to resolving it.
The book is challenging, passionate and, ultimately, optimistic. Jonathon concludes, “It seems unarguable that the bipolar challenges of, on the one hand, the biophysical limits to growth and, on the other, the terrible damage being done to the human spirit through the pursuit of unbridled materialism, will compel a profound transformation of contemporary capitalism.” Let’s hope he is right.