Up close and personal with environmentalist Jonathon Espie Porritt

The influential English environmentalist and writer thinks denialism is more problematic than scepticism.

THE difference between scepticism about evidence and “denialism” is this: The former may question the credibility of a claim, but it doesn’t stop at that. Sceptics will put theories to rigorous tests to expose their reliability, whereas “denialists” will simply ignore whatever evidence presented to them and stubbornly maintain their disposition.

And Jonathon Espie Porritt, an influential English environmentalist and writer, has a problem with that.

He thinks denialism is more problematic than scepticism, especially when it comes to issues related to global warming, because denialists “make it harder for us to implement solutions to arrive at a better world”.

“This is no conspiracy. It’s not possible to stitch up something like that,” Porritt tells StarBizWeek about the threat of global climate change.

Porritt should rightly be addressed as “The Hon Sir” Jonathon Porritt. But it’s a title he has so far refused to use. It’s a hereditary title, which he reckons he did not earn through his own effort. “It’s just that my father was amazing, having served the country as the 11th Governor-General of New Zealand and an Allied general in World War II, among others,” he says.

“I have not done much, but neither can I disown the title because my mother said she would disown me if I did so as that would tantamount to dishonouring my father’s life,” he explains.

Maybe it’s just humility, or perhaps Porritt has underestimated his own contributions.

Praises from high places

Porritt has been a passionate environmentalist since his young-adult days, actively promoting green issues and raising awareness of global warming around the world for the last 25 years.

His passion has even invoked praises from politicians, such as former British prime minister Tony Blair, who described Porritt as “one of the most prominent voices” of environmentalism for the last two decades.

Porritt was in Malaysia recently to deliver a public lecture entitled “Securing Tomorrow’s World: Using Wealth More Sustainably”. The programme was sponsored by local conglomerate Sime Darby Bhd as part of its corporate social responsibility initiatives to create awareness of developing sustainable futures.

Educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he graduated as a barrister, Porritt turned his back on law and took up teaching in the mid-1970s.

“I didn’t enjoy being a lawyer. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I enjoy teaching and I love being around kids,” he shares.

Porritt spent 10 years teaching in London before switching to environmentalism full time. The years he spent as a teacher was a memorable and enriching experience for him, as the school where he taught was a “difficult” one.

When asked what he meant by that, Porritt says: “Well, the school was located in a rough neighbourhood in the city.”

Nevertheless, it was also during his years of teaching in the “difficult” school that Porritt received an awakening on environmental issues. His green awareness was partly influenced by the book, Small is Beautiful, authored by the late E.F. Schumacher.

Porritt joined the UK Ecological Party (now Green Party) in the 1970s. “Back then, people would think you were crazy to talk about environmental issues,” he shares, conceding the fact that awareness of those issues was low.

Even Porritt experienced his own share of ridicule for his involvement in the green agenda, but his perseverance in the sector has borne good fruits over the years.

Porritt chaired the UK Ecological Party between 1979 and 1984, presiding over changes that made the party more prominent in the country’s elections.

As the awareness of threats to global environment began to grow exponentially from the mid-1980s onwards, Porritt left teaching in 1984 to become the director of Friends of the Earth for the next six years. He became the environmental adviser to the Prince of Wales in the early 1990s, and co-founded a sustainable development charity called the Forum for the Future in the mid-1990s.

Porritt was subsequently appointed the inaugural chair of the Sustainable Development Commission under the Labour party in 1997 until he retired from the position in September last year.

At present, Porritt acts as an independent adviser to many organisations on environmental matters. He is also a non-executive director of Wessex Water, a wholly owned utility company of YTL Group, in which he contributes extensively on strategies to manage sustainability.

Indeed, with greater awareness of global warming, policymakers and businesses now cannot afford to ignore environmental issues.

But where is the world headed in terms of environmental sustainability?

“The situation is not very encouraging,” Porritt opines.

He explains that a combination of factors such as rapid population growth and the huge economic impact on the natural world has created a very dangerous condition for the environment and us. These challenges, he points out, relate to resource-based issues such as the depletion of fossil fuel, land exploitation and forest destruction, among other things.

Enormous pressures

“So, the pressures to achieve sustainable development are enormous,” says Porritt.

“I realise there is actually a better way than being a campaigner, which is to campaign for the answers to problems rather than to campaign against something. It’s tiring when you try to stop someone from doing something, but it’s so much more effective when you encourage people to do the right things,” he adds.

Porritt travels a lot because of his mission of campaigning for solutions for a better global environment. But he confesses that he doesn’t really enjoy travelling out of the country. So when it comes to holidaying with his family, vacations will be contained within Britain.

“We like the southern part of the coastal areas of the country,” he shares.

Surprisingly, Porritt’s green passion does not seem to have rubbed off on his daughters. The eldest, 21-year-old Eleanor, is more interested in politics, and is pursuing her higher education in political science, while Rebecca, 18, is studying geography.

“One thing I have learnt about being a teacher is never to impose on people the way of doing things. Kids have to discover their own realities,” he explains.

Porritt occasionally blogs about environmental issues in his personal space, but he says he is now on a “blogoholiday”. He, however, continues to contribute articles and commentaries regularly to radio, television and the print media to create greater awareness and sense of urgency about the green agenda.

Porritt has several books to his name, including Seeing Green, Save the Earth and How to Save the Earth. His latest book, Capitalism As If The World Matters, which is also his best-selling, talks about the need to develop strategies to achieve economic growth without neglecting the sustainability of the environment.

Commending Malaysia’s efforts in managing environmental issues, Porritt says: “I think Malaysia has done well in this area, especially on biodiversity and improvements in environmental regulations.

“So, you can say this is a story of a country which has not just gotten richer but also better in managing the environment. But it still has a long way to go, there’s no question about it – lots of big challenges ahead, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak.”

It is understandable as Malaysia is still a developing country, and there are still many people living in poverty, so the country still needs to continue using its natural resources to improve its material well-being. And that entails exploiting forests and land – the same thing that is also happening in other developing countries such as Indonesia and Brazil.

So, how to achieve the balance?

“That’s the trick. That’s what sustainable development is all about. It means continue to develop, while protecting the critical natural capital – well, I call ‘natural capital’, others call natural resources – on which prosperity depends,” Porritt argues.