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Sunday, November 06, 2011

More correspondence with Jonathon Porritt on selling out

Dear Jonathon

Thank you for your reply, (at the end of this post).

To ensure that there are no misunderstandings, I do not hold your work on population in disdain. Quite the reverse. My concern is that you do not state the seriousness of the issue. A colleague of mine asked at the end of your presentation what you considered the sustainable population to be. You said 5 billion. However, we know atmospheric CO2 was increasing in 1957 when first measured with less than 1 billion people living in industrialised communities and with lower per capita CO2 emissions than today. We know huge damage has been done to the ecosystem since then.  This simple comparison suggests that you have overestimated the sustainable population by a factor of at least five.

You finish your email with reference to my absolutist moral framework. My moral framework is irrelevant. All that is relevant is the message from the science and the underlying mathematics. It is that message that is absolutist.

As we cannot get the population down to anything like sustainable levels within the time frames available to us, then we must drastically reduce consumption and liberties. We have a very short time to do this. If we fail the consequences will be catastrophic.

I can assure you that it gives me no great pleasure to campaign on these dark and difficult issues. I do not pretend the transformation needed in our society will be easily achieved or pleasant and I fear for what I wish for.

However, to pretend the dangers we face can be ignored is more dangerous. It provides false hope to those people who have genuine concerns. It prevents debate on the necessary transformation.  It allows those people and organisations committed to the destruction of our planet a free pass. Worst of all, it guarantees an explosive increase in CO2 emissions in next 20 years that our planet will not sustain.  This is addressed in the Plane Stupid submission to the government’s sustainable aviation strategy.

The evidence suggests your strategy of partnering with companies inherently committed to the destruction of our environment in the hope that you can persuade them to act in less unsustainable ways is misguided. By definition, they will remain unsustainable and your strategy is defeatist.

At talks of yours I have heard you speak eloquently of the need to cooperate rather than compete.  It is one thing to talk about these ideas in the company of soft and receptive audiences. It is quite another thing to put these into practise against the destructive centres of power that govern our economic system through competitive advantage.

I contacted you in the past to solicit your support to help us move towards a cooperative society with a request to support us in the campaign against the Fairford Air Tattoo. This event glorifies the very worst of destructive competition, which is the ability to wage war. It rolls out the red carpet to Saudi Arabia that systematically abuses human rights and actively lobbies to stop climate change agreements. You did not reply to our request for help. Maybe you were busy on more important things.

As a statement of inadvertently supporting destructive competition, we now see the prospect of you working with TUI to validate their attempt to lead the aviation industry into exploiting the biofuels disaster.  To understand the scope of this disaster, you may want to discuss the issue with your partners in Shell. Shell is investing $12billion in sugar cane production in Brazil. Even for Shell, this is a huge investment. It involves illegal land grabs, murder, deforestation and environmental pollution. Survival Intenational reports of the impact on the local communities as being so severe that it could reasonably be considered an act of war on the indigenous people. To assist you in helping TUI become “less unsustainable” you could discuss the biofuel disaster with organisations such as ActionAid and Biofuel Watch. My colleagues in these organisations would be delighted to talk to you.

If you get involved with these debates, you will realise that the number of people on the “front line” on climate change has increased enormously in the 15 years since you vacated it. Some people like me are compelled to go there from the comfort of middle class backgrounds. Events have forced many other people there before they even realise that they are there.  These new people are of the lower income sector having being marginalized from society by increasing food and energy prices driven by climate change and resource shortages. They are rising-up in the millions in all countries of the world. Simultaneously, starvation is displacing millions in countries such as Somalia.  Contrary to your assertion, that you  “couldn’t help but notice that the number of people who shared your front line hadn’t increased much,” there have never been so many people on the climate change front line.

We therefore offer you our challenge again and we will allow you to judge yourself by your action. If you want to partner with TUI to help them become less unsustainable, then challenge them to reduce flying rather than engage in destructive greenwashing.

This email will appear on my blog


--- On Wed, 2/11/11, JP Office  wrote:

From: JP Office
Subject: RE: Selling out?
To: "Kevin Lister"
Date: Wednesday, 2 November, 2011, 14:17

Dear Kevin

Selling Out?

Thank you very much for your email.  As you can imagine, it’s a familiar critique for all of us in Forum for the Future, and one that we’ve had to deal with on a regular basis since the Forum was established in 1996.  But let me try and answer it a bit more personally than might usually be the case – especially since you do seem to hold very strong views on this, with which you are only too ready to accost me every time we bump into each other!

You may or may not be right in your assertions about the urgency in all of this, about the inherent unsustainability of biofuels, about the moral wickedness of anybody flying, about the need for sacrifice and so on.  You embrace very absolutist positions on all of these things, and have understandably come to the conclusion that our collective ability to change people’s minds and their behaviour depends on not deviating from those absolutist viewpoints.

Having spent quite a chunk of my life (15 years) “on the front line”, as you put it, I couldn’t help but notice that the number of people who shared my “front line” views in those days hadn’t increased that much over the 15 years of the duration.  I discovered for myself that people didn’t respond particularly well to a set of arguments driven by primarily guilt, fear, anger and the promise of permanent sackcloth and ashes.

So when I left Friends of the Earth in 1991, I decided to try something a bit different, and to work with (rather than against) people in positions of influence in business and government.  Hence the Forum, The Prince of Wales’ Business and Sustainability Programme, the Sustainable Development Commission and a number of other initiatives that I’ve helped establish along the way.

15 years into that journey, do I feel that I’ve made more progress by adopting that “inside track” than by continuing to campaign against those same people of influence?  I do – but not with any great elation, simply because progress has been (and still is) gut-wrenchingly slow – and wholly inadequate given the scale of the challenge.  And we are at one on that score.

But do I feel personally compromised – from an ethical position – working with the likes of Jaguar Landrover, Shell, TUI (thanks, by the way, for keeping the list so short!) and many others seen by campaigners such as yourself as being in the front line of destroying the Earth’s life-support systems?  I do not.  In a modest way, all of us in the Forum think that what we’re doing is important work, which we know results in a lot of organisations acting in less unsustainable ways in the short term even as they work out what it means to be genuinely sustainable in the long term.

But do I then feel personal discomfort in doing that work?  Yes, I do, from time to time.

And I guess the question that I keep asking myself is whether or not that discomfort might reach the point where I could no longer continue to work in this way.  It’s possible.  I’ve never ruled out returning to that “front line” at some point in the future, and since the demise of the Sustainable Development Commission, I’ve ended up doing a lot more campaigning work anyway – including my work on population about which you are so disdainful.

In short, I admire the uncompromising spirit in which you address these issues, though I do not share the non-negotiable black and white absolutism with which you present your moral universe.

Very best wishes


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