Green Leader Criticizes Negative Activist Rhetoric

Published February 1, 2006

Jonathon Porritt is a man whose “green” credentials are the envy of any activist. He has served in high-profile roles as head of the British Green Party and leader of the environmental activist group Friends of the Earth. Described by the London Observer as the “founding father of the British green movement,” Porritt has been a stalwart role model for radical activists on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is because of his success and influence that his new book, released November 7, 2005 by Stylus Publishing, is causing a stir in the environmental community.

Strong Criticism

In Capitalism: As If the World Matters, Porritt writes environmental activist groups have become exaggerative and overly negative–qualities that make them less credible and are causing them to lose their relevance in today’s society, he says.

“A lot of this is historical,” Porritt told the London Observer for a November 6 article. “Environmental organizations for many years were saying ‘no’ and protecting and stopping, because in a way that became part of the culture of the movement. There’s still a lot of criticizing and blame-laying and not enough saying what solutions are available.”

Porritt told the Observer the movement must “emphasize the positive” about its core beliefs rather than attack capitalism, business, and technology out of little more than reactionary habit.

“If you consider the way the environmental movement portrays climate change, it’s the end of the world as we know it,” said Porritt. “In reality, climate change could provide a stimulus to an extraordinary shift in the economy [and] it could improve people’s quality of life. You never hear all that.”

Author Opposes Capitalism

Porritt’s attack on activist strategies, however, does not signal a break with such groups, but rather an attempt to make them politically and sociologically relevant again. He argues that while exaggerated, knee-jerk criticisms of capitalism are self-defeating, capitalism can and should be criticized with real-world data and examples that show empirically it fails to protect the environment.

After listing in his book many alleged environmental failings of capitalism, Porritt contends, “We’ve wasted the best part of 20 years pursuing to the point of utter exhaustion a model of capitalism that can only succeed by liquidating the life-support systems that sustain us, and systematically widening the ‘inequity gaps’ upon which any kind of social cohesion depends in the long run.”

Just as importantly, however, Porritt thereafter concedes “capitalism is the only economic game in town.” What Porritt ultimately argues for is a form of “soft landing” for capitalism that embodies more of the activist groups’ ideals. But that soft landing is less likely to occur, and capitalist business will continue as usual, Porritt argues, unless environmental activist groups suggest practical solutions that can work within a capitalist structure rather than limit themselves to shrill attacks on capitalism itself.

If environmental activist groups fail to recognize this, he writes, “a continuing decline in [their] influence seems the most likely outcome.”

Fault Lines Evident

Porritt’s underlying criticisms of capitalism as it currently exists are not lost on his colleagues, including those whose overly negative emphasis is criticized in the book. Explains Tony Juniper, executive director of the activist group Friends of the Earth, in a review on the Web site of Stylus Publishing, “This book sets out the historic opportunity to … give birth to a different economy, one that will harness the change-making potential of markets and competitive forces in setting the world in a new and sustainable direction toward respecting environmental limits, improving people’s quality of life and ending poverty.”

Others within the activist movement object to any compromise with capitalism. Paul Feldman of the activist group A World to Win writes on the group’s Web site, “Yes, Jonathon Porritt, capitalism is the problem” [emphasis in original]. “It is not within capitalism’s power to deliver” the goals of environmental activists, Feldman argues.

“This type of activist discord is not new,” observed Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “Environmental activists have fought about strategy and tactics for a long time. What they fail to understand, however, is that the reason for their declining influence is that they have lost their focus on sound science and common sense.

“One can only cry wolf so many times before people stop listening or at least take the warnings with a few hundred grains of salt,” explained Burnett. “Radical activists do not have exclusive ownership of the ‘environmentalist’ tag, although the media might like us to believe so. A focus on negativity is not a prerequisite of being an environmentalist. Nor should the slightest concern, fear, or allegation derail all other concerns and issues.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.