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Green politics: Jonathon Porritt's lecture on the future of the green movement, given at the Ecopolitics Five conference held recently in Sydney. Part 1

JONATHON PORRITT: At the moment, far too many parts of the green movement are marooned in a kind of curmudgeonly role of constantly saying `no' to everything, and the reason why we say `no' so often is we don't actually know what we're saying `yes' to.

PETER HUNT: Jonathon Porritt, a founding member of the British greens and a former director of Friends of the Earth. He is one of Europe's best-known authors and commentators on green politics, and for two programs, he'll be here on Earthworm, talking about the future he sees for the green movement.

We've had a great response to a broadcast a few weeks ago, on a very similar theme, when Dr Keith Suter spoke about strategies for dealing with the green backlash. It's clearly a significant problem for conservation in this country, and now it seems worldwide. Jonathon Porritt's critique of the green movement goes some way towards explaining why it is that conservationists are now on the back foot. Greens, he argues, have been very good at articulating the ecological and scientific dimensions to the global crisis, but they've been less successful in dealing with the non-green real world which, of course, includes the great bulk of the decision makers.

I'm sure you'll find his lecture delivered to the Ecopolitics conference earlier this month, stimulating, thoughtful, and, above all, a constructive critique of green politics, as we enter this most crucial period in recent earth history.

JONATHON PORRITT: At its simplest, I think the future of green politics depends, really, on our ability, the ability of green activists, to cope with two different reflections of reality. The first and, I suppose, the ultimate reality, is our ability to cope with the state of the earth itself, with what is actually happening to the earth's life support systems, to its forests, its topsoil, oceans, rivers, atmosphere, whatever else it might be. Now, by and large, the green movement, the green activitists are pretty good at that. They've got a long and extraordinarily reputable track record of coming up with sound information and the proper interpretation of that information as regards the state of the earth. One or two mistakes along the way, but by and large a pretty good track record.

The second reality and, indeed, secondary in many respects, is the level of general awareness amongst the general public about the state of the earth. And I have to say, somewhat controversially, that although the green movement at large is getting better at dealing with this second reality, we're still pretty bad at it. And in many respects, we still operate in a strange social, political and cultural vacuum that seems to deny the reality of the so-called `real world' out there, and that is really what I want to try and concentrate on tonight, because unless we're able to cope with that secondary reality, as I think we're right to describe it, then I very much doubt that the green movement has much of a future at all.

But firstly, let's get a bit of perspective on this. I think it's quite useful to bear in mind that over the last 25 years, there have been the most extraordinary developments, tremendous surges of interest and commitment in terms of this whole area of green politics. Twenty-five years ago, there were no green parties whatsoever; indeed, the word was certainly not used in that political context at all. There were none of the organisations, international environmental organisations, that have currently succeeded in making such an impact. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace did not exist. Many of the environmental organisations that did exist, were very small in number, very parochial in outlook, and lacking in any serious political clout within their own countries, let alone within any of the international fora in which they claimed some degree of representation.

The amount of environmental information available to people 25 years ago, was remarkably scanty. You had to work hard to find out what was happening to the environment in those days. These days, it's almost impossible to avoid the stuff. And at the same time, research budgets to build up the scientific data bank on which now we are all dependent, in terms of our involvement in the green movement, those research budgets have increased, the level of scientific expertise has dramatically gathered momentum, and I think we can justifiably claim now that we know far more about the workings of planet earth, indeed, we probably know enough now to realise how little we know.

There were almost no environmental economists 25 years ago, or if there were, they certainly didn't declare themselves. There were almost no eco-feminists, or of course there were, but they weren't necessarily called that in those days. There were none of the tremendous alternative movements in health, education, lifestyle, any of those aspects of our lives that have enriched people so much over the last few years, or if they did exist, they were dismissed as the subversive, marginal, peripheral, add on extras of hippie drop-outs.

So in 25 years, there has been the most extraordinary change in the whole perspective of what is going on about the state of the environment and our relationship with the earth, itself. We have green MPs now, in at least 12 parliaments. I find it quite hard to keep up with the latest total, to be absolutely honest. There are green organisations burgeoning all over the world, including in many Third World countries, where previously it was extremely difficult to become involved in environmental organisations. We see a tremendous flowering of green awareness in Eastern Europe, in a way that hitherto would have been unimaginable. We've begun to understand the importance of discipline, such as environmental economics; we've begun to understand the importance of developing alternatives to the existing mainstream, status quo way of thinking and living; and we've seen that the entire image of the green movement has changed dramatically.

Now, I think it's quite important to state all of that, because for people who are in the thick of it, it is incredibly easy to forget that process that has taken place. It's remarkably easy to pretend that somehow we aren't all part of that process of development that has been gradually building up a head of steam. And it does sometimes surprise me, I must say, that in a movement that is so keen on advocating long-term strategic thinking, how we sometimes fall into the most pathetic short-term aberrations when it comes to judging what is actually going on at any one time. It really is, in the long run, neither here nor there in terms of any one particular development, today or tomorrow. Whether Bob Hawke is getting elected because the greens in Australia are using their second preferences to bring that about, or whether Bob Hawke has turned into the biggest betrayer of green issues that the world has ever seen, is just, if you like, or are just tiny little pin pricks in the whole history and development of green politics. Whether the Green Party in the United Kingdom is getting 15 per cent of the vote in the European election, which it did in 1989, the largest ever percentage cast for a green party at any stage, in any country; or whether it's getting less than 2 per cent, which it is now, and on occasions finding it quite difficult to defeat the candidates - the monster raving loony party - really need to be put in perspective. The one, the success, is no more important than the other - the apparent failure. We're talking about the long-term development of the most important social and political movement since the birth of socialism, and it is utterly wrong to get caught up in short-term responses, either to spasms of success or to troughs of disappointment and failure.

PETER HUNT: Jonathon Porritt on the future of green politics. His lecture was recorded at the fifth Ecopolitics conference that was held recently in Sydney. Like all political movements, the greens have their ups and downs, and they also have a great diversity of views on both goals and strategies for achieving them. Jonathon Porritt believes that's basically a good thing.

JONATHON PORRITT: I did a very quick interview today with someone who accosted me with the accusation that really the greens spend most of their time disagreeing with each other, and suggesting that this inability to come to any kind of consensus view as to what green politics meant, was perhaps the largest impediment to the success of the green movement today. I have to say that I was somewhat taken aback by that, because it really does seem to me that we only disagree so much on the basis of the extraordinary level of common ground that exists between us, and it is only when one shares that common ground that one can creatively and fruitfully discuss the differences between different voices and different assumptions.

To speed the process up this evening, let me just clear one or two of those assumptions out of the way, before I move onto some of the differences and difficulties. Firstly, I would imagine every person here in this audience accepts the principle that whatever changes we are aspiring to bring about, will come about democratically, and that it is part of the responsibility of any green movement in any country to work with the democratic processes that we have available to us, to effect that process of transformation. There are a few stray, totalitarian voices lurking within the green movement. They are, thankfully, incredibly remote, largely detached from reality, and offering very little by way of political inspiration or guidance to the whole of the green movement. But they are there, they are a danger, they need to be watched, and I think it's important that we continue to emphasise at every turn that all that we seek to achieve can only be done by our engagement in the democratic systems that we have, and that implies by definition that we have to work with the grain of human nature, wherever that grain may currently be - and I will return to that point later.

Secondly, I imagine everybody here will accept that we are a minority, maybe an enlightened and some may even think beautiful minority, but, nonetheless, a minority. Most people on planet earth don't care about the things that fill your lives and my life. Within the OECD countries, within the developed industrial world, there are probably somewhere between 2 per cent in the worst case and 15 per cent - 20 per cent in the very best case, who actually share the interests and issues and feelings and principles and values that we do. So, we are a relatively small minority in those countries. In many other countries, we don't even notch 2 per cent; some countries we don't notch at all - simply not there at all; and in some countries, exactly those things that we are seeking to do away with, namely a kind of mindless, materialist, mechanistic, consumer-driven culture, that is precisely what they wish to achieve for their people as rapidly as possible. Indeed, in many of the developing countries, that which we now in the green movement set our faces, our hearts and our minds against, that is their primary aspiration to achieve precisely those things. And should one dare to stand up and question the validity of those aims, then one is more than likely to be accused of green imperialism, of a kind of developed world arrogance that, by and large, they do not take too kindly to.

Thirdly, there remain elements of uncertainty in our analysis of what is happening, and we are by no means absolutely right. That uncertainty is partly scientific, on issues such as global warming and the whole question of the reversibility of environmental damage, and some of it is to do with the complex question of just how visible the damage is at any point. Most people only accept the need for change when the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible, is tangibly visibly right there in front of them, in such a way that it can't be set aside. That's often very difficult for people in today's world to come to terms with because they don't see the damage in that way. People living here in Australia, do not actually understand the amount of topsoil that is lost year in year out in order to provide the Australian economy with that particular part of its income. Many people working in factories don't necessarily understand or certainly don't want to accept the impact on their own health, let alone on the environment, of the activity in which they're engaged.

Fourthly, I think it would be sensible to accept that the post-war industrial, materialist consensus is still pretty strong and beats pretty firmly around the planet today. That consensus which came into being after the Second World War, on the basic premise that the only way to avoid further armed conflicts of that kind was to create a process of what economists referred to as `universal prosperity' - make everybody as rich as one possibly could, in the hope that that would buy the security which would persuade people not to go to war again. And it's in that context that most people today interpret development, growth, progress - all of those catch phrases that dominate our lives so entirely. And if some people have come to the conclusion that that post-war consensus is flawed, they have certainly not reached the point where they see it to be irredeemable.

Fifthly, most people today, therefore, almost by definition, have become complicit partners in the kind of value system that is mechanistic, utilitarian, and largely detached from the workings of the earth as they really exist. I think it's intriguing to make some kind of comparison between the ways in which human societies gauge progress and the ways in which biotic communities actually work. Human society, since the Second World War, have essentially decided on linear measurements of progress - GNP, economic growth, increases in material income. All of these things can be measured neatly in terms of graphs going exponentially upwards, and as long as they're going upwards, then by and large, people feel happy. I often think they feel happy even if they see a graph about pollution going upwards, because it still seems to imply we're going in the right direction in terms of the linearity of the post-war consensus. The more steeply and the more firmly the graph is going up, the happier people feel, and there is of course something indisputably phallic about the way in which people measure progress today.

Now by and large, that isn't really how nature, how the real world works. Essentially, the real world tends to work on a system of interlocking circles, of closed-loop systems, of minimising the through-put of energy, of reducing waste at every turn, and of developing patterns of symbiosis and co-operation that are at least as important as the patterns of conflict which the neo-Darwinians continue to refer us to. I was just reflecting on the fact that this distinction between linearity and circularity touches every single aspect of our lives. Even death has become a victim of this particular way of thinking. As far as many human beings are concerned in the industrialised developed world, death means that you actually go off the graph, you disappear finally. You either disappear into nothingness .. if you're an atheist, you just go as it were, or you disappear up to heaven if you're a Christian, to twang away at those harp strings on fluffy green clouds.

Now, essentially, if we looked more carefully at what death really means, there is a beauty in death which cannot be denied, and there is a logic in it that is enormously important, and the ways in which the earth actually makes use of that natural material and recycles it back into life, is infinitely more beautiful than any model of death that any religion or secular humanist understanding has ever come up with. And the idea that every little bit of us then re-engages in the process of life - totally different form of reincarnation, not much to do with the spirit, but a great deal to do with the flesh - that concept is to me a wonderfully exciting one, if one is permitted to get excited about death. But of course, we're not allowed to think in those terms, because the circularity of it is mind-boggling as far as most people are concerned and, essentially, once you're off the end of the graph, for them, that's the end of it.

Now on the basis of those five assumptions, which I suspect we all hold in common or with varying degrees we hold in common, we then come to the crunch point, which is probably not a crunch point for most people in this audience, but is a crunch point for practically everybody else, and I call this the `sustainability and equity test'. And it basically boils down to an extremely simple question which I find it very handy to be able to ask conventional politicians, and that is the question that I heard repeated again very eloquently in Ted Trainer's session earlier this morning: do you believe that every single person on planet earth can live at the same level of material prosperity as we do here in Australia or the United Kingdom or America or whereever else it might be today - do you believe that? Not only do you believe that 5.3 billion people can do that, but do you think 8 billion people can do it, or possibly even 14 billion - the upper limit of the United Nations population stabilisation figures. Now, if the politician or the member of the public says `yes' to that question: `I do believe it', then you know that they have parted company with reality long ago. It's probably still worthwhile engaging in discussion because you may conceivably introduce a little chink of light, but essentially they aren't actually in touch with the real world as we know it.

If they say `no', then there's a follow-up question: fine, can you then, in your understanding of what we owe to ourselves as human beings and what we owe to everybody else on earth, can you then live with that inequity in the distribution of the world's wealth today, on a permanent basis, and forget all the claptrap about trickle down and all the rest of it? Because we know after 40 years of people telling us that enough wealth will eventually trickle down to ensure prosperity and growth and progress in the Third World; that is a lie; it has always been a lie; and it is still a lie. And as far as most people in the Third World are concerned, it's a lie that we should cease uttering as rapidly as possible. Now at that point, a very difficult dilemma emerges. Either that person says `Well, I think we ought to go on getting richer for a little bit longer, because if we can just be a little bit richer, I think a little bit more of our wealth will reach the Third World', and you can pretty quickly remind them of the extent to which the last 40 years have actually impoverished many of those countries, rather than enriched them. Or they may say `Well, perhaps that does require a different view of the redistribution of the world's wealth, and maybe that means we're going to have to introduce complicated notions of sufficiency, moderation, enough, restraint - all of those things, all of those words that are at the moment utterly taboo in an advanced industrial society.

So those I think are the things we share in common, and from my perspective, that's a heck of a lot; that really provides for an incredibly rich and fertile ground on which we can build all sorts of political alliances and movements and initiatives without any difficulty whatsoever. So far, so good, but it has to be said that at that point, things begin to proliferate, to diffuse into an amazing plethora of different directions and ideas which characterises the green movement today.

I think that those differences are largely good and healthy, but I think some of them have become unhealthy and confusing because many parts of the green movement today are failing to distinguish between means and ends. Very briefly, on the whole question of ends, and I don't necessarily see this in a linear sense, you understand, but circularly speaking, what ends are we actually trying to arrive at? The subtitle of this talk is `Shades of Green', and it is quite helpful to dwell on the different shades of green by which different people characterise the end of the social political economic end, at which they hope they, in society, are aiming. Again listening to Ted Trainer this morning, I was intrigued to see the deep dark hue of his thinking, in which people basically are exhorted to give up the trappings of the affluent consumer society and to move forward - not to go back - but to move forward to a very different life in which simplicity becomes something beautiful and elegant in itself, in which we do away with all of the troublesome hassles of a consumer society that we have today, and in which we achieve a new kind of prosperity and a new kind of equity by virtue of shuffling off the shackles of that kind of materialism. I think Ted exemplifies, probably, the darkest green shade available to us today, in terms of the end towards which we might be aiming.

I have to say, and I'm sure Ted is very aware of this, that an awful lot of greens don't quite sign up to a vision as green as that. Indeed, many greens seem to be looking for something a lot less complicated and a lot more convenient as it were, in as much as it'll be a little bit closer to how we know life and probably even love life today. And I suppose at the other end of the scale from the deep, dark green hue of Ted, we find the model of the green consumer society. Now that really is a very, very pale shade of green; in fact, it is so pale on occasions that you wouldn't really know it was green at all. But nonetheless, many people in the green movement today feel very happy dwelling in that particular area. I don't think we should knock even that palest shade of green, really, because even there there's something to be learned and something to be gained. But I do think that all of us, whether you're off down to the deep dark end of the continuum or off here at the light green end, need to be more explicit, need in their own mind to envision the kind of future that they think we are moving towards. At the moment, far too many parts of the green movement are marooned in a kind of curmudgeonly role of constantly saying `no' to everything, and the reason why we say `no' so often, is we don't actually know what we're saying `yes' to. And until we know what we're saying `yes' to in our own minds, it's going to remain very difficult to be as positive and constructive and dynamic as we need to be.

PETER HUNT: Jonathon Porritt speaking at this year's eco-politics conference.