Capitalism as if the world matters: Jonathan Porritt’s prescription for sustaintability

First published in 2005 and issued in a revised edition in 2007, Jonathan Porritt’s Capitalism as if the world matters has played an important part in arguing the case that not only can capitalism and sustainability go together, but that a reformed version of capitalism is essential to achieving sustainability.

This view sets Porritt apart from many of his former colleagues of his from his six years as chair of the UK Ecology Party (now the Green Party) and another six heading up Friends of the Earth. It made – and makes – his book controversial in many green circles but also makes the book appeal to business people who Porritt wishes to persuade to change their ways. “Like it or not (and the vast majority of people do), capitalism is now the only economic show in town,” argues Porritt.

It is also an optimistic book for, as Jonathan Porritt writes, “There’s so much to be hugely hopeful about – technologically, politically, spiritually … Capitalism has always been a self-correcting system, capable of startling and seemingly ‘unthinkable’ shifts at precisely the moments when those shifts are most needed”. Optimism does not just reflect Porritt’s outlook; he also argues that it is necessary for success: “changes have also to be seen as desirable changes: good for people, their health and their quality of life – and not just good for the prospects of future generations … This means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it.”

Capitalism as if the world matters by Jonathon Porritt - book cover“Market-based, properly regulated capitalism is still capable of meeting today’s daunting challenges … [but] we will need to engineer tomorrow’s world, step by step with great determination. It won’t just happen by chance,” says Porritt.

Tomorrow’s world needs to be different in two main respects, according to this book: it needs to be sustainable and it needs to prioritise well being over financial wealth and economic growth.

On this point, Porritt cites JM Keynes’s distinction between relative and absolute wants: “Keynes pointed out that our absolute wants (those which we feel regardless of our relative position in society) are limited and finite; it is our relative wants (those which we feel in comparison to what others have in society) that are apparently insatiable”.

In this respect, therefore, the book is very much in line with arguments made by others such as The Spirit Level that, in developed first world economies, the link between well being and economic growth is extremely weak. As Porritt puts it, “What gives this analysis extra bite is the linkage between declining levels of contentment and inequality: the greater the inequality of income distribution within a developed country, the higher the levels of dissatisfaction and alienation – with the interesting exception of Singapore”.

The book has some radical prescriptions, particularly on social justice’s role in ensuring sustainability: “No serious definition of the word ‘sustainable’ could possibly allow for a continuation of the grotesque disparities in wealth that we see today, both within countries and between countries”. But, more generally Porritt, “demands a reform agenda, however radical it may appear to some, [but] not a revolutionary agenda”.

That is what the book details, often more in textbook than polemic style, providing a comprehensive sweep of policies and supporting evidence which makes the book a useful reference source.

You can buy Jonathan Porritt’s Capitalism as if the world matters from Amazon here.

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This entry was posted in Books and Op-eds.
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7 Comments

  • It’s good to see that some Liberal Democrats are still interested in ‘green’ issues and protecting the environment despite being part of a coalition government that seems intent on trashing our countryside and its wildlife – selling off the country’s forests, constructing a major railway line through an area of outstanding natural beauty (instead of going round it!), building never ending housing on greenbelt land, planning to slaughter large numbers of badgers (contrary to expert scientific advice), back-tracking on animal welfare laws and so on.

    A couple of links, if I may:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/jan/18/uk-environment-health-government-spin
    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-for-sale–camerons-green-credentials-2177929.html

  • Simon McGrath 18th Jan '11 - 1:24pm

    Interesting piece but the Spirit Level is not a serious piece of work. They have used hand picked statistics and countries to reach the conclusion they wanted, that more equal societies are happier.

    Using a different set of statistics a completely opposite conclusion could be drawn.

    There have been a number of critques but one of the best is that by Prof Saunders for Policy Exchange.
    http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/publication.cgi?id=195

  • Dane – I’m not sure you could necessarily call that liberal. Rather than giving people money by taking it all away from the rich, I would prefer government to better educate people so they could run more mutuals and cooperatives. The kind of state intervention you call for is in my view dangerous. There has to be a limit to what governments can and should do, and the onus should be on the people to take more responsibility to make the changes that improve people’s lives. It is obviously harder and takes longer to make a better society, if you don’t have a police and army to force people to your will, but I would suggest that in the long term people would become better at taking responsibility for their actions and we could as a society progress without the need for coercion by the state. There are unintended consequences to high levels of state intervention, and in my view one of them is that people become less able solve problems by themselves and become increasingly dependent on governments. Not only is that dangerous in the sense that people could scrutinize governments less, but it also goes against the liberal belief of encouraging people to fulfill their potential and be the best that they can be.

    OT: I agree that capitalism is compatible with sustainability. The best hope for the planet lies in technological advances that can replace fossil fuels or make products use fossil fuels much more efficiently. I think it’s unlikely that the Americans, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians etc will cease using fossil fuels without a replacement so there’s little point in wasting time on trying to make that happen.

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