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Retro Perspective - why the Ecologist is so important

Jonathon Porritt

19th June, 2009

Unless we change our ways, the Lovelock hypothesis may come to pass – that’s why the work of the Ecologist is so important, says Jonathon Porritt.


The Ecologist has been an instructor, refuge, mentor, agent provocateur, confessor, and inspirational companion

I’m not looking forward to a world without the Ecologist magazine. I’m sure it will continue to inspire millions online, but I still prefer my reading matter in print.

I have every issue of the Ecologist since its inception in 1970. Although I can’t quite vouch for having read every one of them from cover to cover (it did get a bit tedious in the mid-80s), it has meant more to me over 39 years than any other publication, as an instructor, refuge, mentor, agent provocateur, confessor and inspirational companion on endless holidays and foreign trips.

It was the ‘Blueprint for Survival’ that fixed my early, inchoate worries about ‘the environment’ in 1972, and it’s the Ecologist of the past two or three years that has made me feel most uncomfortable about the kind of ‘inside-track’ work I’ve been doing since 1992 – but particularly through the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) since 2000.

How can I explain that? Jim Lovelock will be celebrating his 90th birthday on 26 July. His work has been featured regularly (and supportively) in the Ecologist since the publication of Gaia: A new look at life on Earth in 1979. There is no-one I admire more in terms of the insights they have brought to bear on our unfolding ecological drama – notwithstanding the fact that I believe his rabid obsession with nuclear power is a tragic – and all but unforgiveable – lapse of judgement.

Lovelock came to the conclusion some time ago that it is too late to do anything about accelerating climate change. He reckons we have already put enough gas into the atmosphere to trigger any number of feedback loops in natural systems – in the Arctic, the Amazon, the oceans, the Antarctic and so on.

Even if we eliminated the use of all fossil fuels within the next decade (so he argues), and stopped cutting down all rainforests, it would still be too late to prevent those feedback loops triggering incalculably damaging impacts on human society.

If that runaway effect then becomes ‘irreversible’ (as in beyond the powers of humankind to do anything about it, even if we wanted to) then this would lead to the death of more than five billion people as sea level rises by more than 10m and climate-induced disasters of one kind or another sweep the globe.

Jim Lovelock says he is ‘optimistic’ about the future of life on Earth, but not (obviously) about the prospects for humankind. Dismissing such ‘apocalyptic optimism’ is the easy bit, but being rational and applied about why he’s wrong is an altogether different challenge.

Environmentalists need him to be wrong – because what conceivable justification would there be (from a big-picture perspective) in bothering about our transparently inadequate delay mechanisms if he were right? Politicians need him to be wrong – because how could they possibly cope with the explosion of rage (and possible anarchy) that would arise were he proved to be right?

So that’s why all the rhetoric about the ‘window of time’ available to us to get things sorted becomes so pressing. If you’re Lovelock, the window is already slammed shut, locked and boarded up. If you’re Jeremy Clarkson, the window has been jammed open and we can continue to go through it at any time and in any way we choose, probably for ever. If you’re just a regular informed citizen with environmental concerns featuring prominently in your worldview, you might reckon on there still being ‘a generation’ to play with.

My own window of time has been getting narrower and narrower over 35 years. The emergence of a new organisation called Onehundredmonths.org has given me some entirely arbitrary comfort that if we could still do what we need to do to establish the foundations of an equitable, sustainable, ultra-low-carbon economy within those 100 months then we’re still going to be okay. A bit of me knows that’s arbitrary and possibly illusory, but its my illusion, and I’m sticking to it.

Just eight years or so to achieve dramatic breakthroughs in citizen awareness, political will, institutional reform, behaviour change and technology shift. Against the backdrop of continuing denial, entrenched vested interests, massive political failure, worsening equity divides and so on. Exactly the kind of structural and political problems that the Ecologist has shone the light on over 39 years to explain why so-called ‘environmental problems’ can never be sustainably resolved without deep, radical shifts in our political and economic models.

Back to the SDC. The dynamics of ‘insidetrack’ advocacy within government are familiar and reassuring. Marshal the evidence; identify the barriers; seek out the upside; mobilise whatever ‘coalition of the willing’ is available to you, both inside and outside the system, and, hey presto, ‘the truth will set us free’, and public policy will adapt accordingly.

Like hell it will. Nine hugely rewarding years as chair of the SDC have left me with conflicting emotions.

I’m full of admiration for that small band of ministers and senior officials seriously intent on shifting unwieldy, locked-in systems of governance towards marginally less unsustainable ways of creating wealth and improving people’s lives.

But I’m even more full of rage at the complacent layabouts who think Jeremy Clarkson is more of an expert on climate change than their own chief scientific advisor; at the hypocrites who blithely sign up to ludicrously ambitious targets without ever willing the means to achieve them; and at the whole regiment of dumbed-down denialists who refuse, even in passing, to ask themselves whether consumption-driven economic growth – indefinitely into the future – is still the best bet in a world of collapsing ecosystems, accelerating climate change and worsening resource constraints.

So that’s enough ‘inside track’ for me – for the time being, at least. Time to be out and about a bit more – in the true spirit of the Ecologist.

Jonathon Porritt is chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission 

 

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