Why a post-Covid return to business as usual is a ticking time bomb
For 45 years, Sir Jonathon Porritt has been at the vanguard of the environmental movement; writing, broadcasting, commenting and campaigning on everything from reformed capitalism to the promotion of reproductive health.
Porritt spoke to The Skylark ahead of the release of his new book Hope in Hell, a thunderous call to arms that makes it clear there is no excuse to be passive on the climate crisis, either from denial or total despair. Although rightly enraged, Porritt is ultimately hopeful and believes if the right road is taken, and the solutions we have at our disposal are immediately unleashed, the worst of the crisis can be averted.
But as we enter the most consequential decade in human history, Porritt reminds us that while politicians have the power to make or break the future of mankind, it is us that have the greatest power of all: controlling the agenda. With civil disobedience and voting power, he believes we must “make it impossible for them to do anything else.”
The book was just about to go off to the printers when everything exploded around coronavirus. I persuaded the publishers to let me do a separate introduction and I made a few changes in the book itself. Basically, [Covid-19] has been quite difficult to accommodate because tonnes of things are going to look so different. But it was good to think about the ways in which this crisis will now influence how we address the climate emergency, because there’s no doubt it will.
Seize this moment to do a full-on climate emergency recovery
I think that some things really will stick and I’m absolutely certain, for instance, that we’ll never go back to the days of insane commuting for millions of people and we’ll never go back to business travel on planes being what it was. I think a lot of companies are now saying we can do all of this without having to stick people on very expensive planes and put them up in expensive hotels.
There is a real risk, of course, that governments will try to reflate their economies just by injecting purchasing power at almost any cost; just getting jobs going again and shovel-ready infrastructure projects. And of course, after the 2008 financial crash emissions dropped but very quickly came back to what they were before.
So, we have to be really aware of that and that’s why I’m hugely heartened by the calls not just from NGOs and civil society organisations, but from business, the World bank, IMF and everybody under the sun that we’ve got to seize this moment to do a full-on climate emergency recovery. We cannot simply default to business as usual. I think there are lot of good signs out there. Whether we’ve got enough political leadership to fulfil all of that, that’s a different story.
The long-term vision to make all of that come alive
I think there’s a big story about technology coming to our help here. The incredible reduction in prices for renewable energy and storage, and so on, is so utterly remarkable that now there’s no reason why we can’t move to 100% decarbonised energy supplies within the next decade. There’s no technology based reason at all.
The other thing that is fascinating for me is the way in which people are now much more aware of what are called nature-based solutions or natural climate solutions where we can start thinking about ways we can rebuild our natural ecosystems. It’s a fantastic solutions portfolio we have but it all comes down to whether our politicians have got the long-term vision to make all of that come alive today; not keep putting it off, which is what they’ve done for the last decade or more.
New energy from young people
That’s why I’m calling for a very different kind of political activism because I don’t believe these politicians will move until people, particularly young people, make it impossible for them to do anything else. And that means much more constant pressure on them; a call for inevitably a lot more direct action in terms of pursuing those political options, civil disobedience of one kind or another.
2019 for me was an astonishing year, particularly in terms of that new energy from young people. By the end of 2019, there were 7 million young people on the streets of cities all around the world saying this has to change, you are destroying our future – this is the most deeply immoral thing that you could possibly be involved in. And that all gives me real heart, the solutions agenda plus the new politics.
Not everyone has to become vegan or vegetarian overnight
I think everybody has a sense now of the obvious stuff we should be doing. It’s really important that we do think about energy efficiency; it’s important we think about how we move around; it’s important to think about the food that we’re buying.
If people want a quick steer on easy things they can be doing, just reduce your average meat consumption every week by as much as you possibly can. Not everyone has to become vegan or vegetarian overnight but meat is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions so there are so many different things that can be done in that area.
We do not need another disaster to be our better selves
You know one of the most wonderful things that has happened during the Covid crisis is the extent to which local solidarity has become a big part of so many people’s lives. We’ve just recognised the incredible value of working more closely together in our own neighbourhoods, our own communities and so on.
That’s brought out this really brilliant side to human nature that I think had been obscured by years and years of the wrong kind of politics just driving people to think only about themselves, about competitiveness; the me first type approach to politics. As I heard someone say on the radio the other day, “we do not need another disaster to be our better selves”. And it seems to me that could be a critical part of what individuals can do in their own communities.
We’ve got to get good at it really fast
The science of climate change doesn’t leave us with much wriggle room these days; it’s pretty gloomy and it will go on getting gloomier. There’s no turning away from what the science tells us. It’s all moving faster and more damagingly than anyone thought was possible. So, there’s a balance between being realistic about the science “telling the truth”, in the words of Extinction Rebellion, and then being absolutely clearheaded and purposeful about the solutions.
These two things have to coexist in our minds. You can’t stay hopeful and cheerful by ignoring the science and it doesn’t serve any purpose if people just default to despair as if it’s too late to do anything about it. Because it isn’t. This is complex stuff, politically and psychologically for each of us individually. But that’s going to be the nature of our lives now for the foreseeable future so we’ve got to get good at it really fast.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 27th May 2020