An interview with Jonathon Porritt
Tom Cuthbertson: It's inevitable in discussions of sustainable economies and sustainable economic development that the definition given by the Brundtland Commission comes up. The Brundtland Commission from 1987, which defines sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Is this definition still relevant today or does it need to be changed? What would your definition of sustainable economic development be?
Jonathon Porritt: It has to be changed. It was helpful at the time, these were early days for people to think about more sustainable development but it left out one critical issue which is the whole question of the Earth's carrying capacity. So if you have a definition of sustainable economic development that doesn't include creating wealth equitably within the Earth's biophysical limits, it's a useless definition. And unfortunately lots of people have used the Brundtland definition to get away with the equivalent of sustainable murder really.
T.C.: In your speech, you spoke a lot about the conceptual barriers that stand between enlarging approaches to sustainable development beyond the purely environmental sphere towards social justice, housing, and to human rights. What methods can we take to promote a more holistic approach to sustainable development?
J.P.: It is difficult; policy makers pursue narrow, vertical lines of influence. They have a particular problem, they bring forward a policy which they hope will sort that problem out, and if you are lucky they occasionally think about some of the consequences of doing it in a particular way. But essentially, they don't think holistically, they don't think about the combined environmental, social, economic, and ethical implications of any one decision. And that means that we are endlessly coming up with sub-optimal non-solutions to the problems we face, which create further problems downstream. So the one thing every country has to do, and it's really difficult, is to train its policy makers to think more holistically, to get beyond this very narrow vertical approach to policies, and think much more broadly about the integrated impact of the policies they are responsible for.
T.C.: So would you go as far as to say that this rigidly vertical approach and focusing solely on environmental concerns to the exclusion of others is an impediment to the effective implementation of sustainable development?
J.P.: Historically, it is quite interesting if you go back to the time of the Brundtland Report in 1987, there were a lot of environmentalists who didn't welcome the Brundtland Report because they thought it would take the focus away from their pure, conservation-driven environmental protection policies. But of course this is a completely ridiculous position to take. You can't protect ecosystems, species, the whole array of natural resources on which we depend - ecosystem services as we call them now - you can't protect them unless you find a way of making it possible for the countries that have got those sources of natural wealth to create wealth for their populations without destroying those assets. So, environmentalism in a box that is detached from the economic realities of different countries is a real problem. It's also true to say that if we don't have social justice built into the way in which we use nature's wealth more fairly, then it's going to fail large parts of the world's population, as it does today, with four billion people still not enjoying anything like the standard of life, the quality of life that they could be.
T.C.: There is an increasing movement in contemporary social politics towards looking for new, changed indexes for growth and success, moving away from, as you have mentioned, a fetishised relationship with GNP. What factors would you take into account for the measurement of development in other countries?
J.P.: If I've got this right, the United Nations have had a working party looking at alternatives to economic growth sitting within the Economic Cooperation Unit which has been sitting for twenty eight years. And it has achieved nothing. And although politicians will say that they know economic growth, GDP, is not the best measure of economic wellbeing, they don't do anything to balance GDP against other indicators, against wellbeing-based indicators for instance. So it seems to me that this is still a huge challenge and it is very difficult for the NGOs to get their hands on this challenge because it doesn't really sound very radical or exciting: What are you campaigning for? We're campaigning for a wellbeing measure in society. Well that sounds really boring! So it is quite difficult to get the breakthroughs we need. Frankly it does have to be driven at the level of world government, so G8, and the one thing that Nicolas Sarkozy has done with his commission on alternatives to economic growth is to say that he is going to keep pressing G8, G20, the UN to accelerate this business of finding other measures of progress. And it is crucial, without them people will just go on using economic growth even though much of that growth is actually destroying the world that we depend on.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Tom Cuthbertson, Jonathon Porritt, "An interview with Jonathon Porritt", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2010. Consulté le 08/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/an-interview-with-jonathon-porritt