Jonathon Porritt on The World We Made

The legendary environmental campaigner on how to scrub clean the earth's atmosphere, why robots might soon be man's best friend and the big steps China is taking to dispel its polluter of the planet reputation
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Jonathon Porritt
Jonathon Porritt

By 2050, we could be living in a world in which 90% of our energy comes from clean sources; where IT devices compute at the speed of human thought; where nanotechnology and 3D printing transforms manufacturing; and where personal genomics allows everyone to lead longer and healthier lives. This is the kind of future outlined by Britain's leading environmentalist writer and campaigner, Jonathon Porritt (founder of Forum for the Future, a global sustainability non-profit), in his new book The World We Made. Part speculative fiction, part road map towards a better world, The World We Made: Alex McKay's Story from 2050, tells the tale of how our world might turn out, from the point of view of a school history teacher living thirty-seven years hence. We sat Jonathon down to ask him about the book.

Of the ideas and scenarios in the book what do you think are the most likely to make it through?

Well it’s pretty much invisible to the reader but all of the projections that I make in the book are based on the best possible estimates being made today by the most reliable organisations. Those projections have been around for a long time but most people have used them as forecasting techniques. What I did was to take that forecast from 2050 and backcast it - if that’s the forecast for 2050 then how do we actually get there? It was refreshing to do it that way because if you start from here and you look at what’s going to happen in 2015 it’s usually so depressingly small that you think, oh my god this is never going to get moving fast enough. 

 

Were you surprised by any of the new research you undertook?

I’ve been living with these data sets for far too long and they’ve formed the backdrop to my politics so there wasn’t anything surprising. I’m far too steeped in climate science and food security and resource shortages - these have been the stuff of my life for 40 years. In a way I had to break out of the constraining influence that those data sets have on people. Because you only have to put that in front of someone and say “and politicians aren’t going to address this in time” and their only rational response is either despair or I’m off down the pub because there’s nothing I can do about it! So you have to make the data sets have an empowering effect rather than a disempowering effect. That’s the hypothesis behind the book. 

Some of the ideas are very sci-fi (scrubbing the air clean for one) aren't they?

Absolutely. I’m not a scientist so I have to kind of keep my mind completely focused on what is going on at the cutting edge of some of these technologies. I have been very involved at looking at geo-engineering as a participant and that’s just the most enlightening thing. I met two scientists involved in what’s called Direct Air Capture. I thought it was science fiction but I saw what they were doing and the money they had raised to crack the technical barriers. We have to suck the stuff back out of the atmosphere or we’ll hit these dangerous thresholds in terms of the warming effect so we have to find something effective and affordable. And Direct Air Capture (DAC) is neither of those two things at the moment because they can’t scrub enough CO2 out of the air but the thing I was hugely impressed by was the sense of the way in which they’d moved from this is stupid don’t even think about it to, ‘hmm that’s interesting and this works but it’s not affordable’ to hopefully in the future ‘this works and it’s affordable and now we need to take it to scale’. 

How do you come across all this stuff?


A lot of this goes back to our magazine Green Futures which we’ve published pretty much since the start of the Forum in 1996. And in every issue we have a section called Briefings, what we call weak signals from the future. We trawl technology websites and the sort of places where people who are really interested in what might happen hang out and we take as much of that stuff as we can.

 

 

Who funds these ideas? We guess they have a vested interest as much as an environmental conscience

Real investors – people with hard-edged expectations of good long term returns. They’re not doing it out of a philanthropic impulse, it’s a long term investment for them. And it’s very often rich individuals who are doing venture capital type investments through their portfolio in which case these high risk technologies would be a small part of their portfolio or it might be a bigger fund that’s going after proven technologies that are proven but can’t scale and come to market properly. There’s currently 250 and 300 billion dollars of clean tech investment a year. People see the odd solar panel and don’t realize the size of it.

Which western governments are most open-minded to this?

Sweden and Denmark have both set very ambitious targets for becoming very low carbon to completely carbon neutral. They have seen the benefits of reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. So there is a National security issue which is sellable to their electorates. But Germany is the outstanding example. It’s just powering ahead with its energy strategy and now 8 per cent of its energy comes from renewables. 

 

One of the many surprising things in the book is the torch you carry for China, a country criticised for its environmental record

Yes, in Chinese cities you can sometimes hardly breathe, it’s horrendous. But the Chinese have gone through their growth period and are putting in the measures that will eliminate in 40 years what took us 250 years to sort out - from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Clean Air Act and then eventually to the anti-smog measures after World War II. So the basis for my encouragement is because of what’s happening there at the moment. They’ve looked very carefully indeed – more carefully than most politicians in European countries – on what the impact of accelerating climate change will be on their society in terms of agriculture, water, soil and rising sea levels. So instead of sitting there and saying, ‘oh that can’t possibly be true, they sit there and say, ‘that’s really not good’. And that provides a rationale for taking action – because if they don’t, the consequences could be graver for people in China than other countries in the world. And that’s already led to a determination to hugely increase energy efficiency in terms of GDP, move slowly to reducing a dependence on coal, partly by trying to find some more gas and thirdly by massive investments in renewables.

One of our favourite chapters is the one on the older generation living with robots – after all a robot is essentially a more useful dog or Facebook friend

That slight horror we have of robots taking over human relationships is a real worry to psychologists and people of faith but I’m completely persuaded that robots are going to become a huge part of our lives. The early data suggests that people don’t get fazed by this, they actually find it a natural – odd word to use – part of the way they build relationships. This could be a significant enhancement in quality of life for a lot of old people for whom the choice doesn’t include being part of a dynamic community anyway – they’ll either be on their own or on their own with a robot that helps and connects them. The old people of 2050 are the connected generation now. 

 

How did you choose the subject areas of the book? 

I didn’t want the book to be on conventional environment green themes. I wanted lots in there on health, and government and education. Some people will wonder why there’s a chapter on spiritual issues. We forget that seven eighths of humankind are adherents of one faith system or another - it’s a reality so why wouldn’t be part of the journey to a more sustainable world? I wanted to do something about the evangelicals in the USA and what might happen if they took seriously the idea that this is God’s earth and that they have a responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. So in the book they become this amazing campaigning force for change and eliminate the problem of food waste in five years because they go after it in a completely different way. 

You spent years teaching in a west London school how did you engage the kids with the environment?

I joined the Green Party and I started teaching pretty much at the same time so my early interest in Green politics made me reflect on what it would be like growing up on the local estate without any access to the kind of natural world others might take for granted. And I got together with a band of other crazy teachers in the school and we just started setting up these projects to take the kids to Wales and learn about farming and get kids into the environment much more. And it became part of my commitment to putting right some of the deficits in their lives really. There’s a lot in the book about why the politics of change has to be as much about social justice as about sustainability because my commitment to sustainability is more through the eyes of a social justice campaigner as much as anything else. And although I’m very committed to campaigns about biodiversity and pollution and protecting the natural world, my interest in those things is because that’s what makes life good and possible for human beings. It’s that social justice commitment that drives me. 

Read Phaidon editor Ellen Christie's introduction to The World We Made here take a look through the images inside or just get on with it and buy the book here.  


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