books corporate responsibility development economics environment sustainability

Capitalism as if the world mattered, by Johnathon Porritt

In a consumer society slowly eating itself, there’s no more pressing question than whether or not capitalism and sustainability can ever go together. Johnathon Porritt sets out here to prove that they can. On the one hand, “global capitalism as we know it today would appear to be inherently incompatible with the pursuit of either ecological sustainability or social justice.” On the other hand, “capitalism is now the only economic game in town.”

Capitalism has been effective in providing goods and services, in creating wealth and raising standards of living. It has also created gross inequality and laid waste to the planet. Business as usual will lead to ecological suicide, quite simply. Porritt points out that the consumer society is actually progressing in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics, since nothing is ever used as such, but converted into something lower quality, less useful, more base matter.

So, capitalism needs to be refocused back to needs rather than the creation of wants. The limits of corporate responsibility need to be recognised, and replaced by full environmental and social accounting, reinforced with progressive legislation and genuine enforcement. Another issue is the fact that economic advance is not matched in rising levels of happiness – something we’ve talked about a fair bit through Affleunza and such books. Porritt argues for better metrics, a broader measure of success than rising just GDP.

Importantly, Capitalism as if the world matters must introduce costings for the externalities of production. Not just ‘polluter pays’, but a price on carbon and on environmental services. We need to start taking account of the five capitals – natural, human, social, manufactured and financial. Controversially, Porritt tackles the sacred cow of economic growth: “On a finite earth, physical growth must eventually end” he writes. “The idea that we can sustain the kind of growth we have seen since 1950 in key areas of economic activity, knowing what we already know about the state of the planet, is simply fantastical.” He stops short of calling for a zero-growth economy, but he quotes plenty of people who do.

Porritt has got in trouble with other environmentalists for working a little too closely with big business, and he explores some of these initiatives in some detail here – business excellence, business aimed at the poor, experimental corporate reporting. It’s easy to see why he’s been accused of selling out as he sings the praises of Dow Chemicals, but the corporation aren’t going anywhere any time soon, so I applaud him for working alongside them to develop better business models.

Finally, Porritt challenges his readers that denial needs to be confronted, but sustainability also needs to be sold in as a positive. “Over-reliance on the assumed power of evidence and on the rational consideration of long-term, collective self-interest to shift political systems has proved to be something of a mistake” he says, after a career in political lobbying. Instead, we need to work towards the “interdependence, empathy, equity, persoanl responsibility and inter-generational justice” of sustainable development. We need a vision for “an evolved, intelligent and elegant form of capitalism that puts the earth at its very centre and ensures that all people are its beneficiaries in recognition of our unavoidable interdependence.”

It’s a tough sell, but despite my better judgement, I’m with Porritt on this one. Nice as it would be to hang out for the socialist ecotopia of some anti-globalists, capitalism is what we have to work with. This book is a useful guidebook to the changes already underway, and a roadmap for the changes we still look forward to.

  • Johnathon Porritt is head of

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