Sustainable development’s “taboo territory”

Faced with a warming climate, should rich countries consume differently – or buy less? And can poor nations be expected to do the same? Isabel Hilton interviews Jonathon Porritt.

Isabel Hilton: If you want to live sustainably and ethically, what do you do?

Jonathon Porritt: There’s a large question about that in the UK, let alone in China. The truth is that the vast majority of the two to three million Chinese who are now moving into purchasing parity with the middle classes in the west have absolutely no interest in consuming more sustainably. Things that are happening on sustainable development in China are largely driven by central government – unfortunately not in the regions or the provinces, which makes it very difficult. Trying to stimulate a lot of civic enthusiasm around sustainable consumption is very hard work. It’s still an upward curve of increased materialism, which is what they feel progress is all about. They think that they are just getting on this ladder and now someone’s going to tell them to climb it more slowly, differently, with fewer benefits than we had – that’s a very difficult sell.

IH: But is that the message of sustainable consumption? That people in developing countries must climb the ladder more slowly?

JP: There’s a very lively debate about that, of course. The sustainable consumption debate ranges from those who argue that all we have to do is consume more responsibly, ethically, sustainably, sensitively – and in a way that need not put any question mark over the method or the quantum of consumption at all. They argue that we just need to consume differently, not to change the volume.

At the other end of the scale, are those who say that’s complete nonsense: when you talk about the nine billion people who will live on Earth by the end of this century, consuming the way that we consume in the west – however ethically, environmentally or sensitively it may be, it will still blow the system. They want the concept of consuming less to be part of the political debate, but no mainstream political party anywhere in the world wants the word “less” to be used at any point in the political discourse – it’s just taboo territory. So what you get is a conversation about the manner – not about changing the core of the system.

For any Chinese politician, too, the dreaded word “less” is unthinkable. You have to have a bit of sympathy: it’s an extremely difficult thing for people who are just coming into consuming to be told that it’s all too late, that they can’t have any more.    So unfortunately, the realpolitik of the situation is that we are not going to be able to argue for less consumption in India or China – or anywhere else in the poor world – until the rich world has already demonstrated a very serious intent to contract their economies. In the first instance, this means contracting the carbon intensity of their economies, which is a proxy for contracting the economy as a whole, and to reduce dramatically the social and environmental externalities of the economy. When we’ve demonstrated that we are serious about it, then it would be possible to open up a dialogue with China and India about consuming less in those countries.

Right now, the only thing you can say is: “consume much more intelligently,” because this is an appeal to the idea that China ought to be able to build a new paradigm of consumption, which doesn’t go through the massively wasteful, destructive and inefficient processes that we have been through in all western economies. We have come to the conclusion that this is all pretty stupid, and we have to become much more efficient in the use of our energy and resources. It isn’t necessary for the Chinese to go all the way through that wasteful and destructive curve. It would be possible for people in China to aim for the end goal, which is to improve people’s well being but with far lower energy consumption.

For example, at the moment most politicians in China seem hell-bent on creating car-based infrastructure in their cities, particularly in Beijing. An good approach to this would be to say that we can see that that’s going nowhere – the intelligent thing to do is to build an advanced transport infrastructure that is not based on individual car ownership. But right now in Beijing, if you don’t have a car, you haven’t made it.

IH: If you can’t make the argument in China, are you doing any better in Britain? 

JP: Well, at least we’ve got a discussion going in Britain. Politicians are very nervous about anything that seems to imply that the conventional growth paradigm is in jeopardy. That remains very, very difficult. If you imply that we will not be able to rely on 2 to 3% economic growth forever, then politicians just do not want to talk to you. When we are doing our economic advisory work with the government, and trying to apply different measures to make the economy more supportive of sustainable outcomes, you can push hard on macro elements – like fiscal reform, or the way government uses different regulatory interventions and market signals. But should you trespass into rethinking the economic growth paradigm, they don’t want to listen. The consumption discourse has to be all about providing people with a higher quality of life, but with a massive reduction in resource and energy intensity. Within that paradigm, politicians in the UK are getting more serious, but it is still a painful process.

IH: That doesn’t leave much for the individual to do, if the individual is concerned.

JP: Because the government moves so slowly, it leaves a huge amount for the individual – and for business – to do. Suddenly all our big retailers, for instance, have   gone very green on the issue of climate change, and they’ve left government miles behind. Industry has taken the lead and the government is half-relieved and half-anxious about it, because suddenly they aren’t sure if they are setting the pace of change. With business in the lead, the individual consumer can play a very big role. Besides, I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to think that this is going to be sorted out by governments on their own. Government action without citizen buy-in is not going to work. Our government right now is thinking about communication and information campaigns, about how you work with NGOs, professional bodies and business to get the messages out more effectively. They are rolling out a new campaign called “Act on CO2”, which tries to persuade individuals to reduce their own carbon footprint.

IH: But government is lagging behind the people on this.

JP: It certainly is. The Sustainable Development Commission recently published our annual review on sustainable development in government, which is a report on the 11 key targets they have to improve their own performance – and the results are shocking. Five departments have gone backwards, not forwards. And despite all the attention on climate change, the majority of departments have missed their CO2 reduction targets. If this was a private sector report, people would be sacked. In my opinion, it’s truly shameful. You have a government that creates a great head of steam about climate change, with a high level of rhetoric about how important it is to do something about it, and it is not even delivering the basics in its own backyard. 

IH: So you have published the list of shame.

JP: We have, but in a gentle way, as you can imagine.


Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog to advise how environmentally friendly development should be put at the heart of government policy.


Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

Homepage photo by Mironabside