A friend recommended I read Capitalism: As If the World Matters by Jonathon 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.
First published in 2005 and issued in a revised edition in 2007, Jonathan Porritt’s book has played an important part in arguing the case that not only can capitalism and sustainability go together, but that a reformed version of capitalism is essential to achieving sustainability.
This views sets Porritt apart from many of his former colleagues of his from his six years as chair of the UK Ecology Party (now the Green Party) and another six heading up Friends of the Earth. It made – and makes – his book controversial in many green circles but also makes the book appeal to business people who Porritt wishes to persuade to change their ways. “Like it or not (and the vast majority of people do), capitalism is now the only economic show in town,” argues Porritt.
In its place, Porritt argues for better regulation, costings for externalities, better metrics than GNP alone. He questions our fixation with growth, and tests the limits of corporate responsibility.
Tomorrow’s world needs to be different in two main respects, according to this book: it needs to be sustainable and it needs to prioritise well being over financial wealth and economic growth.
On this point, Porritt cites JM Keynes’s distinction between relative and absolute wants: “Keynes pointed out that our absolute wants (those which we feel regardless of our relative position in society) are limited and finite; it is our relative wants (those which we feel in comparison to what others have in society) that are apparently insatiable”.
Porritt has got in trouble with some 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.
For all its problems, capitalism is what we have to work with right now. Although it could do with an extra chapter after the events of summer 2008, this book is still a useful guidebook to the changes already underway, and a roadmap for more responsible capitalism.