Monday, 28 January 2008


I was a little surprised that Roland Rollan's statement, (often misattributed to Gramsci),  about combining pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the heart was not quoted in Jonathon Porritt’s “Capitalism As If The World Mattered”(Earthscan 2007), which offers a wide ranging review of political, economic and ecological writings mustered to construct a blueprint for a society that could survive the potentially cataclysmic impact of accelerating human-caused climate change.

The works of writers ranging from Adam Smith to eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin, are criticised analysed and drawn on. The book is well referenced and argued but it is, in some respects, a political tract based on emotional conviction not a scientific text.An instance of this is when Porritt rejects James Lovelock’s pessimistic assessment of humanity’s prospects, he writes of: “…needing to believe that there is still an equitable, sustainable, compassionate future available for all of humankind…”, because he states that he is looking at the future “through” the eyes of his young daughters. (Porritt 2007 p23).

Many others who have thought about the possible consequences of climate change and the current lack of any real, (as opposed to rhetorical), political will to slow it down, must have felt the same thing; for few, who are informed, now believe in any prospect of stopping or reversing climate change, at least for a century. The best that can be done is constructing some means of minimising the harm it will cause and it is difficult to tell future generations that we have bequeathed them a capitalist’s ashtray.

In his book Porritt, (p24-5).constructs a “Lomborg-Lovelock” continuum that displays predictions ranging from optimism, to pessimism, On the optimistic side Bjorn Lomborg argues that, the case for human caused climate change is not definitely proven and that technical innovations will lead to a situation where: there will be, by the middle of the 21st century: “9 billion people living within planet Earth’s natural limits”.

James Lovelock who has propounded the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ that all life on earth can be understood as a vast living mega entity which could scratch off the dangerous nuisance of humanity as a dog scratches off fleas , represents the opposite pole in predicting that “There is no long-term future for humankind.”.

Porritt cites the work of Thomas Homer-Dixon as a middle course between these two extremes, and Homer-Dixon himself offers optimistic and pessimistic scenarios (‘Breakthrough’ and ‘Collapse’ respectively).

Porritt rejects the facilely optimistic predictions, of Lomborg and refuses the doomsaying of Lovelock. Porritt’s case is that, given the detailed program of rethinking economics and translating this into radical social reform, as set out the latter parts of the volume , Homer-Dixon is right and a “slow painful recovery” may be possible so that “Climate stabilizes by around 2005” (Porritt 2007 p25).

Porritt advances a detailed framework for achieving this and argues for a Five capitals framework of Natural, Human, Social, Manufactured, and Financial capital, should each with its own attendant program of reforms and change in world view, lead to a sustainable variant of capitalism via a birth process which will be “messy, incremental, controversial and very, very difficult…”(Porritt 2007 p132). but somehow not revolutionary.

As Porritt deploys a mass of evidence to support this proposition, he frequently writes that it can only be achieved within a capitalist framework (pps. xviii,9, 86,87, 88, 90,107, 110, 132, 137,249, 294), but deploys little evidence to support these assertions, in fact he states (p89).that he has no intention of examining whether any non-capitalist economic systems could deliver ecological sustainability. However the version of capitalism that Porritt advocates is severely restrained in its activities, aspirations and goals by government intervention and regulation. Indeed in his discussions of globalization, it is difficult to see what, short of a very powerful international government, could bring about the result that he desires.

Quite how much intervention Porritt requires is suggested when he addresses the problems of consumer demand: “…there is little between where we are now and the ecological abyss that necessarily awaits us if 9 billion people are ‘permitted’ to acquire trinkets, get obese, travel the world and own several cars, …”(p.88).

Not only does Porritt wish to restrict consumption, he wants government to use taxation to: “.. enact an uncompromising commitment to greater equity and the elimination of the kind of poverty that still blights the lives of millions of people.”

He’d like; “.. strict, transparent and fair limitations on immigration….” as well. All of this , and more, in Porritt’s view, can be accommodated within capitalism because capitalism is a complex adaptive system capable of profound and rapid shifts.There is some evidence from twentieth century European history to support Porritt’s prescriptions. National capitalisms have been restrained both in terms of production and consumption to meet war aims defined by states and this has, at times involved at least, temporary curtailment of some political liberties. In Britain this situation was partially attributable to the efforts of an organised labour movement, some of whom had socialist ideologies and agendas. Many who experienced this contest which led to the creation of the British Welfare State and many more who have experienced the long series of defeats and holding actions which have attended the resurgence of a free-market capitalism in the later twentieth century may ruefully agree both with Porritt about the adaptability of capitalism and also with Murray Bookchin (as quoted in Porritt op.cit (p93)):“One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation.”Porritt’s book seems to be in many ways, an attempt to do just that, early on, (p.xviiii), he states; “..we've been enjoying the fruits of the triumph of capitalism over communism, “ but “we” in that sentence are not those whose struggles and organisations who have sometimes forced capitalism to change (or a least occasionally restrained it), and “we” are certainly not the dead resulting from the demolition of health care in the ex-USSR.

Perhaps Jonathon has been writing to the wrong people.

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