Categories: CSR reality check / Opinion research

12 December 2010


Time to redebate sustainable development

Jonathan Porritt’s, Britain’s leading environmental campaigner, speech to the Royal Society in London this week is entitled The Growth Fetish and the Death of Environmentalism. Here’s why PRs should take him seriously, if only to debunk him.

Porritt is set to argue that Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners have gone soft. He will say that:

“There’s not a mainstream political party in the world out there challenging the orthodoxy of business-as-usual economic growth – stretching indefinitely into the future. Meanwhile, environmentalists continue to do their best to slow the pace of destruction, but are still losing battle after battle. Worse yet, we’ll lose the war if we can’t free ourselves of our subservient dependence on today’s earth-destroying economic growth”

He will argue that environmentalists have become too focused on creating “islands of conservation”, such as nature reserves, which cannot survive in a world of warming, habitat destruction and pollution. Instead the Greens should focus their efforts on stopping economic growth and development.

For him there is a contradiction between the words “sustainable” and “growth”, which makes the term sustainable growth an oxymoron. This debate is not trivial. That’s because the line that most PRs have been selling to their clients contradicts Porritt’s view fundamentally. PRs have pitched their argument saying that what’s good for the environment is also a catalyst for economic growth. We have advocated that going green boosts the top and bottom lines and therefore should be embraced as a business opportunity by the C-suite and boardrooms. This is the so-called win-win scenario.

Now that Porritt is laying down the gauntlet the response of most PRs will be to defend the status quo. For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’sVision 2050 tackles how to provide enough food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, mobility, education and health to provide for 9.2 billion humans. Porritt, in contrast, says the world can barely sustain its current 6 billion people. He proposes that world governments commit to limiting population growth to 7.8 billion instead.

However it is my view that we can do better than merely defend our current stance. First off, I think Porritt makes a valid point when he implies that sustainability and development are not comfortable bedfellows. Second, he might also be right, but for different reasons, to say that countries such as the UK should debate immigration and seek to manage population growth without being charged with racism.

We should be more critical about how we have been discussing sustainability issues, is my view. For instance, China’s industrial development, like ours before it, is based on the notion of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Describing what that means in practice today, Thomson Reuters recently revealed how China has become the second-largest producer of scientific papers, after the United States. Moreover, research and development (R&D) spending by Asian nations as a group in 2008 was $387 billion, compared with $384 billion in the United States and $280 billion in Europe.

The Reuters report added that an AstraZeneca survey found that 27 percent of people think China will be the world’s most innovative country within ten years, followed by India with 17 percent, the United States 14 percent and Japan 12 percent, according to the 6,000 people in six countries questioned by the drugmaker. Reuters remarked:

“The survey across Britain, the United States, Sweden, Japan, India and China found a strong sense of optimism amongst people living in China and India, in contrast to relative pessimism in the developed Western economies. More than half of those in China and India thought their home countries would be the most innovative in the world by 2020, while just one in 20 Britons thought Britain would be able to claim this title.”

Today’s Sunday Times also reports how the West is being stranded in the doldrums as Beijing throws billions of dollars at its solar panel industry and other alternative-energy companies. It says:

“This partnership between business and government is driving some western solar firms to the wall and threatens to start a trade war in the alternative-energy sector.”

In the face of such challenges, Porritt’s call to give up on economic progress and growth looks pathetic. But there’s also a sense in which a new greener world based on new technologies calls for development, fast-paced innovation and levels of disruption which are going to bring into question the very mantra of sustainability. It also begs an investigation into what degree we can afford to throw out all the old Western growth, GDP, paradigms at the moment when the East (and rest of the world) is embracing them.

It should not escape PRs that optimism and trust and lack of cynicism is highest in the BRIC countries and lowest in the more developed ones, according to opinion surveys from the likes of Edelman. Moreover, the growing split in perspectives between countries in the East and the West on growth and development issues should alert us to the need to be more ambitious and not, as Porritt maintains, less.

But it is not my intention in this post to provide answers, as much as to highlight that the debate about the relationship between development, sustainability and global innovation is far from settled.

3 responses to “Time to redebate sustainable development”

  1. Alan Brighty says:

    Population growth and economic growth must go hand in hand unless we are prepared to watch while half the world starves. Overpopulation is infinitely more dangerous to our planet than environmental changes. But talk of limiting growth to 7.8 billion is pie in the sky when so many major religions ban contraception and when Africa and the Middle and Far East looks upon any talk of birth control as a plot by the wicked West to keep them down.

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  3. Gavino says:

    History has shown that economic growth goes hand in hand with environmental advances. Population growth is not at all the problem people like Porritt make it out to be. Anyone doubting this should read again the work of Julian Simon. The real agenda of the environmentalist lobby is to coerce others into following their value set. If Porritt were serious about a no growth economy, he would give up all his wealth and go and live in a shanty in Manilla or Harare. There he would find what his world would look like without growth. The world starves because of political coercion and corruption. Those who want to limit population have more in common with fascism than they would care to admit.