Knight in green armour

DAVID GREEN talks to Jonathon Porritt on 35 years of the green movement and the future of our planet

This eminent “green” thinker, writer and broadcaster also suspects that the planned Sizewell C nuclear power station will not be built – as long as the Government keeps to its pledge not to provide public subsidy.

His correct, inherited title is Sir Jonathon but he prefers to be known without the “handle”.

However, he has been a knight in shining armour as far as the environment goes, rescuing issue after issue from the dusty shelves of bureaucrats in the UK and elsewhere, exposing them to challenge and scrutiny.

Jonathon, who became a CBE ten years ago, is heading for Suffolk on Tuesday to present a talk at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, when he will look at the “green” achievements of the past three and a half decades and answer questions on environmental issues.

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“It’s the first time I’ve done this sort of think but I wanted to reach a new audience. Most of the talks I do are either at very formal occasions or to meetings of green activists.

“This will b e a nice opportunity to reflect on how green ideas have been played out in the UK over the past 35 years, since I first became a member of the Green Party. We have made progress over that period but nothing like enough progress,” Jonathon said.

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I first met him in the late1970s and 1980s when environmental organisations were campaigning over the Government’s then intention to build 10 more nuclear power stations – a similar aspiration to that held by today’s coalition Government.

He has always been an eloquent speaker, someone who can “think on his feet” and put over persuasive arguments with great authority,

Educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, his post-university days were spent travelling and eventually, in embarking on a teaching career in the English and Drama Department at a West London comprehensive.

But his interest in environmental issues was growing all the time and in the mid-1970s he became one of the founding members of the Green Party, of which he remains a member. He was at one time co-chair of the party.

In 1984 he was appointed director of Friends of the Earth, serving in this role for six years during an era in which there was a huge surge of interest in environmental issues.

Jonathon is also the co-founder of Forum for the Future – the UK’s leading sustainable development charity with 70 staff and more than 100 partner organisations, including some of the world’s leading companies – and co-director of The Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme which runs seminars for senior executives around the world.

Jonathon is the author of a number of books, including Save the Earth, published at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which sold more than a million copies.

In July 2000 he was appointed by Tony Blair as the first chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, a position which he held for nine years. The SDC, soon to be dismantled by the coalition Government, was its principal advisory body on all matters relating to sustainable development.

Jonathon, who has locked horns with a series of Government ministers over the years, was earlier this week attacked by national newspaper columnist Dominic Lawson after calling for more research into the threat that population growth poses for the future of life on planet Earth.

Scientists claim the world’s population could reach nine billion by the mid point of this century and Jonathon believes every Government of the world should be encouraged to go ahead with family planning initiatives.

Mr Lawson suggested that rapid population growth in Third World countries would ease as the populations of those countries became more affluent.

However, Jonathon, who is married and has two daughters, told me he regarded Mr Lawson as a neo-liberal who thought the answer to all of the world’s problems was “more growth and more consumption”.

“Governments have wandered around this issue for a number of years but it has never been in the foreground, where it belongs. We need to know what the science is regarding a connection between population growth and key environmental issues such as global warming.

“We need to know how much emphasis should be attached to curbing population growth. We should at least be helping to fund an improved quality of family planning programmes in countries which want them. These programmes need to be funded and sustained over time.

“I’ve never argued for coercion over population control. We have to work with the prevailing culture in countries.

“Take the Philippines for instance where there is a very high fertility rate. It’s very difficult for people there to get contraception, partly because the Roman Catholic Church is so against it. The result is illegal abortions which can have horrific consequences.

“In all such countries the northern world – the rich states – should be helping to organise and fund family planning,” Jonathon said.

What were his thoughts on the planned new programme of nuclear power stations, including a twin-reactor Sizewell C?

“The Government has said that no public money will be used to finance new nuclear plants. No nuclear power station in the world has been built without some form of public subsidy. So if our Government is serious about not providing public subsidy and does not intend to do this through the back door, then my hunch is that Sizewell C will not be built because the electricity companies will not be able to get sufficient interest from investors who still see nuclear power as carrying too high a financial risk.”

Jonathon believes our energy future should be built on the foundations of renewable energies such as wind power and increasing efficiency over electricity usage.

He is convinced that Suffolk will catch up with other counties where on-shore wind farms have been established.

“I think once people see what wind turbines look like and discover they are not the noisy, dangerous machines opponents contend then they will accept them in the landscape,” he said.

Tickets for Jonathon’s 7.30 pm talk at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday are still available and can be booked on-line or by telephoning 01284 769505.

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