This was the first interview I ever did, for
Third Way on the 4th August 1993. As a former
director of Friends of the Earth, Jonathon Porritt (since
knighted) was then still Britains most influential
Crises come in all sizes. When you talk of an ecological
crisis, what do you have in mind? Do you find anything
comparable in history?
This is a slow-burning crisis. If you stack up the importance
of the different crises that are unfolding right now
in Yugoslavia, for instance, or in Africa the environment
may not come out top of that short-term list; but without
doubt it comes top of the list early on in the next century.
Are there precedents in history? There are many examples
of societies which have collapsed for no other reason than
the abuse of the natural world on which they depended. On
Easter Island, a whole society once had a very basic way of
life, but it needed its trees and once they were destroyed
the society collapsed.
In Mesopotamia, they exceeded the capacity of their land
to produce wheat and barley. Through a process of gradual
salinisation and over-irrigation they wiped out their own
civilisation. Some of the North African civilisations
some people would even say the whole Roman Empire collapsed
through a process of ecological exhaustion.
But each of those civilisations was replaced by another.
Do you see this crisis as terminal?
Certainly not for the earth. I do tear my hair out in frustration
at those who talk about the destruction of all life on earth.
But we are talking about a continuing attrition, through loss
of biodiversity in particular, and about very serious threats
to very large numbers of people, particularly in the Third
Many of the problems we face are only tenuously connected.
Wouldnt it be helpful to distinguish issues that threaten
humankind, such as the greenhouse effect, from issues like
the killing of whales, which have a strong sentimental impact
but dont pose any threat to us?
I dont think so. It would deny the broader philosophical
endeavour of the green movement to show how these different
phenomena emerge from our fundamentally distorted view of
ourselves and our relationship with the earth.
From a strictly reductionist point of view, one can argue
that the extinction of a certain species is an entirely separate
phenomenon from acid rain or whatever. That is perfectly accurate.
But at a deeper level you have to look at the connections
between those different issues, and that is when you start
seeing them not so much as environmental problems per se but as symptoms of an inherently unsustainable economic and
If you follow the logic of the sustainable utilisation
of other species the utilitarian philosophy which
dominates world environmentalism today there
is no reason why we shouldnt catch a few whales
every year. Well, that aint enough. If were
in the business of healing the relationship between
us, other species and the earth, then the last thing
you want to do is go around slaughtering other species.
You cant put that across in strictly scientific
terms, but it matters just as much to the heart and
soul of the green movement.
Do you see the green struggle as something that is primarily
practical or spiritual?
I wish it was both equally. The huge proportion of environmental
activity is practical work, whether in terms of international
issues or local grassroots campaigns. A tiny proportion is
in the philosophical, spiritual or religious domain.
What are the principal roots of the crisis?
Youd have to go back to the dominant assumptions that
have guided the human adventure, certainly since the start
of the Industrial Revolution, if not the Renaissance. Some
would take it right back to the origins of Judaeo-Christian
There are at least a dozen core assumptions of industrial
societies which are still absolutely powerful even though
they are hardly ever acknowledged. They are to do with the
nature of progress, the relationships between men and women,
the relationships between ourselves and the earth. They shape
our society so that it is very difficult of anybody to grow
as an individual without being affected by them, impregnated
One such assumption is that we can achieve progress primarily
through economic growth. Then there is the notion of conquering
nature rather than living with nature as a co-partner.
There are some factors the green movement tends not to
mention for example, the population explosion. Is that
purely for political reasons?
Yes. I believe there is a conspiracy of silence about the
issue. The left will never talk about it for fear of being
identified, however indirectly, with the oppressive forces
in China or wherever. Even the Church of England finds it
very hard to deal with they dont want to upset
Catholics or Muslims. The whole religious contribution to
the population issue has until recently been very quiet indeed.
The right has tried to deal with it, but in such an insensitive
and inept way that they have taken themselves out of the debate.
The terms in which they put it largely to do with comparing
people in the Third World with rabbits are horrific.
Are you in favour of population control?
I am in favour of doing everything we can now to ensure rapid
reductions in population growth-rates. I dont use the
phrase population control myself, because it implies
that ultimately we will have to coerce people. I dont
agree with that. I think you can educate people in the advantages
of restricting fertility. Family planning should be an integral
part of a programme of initiatives on education, health care,
access to sustainable livelihood and so on.
To talk about a stable future for the human species without
family planning is to me total self-indulgence and utterly
Christians have always tended to have large families. Do
you think its incumbent on us now to limit ourselves
to two children rather than four?
Yes. I would say unequivocally that in the developed world
good stewardship is not compatible with large families.
What holds people back from a greener lifestyle?
A very large number of people still believe it is possible
to be a kind of minimalist green, to make gestures
recycling, turning off lights and so on but not to
change profoundly the ways in which we live or create wealth.
Most people hope that we can more or less go on doing what
were doing now, but just do it in a more environment-friendly
way. So, there is a genuine reluctance to look deeply into
the lifestyle implications of going radically green.
There is a lot of confusion. People never really know whether
you can believe what you read on a packet or believe a consumers
organisation or an environment group or a government minister.
So they say, If nobody really knows what the truth is,
what difference does it make what I do?
Theres a lot of apathy, a lot of indifference. There
is still a certain amount of residual ignorance about some
of the issues, but that is rapidly changing. Look at our schools.
We are now turning out the first environmentally literate
generation that weve ever seen in this country.
Do you feel bitter or angry when you see people not being
green throwing down litter or driving alone in their
cars? Do you take your zeal so personally?
I do, very personally; but I dont believe that lecturing
and hectoring people is particularly helpful. I think we have
to be patient.
Where do you draw the line in your own attempt to live
more responsibly? For example, could you ever enjoy a good
Yes, without any hesitation. I do not see myself as a paragon
of purist green virtue. If I need to hire a car to ensure
that I get to a meeting, I will and Ill drive alone
to be there and do the job that I have to do.
What if people accuse you of being a hypocrite?
Why? I dont have a car, 95 per cent of the time I go
by British Rail, and then I use my bicycle. But when I need
to do something I see no problem.
People can get themselves into the most terrible kind of
confusion here. Its not that every single tiny little
action that we do has to subscribe to the most purist green
code of behaviour; it is that the thrust of our lives must
be to reduce the damage that we cause through our consumption
It would be nice to think our politicians were straining
at the leash of practicality, just dying to implement green
policies. But theyre not, I suspect. Why not?
Lots of different reasons. Theres a lot of ideological
baggage that this generation have brought with them. When
they came into politics the environment was seen as a completely
Then, its sometimes difficult to see how they can make
political advantage out of it. Its dangerous to talk
about pursuing environmental policies as if everybody could
win. If were going to change our ways, there will be
some losers. And a lot of those losers are powerful people
who dont like constraints on their activities.
There are fewer votes in it than politicians would seek,
and politicians are after votes. There are very few who are
in politics to pursue a vision or a cause or some sense of
much deeper value. I dont say that cynically. People
shouldnt stand on a high horse and say thats wicked
thats how the system works.
Do you think the kind of radical solutions we need are
possible under a democracy? Or does the world need authoritarian
government to rescue it?
No. I am absolutely convinced we cannot make the transition
to a sustainable society by any other route than a democratic
But if China were a democracy and had not imposed its population-control
measures, there would already be a lot more Chinese, wanting
fridges and cars, and a lot more strain on the earths
That assumes that the Chinese people could never be persuaded
of the merits of having fewer children. I dont subscribe
to that view. I think the advantages become self-evident with
the right kind of investment in education and health care.
Given the situation in China at the point when they looked
at the projected population increases in their country and
the diminishing supply of resources to feed those people,
they clearly had no option but to impose extremely authoritarian
measures, and I have to say Im glad that they did. I
regret deeply some of the things that have happened as a consequence
the erosion of civil liberties, and appalling acts
of cruelty but the policy itself was absolutely necessary
at that time.
But most of the shining examples of reductions of population
growth-rates come from democracies. Look at what happened
in Japan in the Fifties and Sixties, or in Thailand in the
Seventies and Eighties.
People in this country are educated, but wouldnt
it be good if the Government could limit people, for example,
to one car per household?
No. The fact is that people having two cars is already doing
tremendous damage to very large numbers of individuals and
certainly to the global environment. But that is not the generally
held view in society, and to force it onto people in an anti-democratic
way seems to me to be counterproductive. The likelihood of
people accepting it is zero.
A far more effective way is to ensure that the Government
makes people pay the full cost of the ownership of their cars.
Youre seen as a spiritual man. Would you describe yourself
as spiritual, or religious or sentimental?
I would certainly call myself a spiritual person. A large
part of my work is spiritually inspired.
I would hesitate a little to call myself religious. In certain
company I think I can call myself a Christian, but I wouldnt
want to stretch the definition: there are many things in my
own particular faith that are not compatible with conventional
Christianity. For instance, I dont believe in life after
death. I do, however, believe very strongly in most of the
rest of Christianity, and feel easy about calling myself a
Christian when Im with myself or with God, as it were.
Am I sentimental? If that means openness to feeling and a
deep, deep emotional commitment to people and the earth and
its creatures, yes, I will own up to being sentimental.
Do you worship someone, or something?
I believe that every single particle of the earth was created
by God, and therefore stands in the eyes of God in the same
relationship. In that respect I worship a creator God, and
I believe that that act of creation is perhaps the single
most important spiritual insight which informs my life.
The Church Fathers talked about the Book of Nature.
What does that book say to you?
That God is in everything, and so it is appropriate to respond
to the natural world with the knowledge that it is full of
The distinction between pantheism and panentheism may sound
a small one, but it is critical. I dont call myself
a pagan or a pantheist. I dont worship trees or rocks
or rivers as trees and rocks and rivers; but I do respond
to them and feel an extremely deep affinity with the natural
world as an expression of Godhead. For me, the natural world
is indeed the book of God.
That is something I find lacking in a lot of my colleagues,
but also I find it isnt a reality in the lives of a
very large number of religious, and specifically Christian,
How do you measure the value of a human being against that
of, say, a dolphin?
I accept many of the criticisms that have come from the deep
ecology movement of the excessively human-centred perspectives
that we bring to bear on both the spiritual and the political
side of our lives. I think we are disgracefully anthropocentric,
to the point that we ignore the interests of the rest of the
world I hesitate to use the word rights
in an astonishingly short-sighted and arrogant way.
But I do not subscribe to the theory of biological egalitarianism.
Whether we like it or not, the human species, by virtue of
our evolutionary path, has a quite unique responsibility which
I choose to interpret in terms of stewardship.
There are many people who question the notion and call it
anthropocentric. There are many even within the school of
creation theology Matthew Fox, for instance
who are critical of the concept: they think it still reflects
an old worldview about a servant-master relationship between
us and the earth. Well, I just dont buy all that kind
of stuff. If we acted genuinely as stewards in the way that
stewardship can be understood from the Bible, I think we would
be living in a totally different world from the one were
living in now.
Would you go as far as to say that God created humankind
to be stewards?
No. If you track us back, along with every other species,
to that moment (we assume) when all created matter
a million, million galaxies came into being, I dont
believe that God foreordained a particular evolutionary track
for our species.
But I do believe that there is a purpose in the ways in which
those evolutionary patterns have unfolded, and we are part
of that purpose.
Isnt the whole concern to preserve other species
in fact contrary to nature? Other animals dont lose
sleep about it. Doesnt it go against the grain of the
You can take (though its something Im loth to
do) the utilitarian view that we should protect the biosphere
because we dont know
But it isnt for utilitarian reasons but for gut reasons
that you want to save the gorilla or the African elephant.
Arent your gut feelings contrary to nature?
Only if you believe that the model of Darwinian evolution survival through aggression and competition
is not only correct but exclusively so. I dont accept
that. If you look at the work of biologists like Lynn Margulis,
or go back to the writings of Peter Kropotkin, who looked
into what he called mutualism in nature, you will find that
evolution has as much to do with co-operation and symbiosis
as it does with conflict and aggression.
So, to say that working with other species, protecting other
species, is contrary to the pattern of evolution only reflects,
if I may say so, an extremely narrow and partial interpretation
Is it fair to say, then, that although you dont believe
that the human species was specifically created to be stewards
of the earth, it is pleasing to the Creator if we assume that
Indeed. And I would take the argument further: for us not
to assume that role is, I believe, displeasing in the eyes
of the Creator.
You said that some people trace the roots of the crisis
back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Do Greens regard Christians
as allies or enemies?
On the whole, as allies. Very few environmentalists (and
I regret this) have gone into that wonderfully stirring debate,
started by Lynn White, about whether the Judaeo-Christian
tradition has contributed to or diminished environmental pressures.
Why hasnt the response of Christians been greater?
A very large number of individual Christians are doing environmental
work. But many are nervous of a movement that concentrates
on this world almost to the exclusion of the next, and by
virtue of that emphasis seems to deny the validity of the
next world sometimes in an overpowering way. (These
are the good reasons, by the way. There are a lot of bad reasons
apathy and all the rest.)
Some Christians are deeply uneasy about what they see as
pagan tendencies in the green movement. They see any reference
to tree-hugging as a sort of terrible outbreak of the worst
kind of pagan recidivism, and theyre frightened. Theyre
frightened of the New Age and stuff like that. I really think
they ought to just ease up and relax. People who subscribe
to New Age values are not the kind of people they can understand;
but, my God, theyre not the enemy they make them out
I agree that there are some weird and wacky and even one
or two quite nasty, manifestations of the New Age. But the
vast mass of people who go in for New Age stuff are gentle,
enquiring, often very muddled people, who dont particularly
know where to find spiritual authority but believe that a
pursuit of spiritual truth is of critical importance.
The third reason is that the church has been reluctant to
leap onto some opportunistic green bandwagon and start reinterpreting
the texts to accommodate itself to what it thinks might turn
out to be another trendy wave passing through society. I respect
that intellectual rigour; but I think as a consequence theyve
been extremely conservative and have failed to engage in the
theological debate a lot of green Christians have invited
I think thats changing, partly because of the number
of books that have been published recently. There has been
an astonishing flowering of green theology of a highly reputable
Do you regard the Bible as a green book?
No. I see it as a source of explanation and authority, and
something from which a great deal of extremely important teaching
can be derived vis-à-vis our relationship with
Gods world; but I dont see it as a green book.
Do you find it awkward or embarrassing that Jesus did not
say anything green?
I dont think I have ever asked myself that question
before. When I think of Jesus as a model, I think of him largely
as a political, social and spiritual model, not as an ecological
If good stewardship is incumbent upon us because it would
please the Creator, and yet you dont believe in life
after death, why does it matter?
I have no answer to that. Its just what I believe.
I would add that I do believe in life after death, but not
in the sense that Christians do. I believe that what will
be me at the time of my death will be reincorporated into
the biosphere, and I will be literally recycled into billions
of other organisms.
But an integral part of the biblical concept of stewardship
is that stewards give account. Do you believe you will ever
I dont believe there will be an account at the end
of the day. I suppose its a bit like the distinction
between continuous assessment and an exam. I believe that
I am being continually assessed as a steward, but I dont
believe theres going to be a final reckoning, where
everything that Ive done will be totted up and held
against me for good or bad.
But I do have a sense of duty to a creator God, and I dont
find any contradiction in that.
© Third Way 1993
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