Jonathon Porritt: Going against the global grain

As the storm clouds gather over Johannesburg, the one thing we haven't heard much about so far is the selfless, inspiring work of countless individuals in hundreds of thousands of community and voluntary organisations out there "doing" sustainable development, day in, day out. They may not call it that; all the pompous rhetoric and semantic wrangling about sustainable development probably matters little to them. One way or another, it is the practice of improving people's real quality of life today without trashing the prospects of people tomorrow which really counts.

The principal purpose of Forum for the Future is to work side by side with sustainable development practitioners in all key sectors to reinforce their efforts, enable people to learn from each other, and make connections that might otherwise remain invisible.

And that's the paradox of Johannesburg. It's an intergovernmental summit, with the focus quite properly on what governments can do. Most people are gloomy about the outcome for precisely that reason: the collective failure of political will pretty much ensures that by 4 September governments are going to commit to doing as little as they can get away with. And even that will be unacceptable to an American administration that cares nothing about global poverty and has no compunction whatsoever in accelerating the devastation of what's left of the life support systems on which we all depend.

But the unyielding historical truth about the short history of sustainable development is that governments have never taken the lead on these issues. They've always had to be dragged, kicking and whining, into belated and half-hearted measures that never quite get on top of things.

Sorry if this sounds partisan, but it's the NGOs that have made things happen: the local groups, the social entrepreneurs, the fundraisers, the pioneers, the community activists. And what's so depression-dispelling is that much of this work is done against the grain of conventional politics and economics.

Recently, these NGOs have been joined by practitioners in many other sectors: in local government, in business, in the churches and faith communities, in the professions, in the arts, trade unions, universities and colleges and so on. Bit by bit, with many a false start and many a failure along the way, cross-sectoral partnerships are coming together.

For understandable reasons, there's still a huge amount of cynicism about such grassroots activity. But that may be misplaced. The contribution from companies (large and small) to local environment and community development projects has massively increased over the last decade. Again, in that respect, just think of what Groundwork has achieved, or Business in the Community, or BTCV, or the Wildlife Trusts – not just with corporate money but through their active support in terms of time, skills, other resources and so on.

All that, against the grain. So just imagine if the grain of mainstream aid, trade, development, security and environment policy started to nurture and reinforce that irrepressible upwelling of compassionate commitment to the Earth and its people, rather than starve it of funds, wear it down through inertia, crush it through discredited free market zealotry.

There'll be flashes of that in Johannesburg, but not enough to make the kind of difference at the global level that we know is already delivering the goods for millions of people at the local level. And the fault for that lies squarely in the lack of moral vision, imagination and sheer bloody-minded political will among the 100 or so world leaders strutting their miserable, time-serving stuff as yet another summit comes and goes.

Jonathon Porritt is Programme Director of Forum for the Future and Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission