Jonathon Porritt: Going against the global grain
Saturday 31 August 2002
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
Frilled shark: Australian fishermen capture terrifying shark from the deep
Devon beavers can stay living in the wild, Natural England rules
Keep off the grass: Research confirms that highly manicured lawns produce more greenhouse gases than they soak up
Winter floods lead to sharp fall in climate change scepticism
The ugliest animals on earth: Blobfish, axolotl and proboscis monkey battle it out to be named least attractive beast
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An excellent opportunity ...
£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Systems Administra...
£24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Communications and External Affairs As...
£29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst- (Customer Suppor...