Interesting lunch on Tuesday with Jonathon Porritt, who was a guest of The Foundation, a growth and innovation consultancy to which I have been an adviser for some years.
Times are tough for environmentalists like him, as governments duck out of green programmes and scale back on commitments to conservation in the name of austerity. He despairs, too, at what he calls “systemic cognitive dissonance” – the ability not just of individuals but whole societies to cling happily to contradictory beliefs at the same time. Thus, he says, four out of five Americans accept that their country has been hit by many more extreme weather events in recent years … but they don’t accept the idea of climate change.
In spite of these setbacks, he is optimistic because he says there has been a sea change in the attitude of business. It has not given up on the pursuit of growth – you would not expect it to – but he is delighted by the way in which so many boards now embrace sustainability. Companies that used to see it as a vague gesture towards social responsibility or corporate philanthropy now buy into it as a way to capture more of the value of what they do, to engage more effectively with customers and employees, and generally to do more with less. He has a string of examples of businesses whose prospects have been transformed by it.
But he believes we will not have a genuinely sustainable economy until society learns to “dematerialise success” – in other words, stop measuring status in terms of what people can afford to buy – and politicians get rated by what they do for gross domestic happiness, not gross domestic product.