Review: “The World We Made” by Johnathon Porritt – Guest Post by @ABCHammerstein
“The World We Made” is a letter to us from an optimistic future, a history of the next 37 years that challenges us to help set the world on the path to sustainability. Johnathon Porritt draws on the philosophy of showing people a positive vision of how things could be in the future and what it will mean to them. He paints a work in progress, not yet complete but moving towards social equity, ecological survival and sustainable wellbeing. Perhaps his boldest prediction is the role of religion in these revolutions. This is a topic of great interest to me as an atheist, secularist and environmental pragmatist
I discovered this book through being invited to the Melbourne launch, where Porritt spoke and answered questions. The refreshingly optimistic tone, and the proposition of the religious coming to the rescue of the planet jumped out of the opening pages, and I was hooked. I bought the book and gobbled it up while on a mini-break in Apollo Bay.
I hadn’t heard of Johnathon Porritt before this, despite him being somewhat of a rock star in the sustainability movement. He has been Director of the Friends of The Earth, co-chair of the UK Green Party, Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission advising the Blair government, and co-founder of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity. But he draws on his experience as a teacher before all of that to create the narrator of his book, Alex McKay.
Alex is also a teacher, who in 2050 has just turned 50 and is moving on from his/her beloved school (the book cleverly never reveals the gender of Alex as homage to the equality of the future). Alex has tasked the students to help research and write up the major events and innovations that carved a path to a fairer, cleaner and more hopeful world. Alex describes a blisteringly rapid transition to sustainable prosperity. This exceeds my wildest imaginings of the best-case scenarios for our future in terms of both speed and lives and biodiversity saved.
The year 2050 is significant as the year in which the world will reach a population of 9 billion and, according to a recent paper in Nature, the world’s climate will venture entirely outside the variability range of 150 years ago. This projection is based on the “business as usual” trajectory.
The world Alex inhabits in 2050 is by no means perfect, yet. There are still the rich and the poor, but the poor live fulfilling lives despite their lack of money. Goods and services are exchanged directly through peer-to-peer transactions in an increasingly connected and collaborative landscape that makes money less important. There is a rejection of opulence and consumption in favour of simplicity and community service. People have largely given up on big government and corporations, bypassing them to create their own neo-socialist society. They work 20 hours a week for money and average another 20 hours on other unpaid services for the community. Empathy has replaced greed.
Ecosystems and society are still reeling from the legacy of decades of inaction on climate change but in 2050 the scientists of the time are fairly confident that runaway climate change catastrophe has been averted. People live closer to where they work and where their food comes from, use electric cars and public transport when required, and recycle everything. 30% of electricity is produced from solar, and only 10% from fossil fuels. Population growth has stabilised and is projected to peak at 8.6 billion before the end of the century.
This world is technologically enabled, with household robots, standard electronic devices computing faster than human brains, transformed manufacturing methods, and medical science making people live longer and healthier. Porritt confesses that he was deeply sceptical of an over-reliance on technological solutions until recently, but his research into the possibilities afforded by technological advances has rekindled his hope for a genuinely sustainable future. Some in the sustainability sphere have criticised him on the grounds that consumerism and inequity are the real enemies of the environment, and technology cannot solve that. The book is more balanced than that, with the dominant theme being “empathy enabled by technology”. The two most important technology game changers are already available: solar power, providing renewable energy and putting it in the hands of the people, and the Internet, breaking down barriers and accelerating the socio-political upheavals required.
So what miracles brought about the unprecedented speed at which this doorstep to utopia was built?
There are the aforementioned technological breakthroughs: everything from the development of nitrogen fixing wheat, to the deeply disturbing geo-engineering. There is also wide reaching social change, a barely plausible upturning of the gestalt. This starts with the creation in 2014 of an “Earth Corps” by Obama. In 2018, the worldwide, grass roots “Enough” movement sets activists against the old world economic thinking of consumption, government, growth and debt.
Unfortunately most of the predicted positive change is driven by our unerring reaction to “shocks to the system”, unimaginably horrible disasters that sully the otherwise bright view in the crystal ball. These include a famine in 2025 that kills 10 million people, the inundation of Shanghai and utter abandonment of New Orleans (and much of Bangladesh) due to rising sea levels, and the somewhat predictable devastation of North America by hurricanes.
This is where my credulity began to be challenged, because my observation of history and of current events is that people tend to default to fear during crises, and the media easily feeds on that. Camaraderie and charity can be high during a disaster, but when one is looming, and shortly after, tribalism and self-interest tend to dominate. I expect that after a catastrophe, in an environment of increasing uncertainty, the average Joe, the typical government and the investor-servile corporation will look after number one first.
However, it is Alex McKay’s assessment of the role of the world’s religions that most confronted me. The chapter where the topic is discussed opens with a warning that atheists are not going to like the idea. McKay recounts that it was the American evangelical Christian juggernaut that really attacks the problem of food waste, no doubt a potent threat to sustainability. In 2022, all the major faiths gather in Lhasa, India, to sign an environmental declaration building on its spiritual forebear, the Assissi Declaration of 1986. Then the Pope comes away deeply moved by this conference, fights for a review of the Humanae Vitae, and decrees contraception a matter of personal conscience rather than papal direction, despite opposition from conservative factions in the Catholic Church. McKay also gives a poignant comparison of the Philippines and Thailand, explaining how 50 wasted years of that Catholic doctrine has lead to a much bleaker destiny for the former, despite excellent advances in renewable energy in that country.
Delving into the bibliography (a treasure trove that I will be looting for ages) to see how Porritt can back these predictions up, I was pleasantly surprised, at first. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is an NGO that links religious organisations with secular environmental organisations to set up community projects that protect the environment, in keeping with the specific environmental teachings of their religion. Projects include protected sacred sites that simultaneously protect wildlife. Two religious organisations, Operation Noah and the Quakers, have both called for disinvestment in fossil fuels. Pope Francis took the opportunity of the World Environment Week this year to condemn food waste. My believing acquaintances, on and off-line, assure me that churches are involved in community gardening and distributing left-over food to the poor.
I can’t deny that I am enamoured with the potential people power of the religious masses. A few prominent religious leaders could mobilise billions of people to live simpler lives, care for each other and protect the environment. But I have my reservations, starting with the question, “why hasn’t this happened already?”
Porritt revealed his naiveté in an interview on the Science Show podcast, challenging the host Robin Williams to explain the logical flaw in his proposition of religion coming to the rescue. Well, Sir, you are not talking about people that base all of their decisions on logic!
Exploring those shining examples I listed above a little more deeply, the illusion begins to break down. The Christian Assissi Declaration doesn’t make a convincing connection between its religious text and care for the earth. The same Psalm on which it is based is interpreted in a much darker way by the Dominionist movement. I scoured the ARC project lists and found a disturbing lack of commitment to family planning and empowerment of women. A noteworthy exception is Melinda Gates, a devout Catholic, who has launched a campaign through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to give all women access to contraception.
Some of the greatest obstacles to environmental sustainability have nothing to do with trees, animals or air pollution. They are population and poverty, made worse by the oppression of women. If religions continue to stand in the way of female education and reproductive rights, they make any other environmental work they do seem cosmetic.
The other great obstacle to effective environmental action is the increasing polarisation of the issue along religious and political lines, driven by the insidious financial influence of big business. In the USA and Australia, anti-green lobbyists, such as the Cornwall Alliance and the Australian Christian Lobby, funded by mining companies, have sought to undermine environmental action. The ACL reduced Catholic support for the pro-environment Australian Greens, painting them as the “Godless Greens”, despite that being far from the truth. The Greens also campaign on a number of social equity issues, including marriage equality. This is convenient for the backers of the ACL, which lobbies primarily against same–sex marriage.
Then there is the problem of how the secularist might work with believers for the good of the biome. As much as I’d like to think that we could just leave the religious organisations that are already doing environmental work, to do their thing, I worry that those resources could be even better used, and that not enough of the billions of believers are involved yet. But how does one establish common ground to work from, while ignoring the dogmas that one finds abhorrent?
I don’t think I could, for example, hammer together a school in a developing country, working shoulder to shoulder with a man that I knew treated his wife like property, wouldn’t let his daughters go to said school, or would behead his son for becoming an atheist.
Commendable and deplorable principles can both be housed in the same mind, and in the same holy book. I think we need to seek out ways to attack malignant ideas, without alienating individuals. I am acutely aware of the danger of drawing attention to the hypocrisy of cherry-picking the convenient morals in those sacred tomes. We want the devout to cherry-pick those ethical precepts that are beneficial, and discard those that are harmful. But reminding people that the very act of doing so questions the objectivity of their God-ordained morality simply scares them away. It challenges their cherished belief in a perfect and loving god.
I don’t care if a person believes in a god, as long as they are helping to make the world a better place and minding their own business on reproductive rights and victimless “sins”
The 80% religious population of the world is too good an opportunity to pass up, if we want to have any hope of realising Johnathon Porritt’s wonderful vision of a world on a path to sustainability by 2050.
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