He is our tree hugger in chief, a self-righteous prophet who now finds himself at the centre of things
Sweet are the uses of environmental adversity. There may be stormy weather ahead. Perhaps climate changes will enforce a grim nemesis and later generations be forced to pay a price for their forebears' heedlessness. Rainforests certainly totter and GM crops undoubtedly sway on land where sheep had better graze sceptically -- or not at all. But, Praise the Lord and pass the New Environmentalist's Handbook. There are careers to be made out of all this, sermons to preach and hours of broadcasting time to fill.
Like all great religions, environmentalism divides into three camps: the dotty, the fundamentalist and the establishment-respectable. There are the tree-huggers who also hug themselves at the sight of tribal children free to urinate in the dust. There are the consistent primitivists who bewail the immediate past and wish to abolish tomorrow. And there are those who take once-awkward truths on board and turn them into systems of belief -- and find themselves gratifyingly at the top of the heap.
The environmentalist church is a very broad one and many trip down its aisles to seek salvation. Frauds and prophets mingle in the vestry. Look, there's Sting taking time off from some tantric exercises in order to read us the lesson on the jungle. Doesn't Cherie Booth look radiant after those sessions with the birthing gurus?
But throughout the development of the faith, there have been some consistent themes. Environmentalism fortifies "respectable" opinion, spreads a repellent sanctimony and develops plate-glassed imperviousness to criticism. All these strains of thought are summed up in the career of Sir Jonathon Porritt, our high priest of greenery. Given the pattern of his hair loss, beneficent nature has even equipped him with a tonsure the better to preach his message. Who said the argument from design is dead?
Porritt is a serious figure, as well as a solemn one. He belongs to an agnostic generation that has turned to a new faith and developed its credal basis. He has much in common with Vice-President Al Gore, who has told us: "We each need to assess our relationship to the natural world and renew, at the deepest level of personal integrity, a connection to it." The demi-religious language is no accident. The other key public figure in this debate is that prince of all the faiths, the Prince of Wales. Porritt shares with Windsor a commitment to environmental sustainability, along with an invincible self-righteousness and a lack of intellectual self-consciousness. Their mantra is hypnotic: "The essence of the all is the wholeness of the one."
Concern for the "all" is eminently compatible with some pretty unattractive human traits. Rousseau -- the first green -- famously abandoned his children at an orphanage. The sanctimonious Laurens van der Post made a career out of preaching the superior virtues of bushmen and telling tales about everyday desert folk, while sucking up remorselessly to the royal family.
Porritt's own case shows how, at its commanding heights, environmentalism is a remorselessly de-ha haut-en-bas affair. It is the marriage of the ready cliche with the patronising style. Hence, in his Reith lecture, in the manner of a tired Darwinian, Porritt tells us: "All species have a deep survival instinct. They do everything they can to secure their own survival chances." But in the great matter of Porritt's own survival, he has shown a capacity to manipulate hierarchies to his own ends. His association with the Prince of Wales' Business and Environment Programme has been an important part of his public profile -- and his public references to the royal patron have been suitably cringe-making.
Patronage by Tony Blair has been a different matter. Invited by the Prime Minister to chair a new quango on sustainable development, Porritt accepted willingly. Last week, Porritt's hauteur emerged in unmistakable form.
After the Prime Minister had environmentally waffled for Britain in his speech, Porritt, with a true opportunist's talent to seize the headlines, declared that the government was obsessed with a "spin-doctor, focus-group approach". "Politicians have got used to being told by their clever advisers that the environment isn't sexy, it doesn't lead to votes."
The intervention was, in its way, masterly. Porritt needed to show that he was independent of the government after being criticised heavily by the green lobby for accepting the appointment. At the same time, his criticism of focus-groups fed off wider current criticism of the governmental style. It showed a Porritt in touch with public opinion, ready as ever to exploit the moment and play the mood music. He has that instinctive Old Etonian understanding of hierarchy and the equally intuitive grasp of how to exploit the established order to his own advantage.
Environmentalists do tend to be a rather class-conscious group of individuals. They have long since moved on from their early incarnation as an Age of Aquarians, sustained by brown rice and lentils. Environmental leaders are well-dressed and well-spoken, conservative in their regard for inherited order and mistrust of capitalism. Their vision of the natural world is not one of nature red in tooth and claw. It is, rather, a place of infinite gradations with a predetermined order that has been undermined by wicked human intervention.
This, then, is not now the best of all possible worlds. Alas. But it was once, and can be again. And in his chosen mission of re-establishing global order, Porritt is a true Master of the Universe. He is the kind of man who can talk about "Planet Earth" and not blush.
Porritt-speak acknowledges no inescapable conflicts. So, he tells us that we need the "entrepreneurial dynamism of market based capitalism, but we also need the balancing effect of governments coming in and redistributing wealth". He does not think disaster is inevitable, as long as "capacity" is available. Porritt-jargon about "capacity" is something of a one-man industry -- and a revealing one. By this, he means "scientists, businesses, politicians, civil servants, academics."
Porritt markets himself as a believer in freedom: "I lost any authoritarian impulses I had early in life." But Porritt-radicalism is a pretty faux-commodity and is best exercised within a safely institutional constraint. It seems inevitable that his first girlfriend while at school should be the daughter of a senior teacher at Eton. He is anxious to explain that his early passion for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police soon faded. But it is revealing that what first attracted him to the men who always got their man was that they looked "gleaming and righteous". The righteous gleam is still there -- only now it's been transferred to Porritt's own countenance.
It was animals -- not humans -- who first attracted him to greenery. The zoological equivalent of train-spotting soon took over: "I decided I needed to know the names of every single animal -- and test myself on whether I could remember even the strangest of them: the two-toed sloths and sea-cucumbers. I suppose it was the start of my fascination with all things green."
Like many a believer in earnestness, public virtue and the rule of number one (Robespierre was another), Porritt drinks little. Insensitivity to others seems part of that particular package deal, too. Recently, after a recording of a BBC question programme, Porritt joined the other panellists in a restaurant for dinner. A Methodist clergyman up from the country seized the opportunity to order foie gras -- and was rewarded with a Porritt harangue about the wickedness of his act: "He behaved like a bully," said an embarrassed fellow-diner.
When visiting a motor museum once in order to preach the death of the car, he said: "Looking at the size of the car bonnets here, I wonder about the adequacy of the people who drove them."
Sir Jonathon Porritt has always been a cunning campaigner -- effective in his manipulation of reputations and ruthless in the exploitation of shame: "People don't like their names in lights", but Sir Jonathon can put them up there if they disagree with him. The objects of his ire are, he reports happily, "more sensitive now, more open to the impact on their reputations".
Would that the same could be said of this central figure of our time.…