Jonathon Porritt

By Williams, Hywel | New Statesman (1996), November 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Jonathon Porritt


Williams, Hywel, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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