THE IOS INTERVIEW; Jonathon Porritt: The Constant Ecowarrior ; He's Posh. He's Nice. He's Very Well Connected. He Knows What It'll Take to Save the World. and That, He Tells Marie Woolf, Means Tony Blair Not Kowtowing to the US
Woolf, Marie, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Jonathon Porritt was a teacher in a rough comprehensive next to Wormwood Scrubs when he discovered environmentalism. His teenage pupils had, he found, never seen a cow. Porritt was determined to introduce them to one. The young teacher, who had recently left Oxford with a first, took his rambunctious pupils on country field trips, where they read poetry and romped across fields; then he left them alone in the woods so they could experience complete darkness and silence for the first time in their lives.
'They were really tough city kids. The White City estate was our main catchment area. These were just godawful places to be brought up,' he recalls. 'We took them into the woods, split them up and left them alone. I didn't really come into environmentalism through a love of nature; I came into environmentalism through looking at what happened to children whose lives were blighted by there being no nature.'
What the children did not know was that the kind teacher who took them to the woods was also nursing a secret: not only had he attended Eton, he was also the son of the surgeon to King George VI and in line to inherit a baronetcy.
Sitting in the bar of a swanky London hotel Mr Porritt, as he prefers to be called, looks somewhat embarrassed when the question of his title arises. An amiable fellow with mannerisms and an accent faintly reminiscent of Prince Charles, whom he advises, is looking fairly sorry for himself. He is hobbling around on crutches after falling downstairs and wrecking his knee.
'Please don't use the title,' he begs, waving his hands expressively. 'Please don't make a thing about it because I hate it, really. It's just my dad was an amazing, wonderful man and he ended up incredibly successful in his life and he was made a baronet. It is a hereditary title. They have discontinued them now.'
After his father died, in 1994, the budding activist tried, unsuccessfully, to disown the title.
'When my mother was alive I said, 'I don't really think calling myself sir is really very helpful to my work.' She said, 'I will disown you if you disown this title!' She was furious. She said, 'For God's sake, you are dishonouring your father's life!' So I said: 'OK, well, fine. I don't want to upset anybody about this. It's not a big deal as far as I am concerned. I don't want to cause any pain or hurt.' The title is still there. I just choose not to use it.'
Porritt, who is now Tony Blair's top adviser on environmental issues, is quite big on not causing pain to people, even when it comes to delivering difficult messages on the environment. He is keen on cajoling politicians and multinational corporations to think green " not so keen on chastising and humiliating them.
'We have a very strong rule about working with the positive energy in people,' he says. 'If you work with the positive energy, you will see a faster process of change than if you bludgeon people into doing things. You need to get connected.'
Does he feel he is able to 'get connected' to the Prime Minister's positive energy? He looks momentarily flustered by the question.
'I admire a lot about him. I do, genuinely,' he replies rapidly. 'I have to keep saying this because people forget it: on climate change, if he hadn't done what he has done, we would be looking at a world in which there was no political leadership on this agenda.'
But last week Tony Blair dismayed the environmental lobby when he appeared to signal a shift away from the 'target' system for tackling climate change in favour of a system of 'informal mechanisms'. His assertion, at a summit of environment and energy ministers, took environmentalists by surprise, including Porritt. He spent an entire day trying to clarify the position with No 10 on his mobile phone. 'It's completely contradictory,' he says. 'The idea of having guideline targets or non-mandatory targets is a nonsense, to put it absolutely bluntly. …