Spotlight on ... Capitalism as If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt

By Matthewman, Sasha | Geography, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Spotlight on ... Capitalism as If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt


Matthewman, Sasha, Geography


Spotlight on ...

Capitalism as if the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt

Environmental issues are on the political agenda as never before, and this concern has filtered through to mainstream debates about schooling. As David Lambert reports in this issue, in October 2007 the BBC News headlined with a story about a High Court Judge's ruling on the UK government's distribution of Al Gore's film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. From September 2008 the national curriculum will require that schools teach about sustainable development. While geographers may argue that environmental issues have always been at the heart of their discipline, and many teachers will point out that their teaching already incorporates environmental themes, it is perhaps important to review some of the questions that surround the teaching of environmental issues and sustainable development in school geography.

This task may usefully be undertaken with specific reference to Jonathon Porritt's recent book, Capitalism as if the World Matters (2005). Porritt starts his book with examples of why he feels optimistic about the possibility of making progress towards a green society. The examples he chooses are the responses to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in December 2004, and the ongoing global campaign to 'make poverty history'. He notes that in the last ten years he has been working with a large number of senior people in government and business, and that his 'overwhelming impression is that more and more of them are now intent upon seriously pushing forward on more sustainable ways of doing their jobs'. He notes that these are not radical people. They would not dream of looking for change outside the system. Given that time is short, Porritt believes that 'Incremental change is the name of the game, not transformation'. This book then, sees Porritt lining up with those who suggest that there is no alternative to capitalism as a way of life. As he states: 'capitalism is the only game in town', and its logic is inescapable.

Porritt makes his position clear: his book rests on the assumption that 'there need be no fundamental contradiction between sustainable development and capitalism', and he recognises that this assumption 'stands in stark contrast to the prevailing views of many radical academics and non-governmental organizations that there are profound (and possibly unmanageable) contradictions which demand a completely different world order'.

This, then, is the starting point for Porritt's analysis in the rest of the book. Capitalism as if the World Matters is made up of three sections. In the first, Porritt provides a critique of the existing model of capitalism that prioritises economic growth above human wellbeing and the environment. This adds an important layer of complexity to his argument, since it is clear that Porritt is no apologist for unbridled free market capitalism. In the middle section, he introduces what he calls the 'five capitals framework'. He raises the possibility that 'there is no inherent, fixed, or nonnegotiable aspect of capitalism in general (rather than today's particular form of capitalism) that renders it for all time incompatible with the pursuit of a sustainable society' (p. 111). While capital is often thought of in terms of 'stocks' of capital (land, machines and money), the five capitals framework widens out these stocks to include natural, human, social, manufactured and financial capital:

'These five forms of capital, judiciously combined by entrepreneurs, are the essential ingredients of modern industrial productivity. Natural capital, despite modern sophistications, is still required to maintain a functioning biosphere, supply resources to the economy and dispose of its wastes. Human capital provides the knowledge and skills which create manufactured capital and operate it effectively. Social capital creates the institutions that provide the stable context and conditions within and through which economic activity can take place, and which enable individuals to be vastly more productive. …

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