Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
PORRITT, CBE, MS
220. Is not the reality of the problem of sustainable
development that it has not registered with the majority of the
population in this country? Sustainability issues are issues that
are raised with us by what is a minority group within our electorate,
but in my experience the types of issues that concern us today
have still not taken that step-leap through to the general consciousness.
So that the whole idea of sustainable development is not understood
at the present time. I would be interested in knowing how you
would like to try to make that leap. I think it is absolutely
essential. Secondly, is it not the case that the reason why it
is not high on the list of priorities of the Government departments
that you refer to (and you mentioned the Department of Health)
is because that step-leap in the general political consciousness
has not been made by the general population? In other words, it
is much more important for the Department of Health to be concentrating
on waiting lists politically than it is for them to be concentrating
on sustainable development. Is it not about time we all got real
about this, because there is a political class that is having
this discussion, and it is a different discussion to what the
general public are having?
(Mr Porritt) Yes, we share a lot of your concern about
the degree to which sustainable development remains a pretty alien
concept in terms of the vast majority of people in this and most
other European and other countries. There is no question about
that. So that will show you just how little understood and recognisedlet
alone ownedthe concept of sustainable development is. I
am absolutely at one with you about that, and that is certainly
a big challenge for us, which is why, out of the five main elements
in our work programme, one key element is our communications work
specifically to add what we can to that overarching challenge
of making sustainable development a more useful, comprehensible
and accessible concept than it is now. I am absolutely with you
on the analysis. I think there is a bit of "chicken and egg"
here about whether it is the political will that would help drive
increased public knowledge and understanding of these issues,
or whether the politicians, as it were, will only own it and use
the concept more powerfully when there is a bigger push from the
public. I think there is a bit of a "chicken and egg"
job going on there. I am not completely down-cast by this, although
I must admit that we all suffer under the really hideous jargon
we have to use in this world. Our jargon is not helpful to us
and we have been absolutely up-front in acknowledging that. I
am not down-cast because this concept is, in public terms, very
new. At the most you are talking about a decade. To seek to influence
people's mind-sets, their perspectives on personal development,
progress, their models of what is going to happen in the big wide
world, within a decade you do not do much more than scratch the
surface of where whole nations are going. The take-up has been
much better than some people have allowed for. So I am not too
disheartened on that score, and I am greatly heartened that when
you actually do these exercises at the local level, through community-visioning
processes or Local Agenda 21whatever it might beand
when you unpack what it is that people look for in terms of improvements
in their life, improved quality of life and so on and so forth,
and you run through these lists that just come out time after
time after time from people, it is all about the things that you
would expect; it is all about improved quality of life locally,
it is about the state of their local environment, it is about
security issues, crime, it is about jobs and the quality of workit
is all of the things you would expect, which, when you bundle
them up, is sustainable development. So people may not say "I
care passionately about sustainable development" and take
that to their respective representatives in an electoral process,
they do not do that, but when you ask them "What do you care
about?" and you do this analysis of what actually forms a
vision in people's minds, it is sustainable development. That
is what they are articulating in their vision of a better world.
So communication is one thing, and I believe the vision is basically
there, but I do not think we have doneand with great respect
I do not think many politicians have even sought to do
221. It has only just started.
(Mr Porritt) Absolutely. You are the Environmental
Audit Committee, but you could have been the Sustainable Development
Audit Committee (I am just being mischievous, for the sake of
222. It nearly was, but John Prescott thought
no one would understand what that was.
(Mr Porritt) Exactly. We have got Green Ministers,
even though the remit for the Green Ministers is a sustainable
development remit. It is a very interesting issue, not daring
to take on the challenge amongst ourselves and not actually confronting
this and saying "Okay, this is not the easiest concept to
work with but if we do not work with it it is never going to get
223. We had a problem, frankly, with the Secretary
of State for International Development in the previous session,
because what she positedand I think I am quoting her nowwas
that the dominant voice in the environmental community was anti-development.
(Mr Porritt) That is rubbish.
224. This was, in essence, her view, that the
typical, Northern hemisphere environmentalist
(Mr Porritt) The Secretary of State is
extremely well-known for her difficulty with encompassing where
the modern environmental movement is, and for her one-woman campaign
to seek to belittle the work done by an awful lot of environmental
NGOs to knit environmental, social and economic concerns in a
genuinely integrated approach to development. It is a bee which
she has in her bonnet that buzzes regularly and forlornly. It
would be enormously helpful if she actually up-dated herself on
the work that is being done by many of those environmental NGOs
to make development a very powerful concept indeed. The old-fashioned
notion of environmentalists as protectionists who say "Don't
go there, don't do this, build absolutely nothing absolutely anywhere
near anybody"all of that kind of stereo-typing of
environmentalistsis just caught-in-a-time-warp stuff. It
is very important to get out of that stereo-typing of environmentalists
as nay-sayers, people who are down on progress and development.
Chairman: She did insist that she went round
the country and met a lot of these people, characterised as she
225. I just wanted to pick up on that, because
it was an interesting session earlier on with the Secretary of
State. She certainly has a very strong agenda, but I do feel that
some of the comments you made might have actually encouraged her
in her thinking or might encourage some others in their thinking.
You mentioned earlier, when you were asked by Mr Jones about sustainable
development, that it was the stage that we were in of the industrial
revolution. When you were talking about visioning and Local Agenda
21, for instance, you talked about the way people put their vision
together at a local community level and how it encompassed all
these things together. It was a very western view of quality of
life. Though I appreciate that your Commission has a domestic
UK agenda, it must be tremendously exciting to have a world conference,
a world summit, on sustainable development happening. Yet, how
can we close this gap between the concept of sustainable development,
which has undoubtedly emerged from western thought and western
ideas and a post-industrial world, and how can we apply that to
a developing world in a way that does not hold back the basic
human right of access to food, water and some element of energy?
We were told at the timeand no doubt you will saythat
it is possible to do it, and you have seen some examples yourselves
of how it is possible to do it, for example in the application
of solar power in Southern Africa, whatever it might be. However,
the concept still seems to be a concept that comes from developed
countries, industrialised countries, dealing with the environmental
degradation of the industrialisation they created and is, therefore,
not seen as being really applicable to developing countries. In
Johannesburg is there not a danger we will just go back to the
developing countries' agenda, back to the poverty alleviation
agenda, and the environmental and sustainable development and
the wider concept will move back and in fact we will have made
no progress at all?
(Mr Porritt) That is the danger certainly. The discussions
and the preparatory meetings, as you know, have been very polarised,
with many people from developing countries absolutely adamant
that Johannesburg will not be Rio, that it will be a conference
that addresses their principal concerns first and foremost, and
their principal concerns are to do with equity, poverty, access
to the world economy and so on. So there is a sense maybe we are
not beginning to integrate any of these concerns in the way we
should do. In answer to your question about whether this is a
Western concept, I really fight against that. It completely ignores,
for instance, the incredibly powerful contribution of NGOs in
India, for instance, where thousands of NGOs at the local and
national level work incredibly hard to talk about a different
pattern of economic development which does not destroy the natural
capital and natural resources on which that Sub-Continent depends.
That is not an anti-development movement, that is a very powerful
NGO contribution to a different pattern of development. I would
be nervous of saying this is a Western concept. If you go back
to 1987 and the Brundtland Report and you look at the membership
of the Brundtland Commissionit is worth going back to the
origins hereto bill that as a Western impulse would be
completely wrong. That whole commission came into being specifically
to find ways of talking about development in the poorer parts
of the world without causing the environmental damage that we
have done historically in our part of the world. That is what
it did. The starting premise was how do you find a better model
of development which will help people in poorer countries, not
how do we create more effective patterns of environmental protection
in the Western world. I would strongly take a line that this is
not a Western concept, this is a universalistic concept which
allows for different interpretation whether you are in Canada
or India or whatever it might, quite obviously because different
countries are in different parts of their growth curve.
226. It is interesting and valuable you have
reminded us about the Brundtland Report and the Commission, because
that is presumably what some people are trying to achieve now
in Johannesburg which, as far as I am concerned, is not going
to happen and we will have in fact another agenda pasting over
but not on top of what should be a sustainable development agenda.
You said as a Commission in your Review that the forthcoming World
Summit would be the place where the ground rules for a genuinely
inclusive, equitable and sustainable global economy can be put
in place, and you have just mentioned that yourself in a sense.
What sort of ground rules can those be? Are there examples in
this country of it working and things which you know about as
a Commission which you would like to see applied on a more worldwide
level? Just to take an example of where the difficulty of ground
rules comes up, it must be around transnational corporations and
corporate responsibilities. How can we have a building of ground
rules in Johannesburg? You said it could be different in Canada
and in India and, yes, it needs to be different, but what are
the ground rules, what are the basic environmental and social
considerations which everyone needs to apply? Is it not the case
that at the moment we are going round as parliamentarians or governments
trying to get institutions to apply some ground rules, whether
it is the WTO or the World Bank, whereas the real power is now
lying with the corporations? There is a huge change in these corporations,
they are not necessarily the way we always thought of them, but
they nevertheless apply different rules in different countries
and they certainly apply different social rules in different countries.
How can that be squared with sustainable development? An easy
answer please! Is it possible to put in sustainable development
and have ground rules to look at it?
(Mr Porritt) As you know, that is an extremely dense
area of very lively debate, which is the debate about can one
talk of standardised, global rules for large multinational entities,
wherever they are operating, or does one have to allow for a certain
amount of local sensitivity and local adaptability according to
the conditions of the country in which that company is then operating.
To be honest, there is a constant battle going on between those
227. But does that adaptability not lead to
things like Bhopal?
(Mr Porritt) At the worst end of it, that kind of
double standard leads to the kind of abuses and disasters of which
Bhopal is one, which rightly made many multinational companies
sit up and think, "That is not a good place to be."
If you look at the large multinational companies now, many of
them would not dream of building plants to a different set of
technical specifications in the developing world because they
would know that simply was not going to work any longer. They
put the plant in at exactly the same technical specifications.
When it comes to paying the people in the plant, they would still
say, "We are bound by the market constraints in this market,
not by a set of standards for a global payment system", so
they would differentiate in some of their social and economic
228. But it is a global market.
(Mr Porritt) It is a global market but clearly there
are differences in different parts of that global market, as we
all know. That is why we have such difficulties in this respect.
So the issue of globalisation is bound to loom over Johannesburg,
it will not go away, and in many respects the big picture challenge
for governments coming together in Johannesburg is to see if they
can begin to enunciate a more or less helpful concept of responsible
globalisation. Globalisation is not going to go away. We live
in a global economy, that economy is becoming increasingly interconnected,
networked, interdependent, and that brings both benefits and costs.
It is foolish to stereotype this debate as the global economy
being all wonderful or all wicked; it is an absolutely ridiculous
debate we have fallen into. There is a real challenge which actually
I think the UK Government has a serious leadership contribution
to make on, which is what we mean by responsible globalisation.
What would it look like? How does the private sector work with
international institutions to fashion patterns of intervention
in developing countries which eliminates some of these externalities
and abuses? How do we, as you said, reform organisations like
the WTO and the World Bank to fit with a more engaged concept
of responsible wealth creation. That is not an anti-development
message at all, not at all, absolutely not, but how do you get
those things knitted together in both the public and private sectors.
229. You have rejected that anti-development
message; the idea that the environment or sustainable development
is in itself an anti-development concept.
(Mr Porritt) Indeed.
230. I think we can see how it can be interpreted
that way, but then all concepts can be interpreted the wrong way.
(Mr Porritt) I would say, with great respect, that
the essence of sustainable development is that you cannot interpret
it in an anti-development way. That is why it is such a significant
improvement on some of the old-fashionedI did not mean
it pejoratively, I meant it analytically - concepts of the environment
which did indeed in their worst manifestation lurch into elitist,
Western protectionism. You cannot do that with sustainable development
because it is about changing the patterns of development, not
231. Do you think on reflection then that Rio
tended a little towards that, emphasising environmentalism above
sustainable development, always excepting that ten years ago our
concept of sustainable development was not as well worked out
as it is now? If you accept that, that sustainable development
on a worldwide scale is not there yet, what can be done in Johannesburg
to ensure that that development aspect, whatever it may becertainly
not portrayed by the Secretary of State earlier oneither
does not happen or is not used as an excuse to hold back the other
aspects of sustainable development? Otherwise, surely, Johannesburg
will collapse into a North/South divide, an anti-development/development
perspective, and excuses will be made about sustainable development
and out of that will come a bad image for sustainable development?
(Mr Porritt) I think that is the worst case scenario
which I think everyone is working extremely hard to ensure does
not happen. The likelihood of it happening is I think honestly
remote. I think it is wrong retrospectively to interpret Rio as
a narrowly environmentalist Western agenda, the international
instruments which were put in place at Rio on climate change and
biodiversity have an incredibly strong development element to
them rather than a protection element to them. Indeed, I was referring
to NGOs in countries like India, most of their concerns about
the Biodiversity Convention is that they are not sufficiently
tuned to the protection of natural resources in developing countries,
they are not getting Western governments to help them more in
their need to protect their natural assets. I think it has become
bit easy to re-interpret Rio as an environmental conference. What
can be done? I think what can be done is what is being done. I
would fight against counsels of despair here, I would fight against
incorrect assumptions that there is a powerful group of Western
NGOs going around seeking to bring Johannesburg in line with some
set of narrow Western views about what environmental protection
means. I do not meet these people anywhere wherever I go in the
world. I do not see it. Where are they? WWF? Friends of the Earth?
Greenpeace? You tell me where these people are and I will happily
engage in some dialogue with them, because I genuinely do not
find it these days. I think this is a straw person that Clare
Short has dressed up in front of you here today and I would strongly
advise you to swipe it aside.
232. I think what we have done is got to the
very heart of the debate about where we are going in respect of
Johannesburg. Given what you said a short while ago, that you
can only scratch the surface in a ten year period, and given that
that is the timescale we have from Rio to Johannesburg and that
come Johannesburg we are in a time frame that is going to give
us another decade of the clock ticking away, we desperately need
to look to see what can be done to protect the earth's natural
resources. What constructive measures can the Government take,
can you take, can Ministers take, in the run-up, in the negotiations
at Jakarta, at Monterrey, before Johannesburg to make this whole
issue relevant so we have this issue of corporate accountability
being addressed, so it is not just a question about governments
and governance but also about what multinational corporations
are doing, so you can apply basic environmental standards which
need to be all pervasive within everything that is being done?
(Mr Porritt) The first thing I would say is much more
is happening than people know about. It is not a question of isolated,
episodic examples of good practice, the odd project there, the
occasional shaft of good news over there, it is not like that.
There is a huge amount of integrated sustainable development already
in place and going on at different levels across the world. I
can refer you, for instance, to some of the extraordinary things
going on in sustainable agriculture without a great deal of help
from the international agencies, without a huge amount of research
into this from the international agricultural research bodies.
The lives of literally tens of millions of people now are being
improved by very practical, on-the-ground approaches to improving
yields whilst simultaneously protecting the natural assetssoil,
water, biodiversityon which that agricultural productivity
depends. That research is coming into the public domain increasingly.
You probably have a model in your mind of intensive agriculture
going out there and stripping bare all the assets of the Third
World in the interests of screwing as much yield as they possibly
can for short-term gain. These perspectives we have are often
quite wrong. I would urge people to actually look to the body
of work that is currently going on in areas like agriculture which
is already demonstrating the practicality and feasibility of more
sustainable routes to long-term security, food security and so
on. It is already happening. That is my first point, more is happening
and we should not be quite so gloomy as we are. We fall easily
into gloom because it is where we are happiest. I do not know
why but it just seems to be that which gives us our adrenalin
rush, when we are feeling really gloomy. The second thing is to
hold up those patterns of good practice and ask, "What made
them work?" How do we get behind what made them work, whether
it is people, communities, institutions, funding streams, new
ideas, whatever it might be, and how do we not theorise about
this stuff but lend what weight we can to these proven examples
of success? Forget all the grandiloquent notions about new economy
and all the rest of it, just get on pragmatically at ground level
and make it work. You mentioned solar energy in South Africa.
The answer for hundreds of millions of people in the developing
countries quite clearly is access to sustainable, renewable energy
sources, without making them go through what would be a very painful
curve if they had to get on to an integrated, grid-based, hydro-carbon
based system; the answer to many people in the developing countries,
as we know, is access to efficient, reliable, cheap, renewable
energy sources. Quit theorising, just get in there and say, "Right,
how do we do this? How do we do this for the whole of rural Africa?
What is the amount of money involved? What institutions do we
need? How do we bring this together?" It drives us bonkers
because what we have to do is what we know, we do not have to
think this stuff up from scratch, all of what we have to do is
known, everything is known. We have to marshal the will, private
sector and governmental will, to drive these known solutions through
this morass of declining life quality and corruption and all the
rest. That is the nature of the challenge.
233. You mentioned solar power there. I smiled
to myself because we referred to that before you arrived this
morning with Clare Short and one of her civil servants, Mr Bennett.
Whilst in sympathy to some extent with the line the Committee
was taking with him, and what you have just said, he was I think
resistant to the vision that you have, and it is interesting that
you with the role that you have are at such variance with another
central driver in our policy towards Johannesburg and the whole
environmental agenda. What sort of discussions do you have with
other important drivers of policy?
(Mr Porritt) Good question. Have we had discussions
with DFID? No, is the answer.
234. Do you think you ought to? I think you
(Mr Porritt) It sounds like it!
235. Seriously. We have been referring to Clare
Short but I think your vision actually is not as different from
hers as perhaps sometimes comes across. Bearing in mind what you
agree on is much more than what you disagree on, it is very important
that in presenting this to the public and getting those people
I was talking about earlier on board, the British Government as
a voice presents what our vision is.
(Mr Porritt) That is a good point well made. The difficulty
for us is that DFID just is not in our remit. I know the WSSD
is obviously sharpening up our role around this international
agenda because our role as we construe it, given the remit we
were given by Government, is to engage with this event and with
the agenda which lies behind it and to help articulate that and
disseminate it in whatever way we can back in the UK, which is
our principal area of interest. So we have not had discussion
with DFID, largely because we do not have an international remit.
What you have done and what this discussion has done is put your
finger on the fact that both DFID and the Sustainable Development
Commission and others in Government are involved in giving out
messages on what sustainable development means, and we probably
need to be giving out coherent messages.
236. The thing which really engages my constituents
in the sustainable development issue is when you talk about development
in the South, and that is what many of my constituents are interested
in. This is an opportunity for you within Britain to carry forward
the sustainable development message within Britain, because those
people often think about it as a subject which relates only to
the developing world rather than to them. So please get together.
(Mr Porritt) I think that is a very good point.
237. You have made the point, Mr Porritt, that
you do not have a specific international remit per se,
that your locus is primarily domestic, but nevertheless you are
entitled to an opinion. If you could boil down what you wanted
to come out of Johannesburg to two or three key objectives, what
would those be?
(Mr Porritt) This is typical stuff but I would have
to say that in a world where the sole remaining superpower is
heading off down a line of increasingly aggressive unilateralism,
a reaffirmation of interdependence is a critical output from Johannesburg.
This stuff cannot be done without nations working in concert to
produce mutually beneficial solutions. There is a tendency right
now in the world's most powerful nation, to say, "All of
that international stuff, all of that acknowledgement of and ownership
of interdependence is meaningless." I do not know how much
of that political agenda is going to be engaged in, but it is
critical. If we want the vibrancy of interdependence, if we want
prosperous, sustainable, secure futures for our children here
in this country, we are only going to be able to secure that if
we allow people in other countries to have the same expectations.
So a much more powerful affirmation of interdependence is critical.
Secondly, to come down from that rather lofty high-level groundsorry
about thatand say that we do have mechanisms available
before us for driving different aspects, different elements, of
this agenda, whether it is a more sustainable energy strategy
for countries, whether it is sustainable agriculture, whether
it is fascinating and really critical issues about increased productivity
through technology shift. We can help countries go through parts
of their growth curve without generating some of the old environmental
externalities through the use of better technologies. There are
countless opportunities in that area to do that: the role of the
finance sector, which the Government has picked up on, the degree
to which capital works to promote integrated benefits through
foreign direct investment flows, through venture capital. Those
are critical to this. It is getting integration on those kind
of things which is important. That is much more operational, it
is much closer to the reality of what development means in people's
lives, but strong affirmation of this stuff is do-able and can
be done. Otherwise we will undoubtedly revert to the frame of
mind which says, "It is all too difficult, we are not going
to agree on it so wait for the next round of earth-shattering
disasters, whether they are disasters of 11 September kind, or
disasters of melting ice caps in the Antarctic, wait for the whole
thing to fall to pieces and then the ingenuity of humankind will
eventually be stimulated into doing something about it."
The opportunities for precautionary, anticipatory action now are
still there if we seize those opportunities. Talking about your
constituents, that is where we can engage. This is just as relevant
an agenda to people in the UK as it is to people who are watching
the outcome of Johannesburg very carefully.
238. One of the things we grapple with is when
you talk about sustainable development everybody sort of knows
what you mean instinctively but it is actually very difficult
to define it. We have you here today and you are Chairman of the
Sustainable Development Commission, what is your working definition
of sustainable development?
(Mr Porritt) We would allow people to go on using
the Brundtland definition which is in the public domain and it
is better that it is there than it is not but it does not do it
in every respect. Our working definition is to put in place a
pattern of economic development that meets people's needs and
allows for the constant improvement in their quality of life within
the earth's carrying capacity. So it starts with the concept of
development, it does not start with the concept of environmental
protection, it starts with these legitimate economic aspirations,
to have needs met universally and opportunities for improvements
in quality of life without this pattern of damage that has historically
accompanied that development pattern in the pastthe social
and environmental externalitiesand that is where you come
on to the concept of the earth's bio-physical capacity to bear
that pattern of economic development.
239. Does not Mrs Thatcher's concept of a repairing
lease rather sum that up?
(Mr Porritt) That is a very good concept. For a brief
period in her political life, as you know, Chairman, Mrs Thatcher
got her head round this stuff.