Q&A: Jonathan Porrit on having faith in the environment

Jonathan Porrit is an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development and was chairman of the UK sustainable development commission for nine years until he stepped down in July 2009. He is also the founder and director of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity. Porrit’s talk at the Eco Symposium, held last week at Soneva Fushi, was on ‘Leadership for a low carbon world’.

Aishath Shazra: What do you think about the leadership the Maldives has shown so far on climate change?

Jonathon Porrit: Given where Maldives located, its economy and its size, the work of President Nasheed is really special, imaginative and has made an impact.

He has woken people up to the reality faced by small islands. Given that the Maldives is not big and affluent, it has made such an impact which is really something.

But like President Nasheed himself noted, delivering on the promises is a different matter. The Maldives faces enormous challenges in becoming carbon neutral by 2020, and the President knows work needs to start soon to have any prospect of getting there.

AS: You have said that governments are going to take minimal action on this issue until the moment comes when total panic ensues, and that the travel and tourism industry is most at risk of fallout. What is the danger?

JP: If governments do what I fear they will do – that is, not much – the impact on long haul tourism will be huge. If the price of fossil fuel increases dramatically people won’t travel because of cost. This will impact countries like the Maldives that are dependent on long haul travel. This event [the Eco Symposium] and all other initiatives are being held so that doesn’t happen. Nobody wants it to happen so it’s better to plan, in a sensible way, rather than panic.

AS: Words are not powerful enough to bring change. You have said even an image as powerful as the underwater cabinet meeting proved ephemeral to some. What would have an impact enough to bring about the desired change?

JP: Matters connecting to people’s cultures, religions, things that matter to people’s lives. Sustainability will only work when it touches people directly.

AS: You have raised the question of why religious and faith leaders don’t get to the forefront of this issue and take leadership in finding solutions. Do you have more faith in religious leaders than politicians?

JP: For politicians only the next few years matters most, the business of getting re-elected. Religious and faith leaders have a much longer term perspective, and a deeper sense of history. It’s easier for them to overcome the ‘short-termism’. It matters to religious leaders that we are stewards of this world.

In the holy world, this was never as powerful or more evident than in the extraordinary period of Islamic history from the 8th century onwards. The connection with nature that manifested in Islamic culture, in arts and architecture was incredibly strong. Prince Charles, who is very well versed on this subject, has written about Islamic history and its approach to the environment.

AS: Ancient civilisations respected boundaries, so where did we start going wrong? And do you think we can we get back to those boundaries?

JP: At the start of the industrial revolution. We thought we could free ourselves of our limits. We started seeing nature as a source of raw materials, so humanity could grow and grow. Nature became an instrument in man’s progress. But I am convinced that if we can get it back, we will get back to the elements and benefit from it.