Review of Jonathon Porritt’s Seeing Green (1984)

Seeing Green was published in 1984. It might seem both a bit odd and unfair to be commenting on a book written relatively early in the career of a major figure in the UK Green movement, particularly judging it on the events of the intervening decades, or even how it speaks to the contemporary situation. That the exercise is worth doing at all says something both about the quality of the younger Porritt’s insight, and, unfortunately, how little has been achieved in 27 years.
At the time he was policy director of the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) and it’s also helpful to compare their policy with that of the contemporary party.

The chapters on the problems faced by world society in particular need surprisingly little updating beyond some revised data: population, Peak Oil (though not by that name), the problems of GDP as a sole measure, global warming, globalisation and financial inequity between developed and developing worlds, and the economic choices to be made after growth stops are all there. Even the proposed solutions broadly match up, although in some cases the timing is somewhat off (Peak Oil is thought to have happened in 1979, for instance.)

While Porritt is prophetic in many respects, he didn’t foresee the radical rise in debt, or indeed the financial deregulation which helped to lead to it. This, unfortunately, leaves him open to the accusation of being a Malthusian, in the sense that he makes numerous ‘negative’ forecasts that have failed to come about. His deadlines for a primarily renewable energy supply and changes in resource usage are the year 2000, which might well have been true had we lived within our means, but we’ve managed to stave things off in the current financial system rather longer. The consequences do match up with many current predictions though, if we allow for this.

However, a particularly prescient discussion talks about neither left nor right solving the problem of mass unemployment if manufacturing industry dies off. The left will spend vast amounts of public money to create jobs, the right will drop taxes, make cuts and hope the private sector fills the gap. Almost Brown and Cameron in microcosm.

Porritt also describes an “information-rich, knowledge-poor” age in which fewer and fewer voters can understand an increasingly sophisticated society, leaving Parliament in the hands of experts and specialists (88). Again part of our discourse now, but surprising to hear about ten or more years before widescale use of the internet.

Some issues from 1984 have fallen off the agenda somewhat in the UK. The most obvious is pollution: far less an issue here than it was, partly through better policies on things like acid rain, partly through having exported much of our manufacturing base overseas. Similarly, disarmament (and particularly nuclear disarmament) was a major issue of the 80s which the Ecology Party took a strong stand on. Although the modern Greens have it as a policy, it is hardly a prominent one.

A third issue however deserves to be reinvigorated, that of the role of technology. While the light-green/deep-green split existed back then, it seems that Porritt and a majority of the party were definitely conservationist in heart and had concerns about an unthinking headlong rush into increasing levels of technology, both for its dehumanising effect and a loss of jobs. While not opposed to technological advance per se, the presumption is clearly that the onus was on those wanting to introduce something to justify it.

On the jobs front, it’s clear that Porritt underestimated what could be created in the private and service sectors. Indeed, ironically given his current role with Forum for the Future, the role of the private company is largely passed over. Technology has enabled us to do far more than most would have dreamt of in the 1980s, although, yes, many of the resulting jobs are pretty soul-destroying. But the question of the social effect of technology is worth considering more than it is currently. I think most of us have computers, mobile phones, and all the other trappings so ingrained as part of daily life it is hard to question them. A comparison of life now with our life in the 1980s (for those old enough to remember) might lead to some interesting thoughts on relative social cohesion, work pressure and various other issues.

This debate will be hard to have of course: any opposition to any technology will be seen as purely Luddite and a return to the “difficult old days” whereas in fact some technology (renewable energy generation for instance) is entirely helpful. Porritt presents a description of what the Luddites actually believed which links it back into the social dimension.

They only started smashing up the new looms when they realized that these were being used as a weapon to destroy their rights as skilled workers, and that they were being excluded from having any say in just how this technology should be introduced. (129)

The question of what makes us human gets two fairly substantial chapters in the book, and talks about the need for spirituality in a surprisingly open way, largely drawn on the ideas of E F Schumacher’s ‘metaphysical reconstruction’. Religion has a place, particularly in fostering values of restraint, satisfaction with things other than the material, and many of the other traditional virtues. The Christianity of the time gets a (deserved) kick up the behind: some of us have moved on substantially in issues of creation care since, fortunately.

The fix proposed thus ends up being one very similar to ideas of today. The only things that will work is a combination of a new sustainable society with appropriate investment in green and sustainable industry to enable it A purely economic or technocratic view, of whatever colour, cannot work. Nor is that what anybody really believes anyway. Greens are accused of being value-led, emotional and idealistic, but other groupings are as much driven by their values and goals which are not achievable: secure jobs for everyone in his day, perhaps the pursuit of economic growth today.

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