Profile - Jonathon Porritt

Leading British environmentalist and radical thinker Jonathon Porritt, one of this year’s FX Talks speakers, believes design can take the green agenda forward.

Words by Emily Martin

Jonathon Porritt is one of Britain’s leading environmentalists and has a name not exclusive to the design industry. He’s known for being a prominent member of the Green Party, director of Friends Of The Earth, author and (going further back) a school teacher. Given the opportunity Porritt says he will talk with great passion and excitement about the need for positive change to our environmental impact, which currently continues to be damaged at an alarming rate, either on a one-to-one basis via radio and television, or to an engaged audience of designers and architects one evening at Shoreditch Town Hall in May when FX launched its first FX Talks. He says design has a lot to be excited about within its role to help achieve positive change to the environment.

‘For two things, it reminds people of urgency, which isn’t there. I mean everyone knows that it [environmental damage] is important, but maybe not realise it’s that urgent,’ says Porritt as we meet in London, some weeks after his presentation. ‘And, secondly, it makes people feel excited by it rather than just depressed. It can be bloody depressing! So, whenever I can get a chance to talk in front of an audience, I try and do it as it’s quite fun too.’

Porritt has spent some 40 years campaigning for environmental change. Back in the early Seventies, little was known about the impact human beings were making to our planet and he recalls that it wasn’t until he started at Oxford University in 1972 and read a book called Blueprint For Survival that the turning point came to him. He continued to read up on environmental issues, which was not a broadly acknowledged or discussed subject back then.

Jonathon PorrittJonathon Porritt

Building on that early recognition, Porritt joined the Green party in the mid-Seventies, becoming director of Friends of the Earth in the mid-Eighties and, ‘through one thing leading to another, has now spent most of his life as one of Britain’s leading environmentalist and radical thinkers.

‘I think a lot for people did think it was eccentric bordering on the nutcase category, to be honest’, he says. ‘And my mother, who was always politically engaged and a really feisty champion about lot of ideas – not left-wing ideas – about how society should be shaped, was really shocked. When I told her that I’d joined the Ecology Party [the then name for the Green Party] she just said, “Oh for God’s sake Jonathon, why can’t you join a bleep, bleep, bleep proper party like anyone else?”’

Inevitably people’s views started to shift with the release of scientific research, and ideas became more commonplace. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, also began to voice the importance of climate change. Nevertheless Porritt says it was ‘decidedly odd’, to be engaged in such a campaign, but he persisted.

Jonathon Porritt

‘There is still fear there, it would be dishonest of me to deny that, but I tend not to talk much about that because people find that really hard to process and see what it means to them,’ he says, discussing the motives of his tireless campaigning. ‘There’s a lot of anger still; the obvious things that we should be doing, we’re not doing. So, neglecting easy interventions in some of these issues are, for me, incomprehensible and such a dereliction of duty for people of today and tomorrow. But mostly, now, it is a sense of excitement with how a better world would look.’

Today, he spends time working on the Forum for the Future, an enterprise working globally with businesses and governments to solve ‘tricky challenges’. ‘I’d spent the preceding 20 years campaigning against things, and desperately needed to get some more positive energy flowing,’ says Porritt, launching Forum for the Future with Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins.

A recent report by the Forum, called The Living Grid Project, looks at biophilic principles in the distribution of energy. By asking the questions, ‘How does nature make it possible for millions of individual organisms to thrive within an eco-system to transfer energy effortlessly?’ and, ‘What can we learn from nature and how can we incorporate that into our electricity distribution?’ the report sees designers, including fellow FX Talks speaker Michael Pawlyn, brought in to ‘bring it to life’ and generate excitement within what could be deemed a quite dull topic. Porritt says it’s partly down to working with ‘unlikely characters’, when exploring new ideas, instead of the ‘usual convenient groups of people’.

In addition, today, Porritt has a non-executive director role with Willmott Dixon, where he encourages colleagues to incorporate biophilic thinking into Willmott Dixon’s way of working. ‘I really enjoy working with them and we’ve managed to incorporate a lot of bio-diversity design principles into building design and master planning’, Porritt adds. But he acknowledges that the UK, compared with some other countries around the world, like Singapore, is still ‘bafflingly’ slow when it comes to developing and deploying cutting-edge, green-design developments and technologies.

‘The opportunities we now have, from the perspective of technology, innovation and design, to make this world come alive [are many]’, he says. ‘When I started out in the early Seventies I wasn’t able to point to any specific technology development that would speak to people and say “Not only can we do this, but it’s going to be a brilliant life that emerges from it”.’

Porritt is a believer that the power of design technology has the solution to make a sustainable, fair life for ‘nine billion people’ [estimated world population in 2050]. He says that even so the anger can still come out ‘at a drop of a hat’; he maintains a balance between fear and excitement of the genius of the human species.

But is it a utopian view? ‘No, no, no absolutely not,’ he says. ‘The thing that will make it happen is some people will make tonnes of money out of it; they will disrupt the market place dramatically and I don’t see this as utopian at all. I see this as inevitable.

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