First published in 2005 and issued in a revised edition in 2007, Jonathon Porritt’s Capitalism as if the world matters has played an important part in arguing the case that not only can capitalism and sustainability go together, but moreover that a reformed version of capitalism is essential to achieving sustainability.
This view sets Porritt apart from many of his former colleagues of his from his six years as chair of the UK Ecology Party (now the Green Party) and another six heading up Friends of the Earth. It made – and makes – his book controversial in many green circles but also makes the book appeal to business people who Porritt wishes to persuade to change their ways. “Like it or not (and the vast majority of people do), capitalism is now the only economic show in town,” argues Porritt. The success of forms of capitalism at reducing poverty around the developing world has strengthened his case since even the revised edition.
It is an optimistic book for, as Jonathon Porritt writes, “There’s so much to be hugely hopeful about – technologically, politically, spiritually … Capitalism has always been a self-correcting system, capable of startling and seemingly ‘unthinkable’ shifts at precisely the moments when those shifts are most needed”. Optimism does not just reflect Porritt’s outlook; he also argues that it is necessary for success:
Changes have also to be seen as desirable changes: good for people, their health and their quality of life – and not just good for the prospects of future generations … This means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it.
Market-based, properly regulated capitalism is still capable of meeting today’s daunting challenges … [but] we will need to engineer tomorrow’s world, step by step with great determination. It won’t just happen by chance.
Tomorrow’s world needs to be different in two main respects, according to this book: it needs to be sustainable and it needs to prioritise well being over financial wealth and economic growth.
On this point, Porritt cites JM Keynes’s distinction between relative and absolute wants: “Keynes pointed out that our absolute wants (those which we feel regardless of our relative position in society) are limited and finite; it is our relative wants (those which we feel in comparison to what others have in society) that are apparently insatiable”.
In this respect, therefore, the book is very much in line with arguments made by others such as The Spirit Level that, in developed first world economies, the link between well being and economic growth is extremely weak. As Porritt puts it, “What gives this analysis extra bite is the linkage between declining levels of contentment and inequality: the greater the inequality of income distribution within a developed country, the higher the levels of dissatisfaction and alienation – with the interesting exception of Singapore”.
The book has some radical prescriptions, particularly on social justice’s role in ensuring sustainability: “No serious definition of the word ‘sustainable’ could possibly allow for a continuation of the grotesque disparities in wealth that we see today, both within countries and between countries”. But, more generally Porritt, “demands a reform agenda, however radical it may appear to some, [but] not a revolutionary agenda”.
That is what the book details, often more in textbook than polemic style, providing a comprehensive sweep of policies and supporting evidence which makes the book a useful reference source as well as a strong argument in its own right.