Hopeful environmentalist Porritt sees beauty in sewage and toilets

By Maria Saporta

It’s not often that one hears from an environmentalist who has a hopeful view of the world.

After all, with climate change, income inequality, overpopulation, limited natural resources and political conflicts, most environmentalists would have you believe we’re headed to that point of no return — an earth that we have damaged so much that it could become uninhabitable to human beings in the foreseeable future.

And yet Sir Jonathon Porritt refuses to take such a gloomy view of the future. Porritt was in Atlanta on Oct. 9 to participate on a program with Laura Turner Seydel of the Turner Foundation, Howard Connell of Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business and John Gardner of Novelis at the Academy Medicine.

“I’m here to talk about innovation,” Porritt said. “That is the reason why I’m hopeful about the future.”

Sir Jonathon Porritt and his book — "The World We Made"

Sir Jonathon Porritt and his book — “The World We Made”

Porritt’s most recent book — “The World We Made” — takes an unusual approach to lead us through the next 35 years. He writes it through the eyes of a 50-year-old professor — Alex McKay — in the year 2050.

McKay looks back at what the world was facing when he was a teenager (the present) and identifies numerous technological advances that have alleviated many of the world’s most serious problems.

Each of the book’s 50 chapters takes on a different topic area, such as “The End of the Age of Oil” (the high mark was in 2017 when the world was producing 78 million barrels a day) or “Reefs: Back from the Brink.”

“There are eight gloomy chapters and 42 optimistic chapters,” Porritt said of his book — which is pretty good odds for those betting on humans finding a way to clean up the mess we have made.

Porritt’s hopefulness, however, likely would find great resistance in the some corners of Georgia and the United States. For example, he believes that over time, the real costs related to climate change will force the world to move away from carbon.

The reinsurance business — the companies that insure insurance companies from major disasters — will be forced into bankruptcy because they won’t be able to cover all the damage from extreme weather caused by climate change.

Porritt also believes that solar power will soon find its moment of grid parity — when a unit of electricity from solar energy cost the same as or less than a unit of electricity from any other source. In his book, that moment occurs in 2016.

“In 2050. 90 percent of energy is from renewables,” Porritt said. “We are roughly 90 percent dependent on oil, gas, coal and non-renewables today.”

Part of that shift will come from technology breakthroughs in the ability to store energy from renewables.

“China leads the way in solar and wind. It’s an important, unfolding moment with China as a leader rather than the center of all that is awful,” Porritt said. “China is more at risk. Its future is very much shaped by the stability of climate change.”

Porritt said he is a big believer in the “creativity of humankind.” In Detroit, he is seeing abandoned land being turned into urban farming to create more sustainable communities.

Even human waste can help fuel energy needs or become fertilizer.

“By in large, sewage is fantastic stuff,” Porritt said. “What is happening with the technology of toilets is something you need to be amazed by.”

So that explains it.

To be a hopeful environmentalist, one must be able to see the value in sewage and the beauty in toilet technology.

Thank you Sir Jonathon Porritt (and Alex McKay).

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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