Jonathon Porritt: “I first dreamed up the idea of Green Futures almost exactly 20 years ago…”

Sensemaking / Jonathon Porritt: “I first dreamed up the idea of Green Futures almost exactly 20 years ago…”

At the heart of Green Futures has been a constant desire to celebrate innovation, says the magazine’s founder, Jonathon Porritt, looking back on the journey so far.

By Jonathon Porritt / 21 Jul 2014

I first dreamed up the idea of Green Futures almost exactly 20 years ago – the year Forum for the Future was officially incorporated as a charity. Something like it had been in my mind since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992: the first time in my life where I’d maxed out on sustainable solutions, positive energy and putting the world to rights via ‘we can’ rather than ‘you can’t’.

Green Futures was to be the physical embodiment of everything that Forum for the Future was to stand for – and has done since then: an upbeat celebration of all those individuals, organisations and technologies that are helping make sustainability happen.

Looking back on that time, there wasn’t much ‘solutions brokerage’ going on – and certainly not harnessing the creative energy of the private sector or civil society, or actively promoting sustainable technologies. One of our most generous funders in those early days only supported us because he thought we were completely crazy. “I’ll be very surprised indeed if you can find enough ‘good news stories’, as you describe them, to fill that many pages. But prove me wrong!” Graciously, he was the first to acknowledge that we did.

These days, the world is awash with sustainable solutions initiatives of every kind – in print, online, on the ground, in the ether, in business, in civil society and even (somewhat inconsistently) in politics. That’s one brilliant turnaround! But the weird thing is that only a tiny minority of people have access to this world – and that’s something that the next iteration of Green Futures will seek to address head-on, largely through a new online platform.

At the heart of the Green Futures story has been a constant desire to celebrate innovation – in products, processes, technologies and systems. In issue after issue, we’ve set out to ‘showcase’ a handful of those innovations, tiny but significant pointers to the kind of high-tech, aspirational future which we so urgently need people to embrace. ‘Living more sustainably’ can be a rather dry and dusty idea.

But language matters. And being true to the vision of sustainability matters, too. Over 20 years, Green Futures has seen different slogans and labels come and go with predictable regularity. I have to admit to a growing intolerance of people who talk about sustainability as ‘worthy’ or ‘boring’, or of ‘green’ as yesterday’s theme. This is just so much irrelevant froth, in my opinion. What matters is the continuing integrity of the big idea of ‘sustainability’, measured by the values it stands for, by change on the ground, and by bold and outspoken leadership.

In that regard, Green Futures has been blessed. It was always part of the plan to support the magazine through a group of partners ‘investing’ in it. Their ‘partner pages’ have provided a different kind of showcase for corporate and NGO success stories. So profound is the prevailing cynicism in our media today that it gets harder and harder for organisations to celebrate the ‘good stuff’ they are helping to make happen. That inevitably means there is some risk of corporate ‘greenwash’ being sloshed around the pages of Green Futures, but we’ve had mercifully little of this – thanks in no small measure to ruthless editorial standards!

Green Futures has had just four editors: Alex Goldsmith, Martin Wright, Roger East and Anna Simpson – all ably supported by a very small number of totally dedicated staff, interns and volunteers.

For around 15 of those 20 years, Martin and I did the heavy lifting when money was tight, and kept evolving the magazine to fit the times. Both of us will miss the feel, quality and substance of the physical magazine. Personally, I’m just one of those dinosaurs whose brain operates so much better working off the printed page rather than reading things online – a disability compounded by a habit (that goes back to my time as an English teacher) of highlighting, annotating and generally defacing whatever it is I’m reading. Even the pristine pages of Green Futures!

That said, there are very exciting times ahead for all that ‘futures content’, enabling us to achieve an even bigger impact, both through a new, annual Green Futures Compendium, and through the work of our forthcoming Futures Centre in Singapore. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen just how impactful ‘bringing the future into the present’ can be – not least because it is the best way of warding off feelings of despair and powerlessness in a world gone mad.

From Save the Earth (a book I did with the wonderful Peter Kindersley at the time of the Earth Summit in 1992) through to my latest book, The World We Made, I seem to have spent a huge amount of time providing myself, and anyone else who would listen, with as rich a litany of ‘reasons to be cheerful’ as I could lay my hands on! Green Futures has been the rock around which a lot of that empowerment story has been constructed, and long may that continue.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. His latest book, The World We Made (£24.95, Phaidon) is available from

Photo credit: Nick Woodford

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