A dear friend of mine who spent much time in the beautiful Western Isles of Scotland once told me a story about the Queen. HMS Britannia was on its annual summer voyage with its royal passengers and stopped at a small bay one quiet afternoon. The Queen disembarked and waved away her bodyguards and other familiars and set off for a rare walk on her own. Her path took her to a small cottage where she saw its owner gardening. The Queen greeted the woman and they stopped to chat over the garden fence. Then she asked if she could come in and have a cup of tea. The two women went inside, brewed tea and sat down in simple surroundings by a small fire, drinking tea. They passed the time of day and then eventually the Queen asked her host what she did and how long she had lived on the island. The woman was a writer and she told the Queen that she visited the island in the summer months in search of seclusion, to appreciate the nature there and for literary inspiration. The Queen’s response was one of wistful understanding and the writer became acutely aware that her celebrated guest was rarely able to truly alone and meet strangers informally over a simple cup of tea.
I found this story a deeply poignant insight into our Royal Family. I believe that despite the glamour of vast wealth and global fame, the Queen’s role as sovereign is in part a sacrifice. It is obvious that she has a deep connection with the natural world. Prince Phillip was an early experimenter with solar water technology at Windsor and enjoys farming – he even has an experimental orchard of truffle inoculated oaks. The Princess Royal speaks with intelligence and obvious knowledge of biomass, coppicing and peak oil. They have all championed homoeopathy. I met then briefly a couple of years ago. It was obvious that they were not two dimensional people.
Prince Charles has come in for a lot of stick for talking to plants, being ‘mystical’, and inferring with architecture, imposing a pseudo neo-Georgian pastiche, only viable in affluent places like Dorset. Yet his passion for preserving heritage, his work with young people and his championing of organics and habitat conservation over decades have hit the mark. He has proved that he is well ahead of most of the rest of society. Far from being a heir in waiting, he is consolidating a powerful role as a social and environmental commentator.
So it is with interest that I read the Introduction to his latest book, Harmony, written with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. In it Prince Charles openly admits that he has been challenging the accepted wisdom, the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking that has its origins in the 19th Century when industrialisation took full sway and the Newtonian worldview began to fragment our vision. He has been accused of dilettantism – of leaping from one subject to another – from architecture to agriculture “as if I spent a morning saving the rainforests, then in the afternoon jumping to help young people start new businesses.” But the subtext to his interests and work has been an appreciation of holism, of inter-relationship. Organic agriculture, natural medicine, conservation, gainful fulfilling employment, especially for the young, human-scale design and architecture are inter-related. They are threads in the woven tapestry of a creative and more sustainable world.
Harmony examines our global crisis born from the relentless pursuit of economic growth technological progress. It travels back in time to explore how the ancients saw the world as a whole and in necessary balanced with Nature. It looks at how sustainability springs from seeing the world as an interconnected whole and speaks of “this timeless view… rooted in the human condition and in human experience” and suggest how we might do this.
The Prince of Wales no doubt puts his cards on the table with this book. He will be vilified and celebrated all at the same time. Carbon counters will inevitably scorn his private jets and billionaire lifestyle, asking him to walk his talk; republicans will call for democratic reform; and I might point out that the root of our economic problem lies with land ownership. It was when we enclosed the commons and cleared the Highlands that we forced people out of relative self-sufficiency into paying rents and the subsequent necessity of earning a wage. This was the turning point. Now 90% of us live on less than 10% of the land and even the plots we inhabit are shrinking. Just under one-third of Britain’s land is still owned by aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. If we are to harmonize our lives in accord with Nature, we will have to revisit this thorny question and create a more sustainable land-based life for all sectors of society. Inevitably, that necessitates deep social change.
As we steer away from being ‘Masters of Nature’ to the ‘sacred duty of stewardship’ it is inescapable that we will have to share natural resources more equitably. How we do this will require a clear vision of what an ecologically based society actually is. We cannot see-saw between political ideologies – this is not about communism, socialism or capitalism – but about how we are to create a society based on holistic, earth-based values and ethics. Prince Charles, a complex cocktail of spiritual intent and material privilege, brings this debate even more firmly into the public arena. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.