Earth can’t afford to keep supporting our consumerist society as it now exists, Prince Charles tells Louisville audience
Transcript of The Prince of Wales’s speech at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Louisville, following an introduction by Wendell Berry (subheads added)
Ladies and gentlemen, it has been an immense pleasure to spend our last day in the United States here in Louisville, guided by a very special lady. Christy Brown, if I may say so, is one of the most remarkable people I have come across; a true force of nature, with an unbounded enthusiasm to bring people together across a whole range of important issues, and with the determined tenacity to make things happen. I know from my own experience, it is very hard to say “no” to Christy Brown! It was she who asked me to articulate the principles of harmony which I have long believed to lie at the heart of how we respond to the immense challenges and dangers facing humanity. So I can only hope you are all prepared to put up with such articulation.
I must say, it is also very special to have been introduced by such a great advocate of harmony, Wendell Berry, who I am incredibly touched said those wonderful words about me. He is a very special son of Kentucky. I only wish I had time to visit his farm. I will now embarrass him by telling you that he has long been a hero of mine. I remember him once describing his farm here in Kentucky. Half of it, he said, sits at the top of a hill and the other half at the bottom, which, as he put it, “is what you call a learning situation…”
Now, to return to Christy’s request: In the 1960’s, as I remember so well, a frenzy of change swept the world in the wave of post-war “Modernism.” There was an eagerness to embark upon a new age of radical experimentation in every area of human experience which caused many traditional ideas to be discarded in a fit of uncontrollable enthusiasm – ideas that will always be of timeless value for every generation confronting the actual realities of life on this Earth.
I remember it only too well – and even as a teenager I felt deeply about what seemed to me a dangerously short-sighted approach, whether in terms of the built or natural environment, agriculture, healthcare or education. In all cases we were losing something of vital importance – we were disconnecting ourselves from the wealth of traditional knowledge that had guided countless generations to understand the significance of Nature’s processes and cyclical economy. It always seemed to me that in this period of change some subtle balance was being tragically lost, without which we would find ourselves in an increasingly difficult and exposed position. As, indeed, we have.
I have been trying to point out ever since where I feel the balance needs righting and where some of the discarded, but timeless principles of operating need to be reintroduced in order to create a more integrated approach. It has turned out to be a peculiarly hazardous pastime. But I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the legacy of Modernism in our so-called post-Modern age has brought us to a crucial moment in history; prompting a lot of uncomfortable questions.
The first question I want to ask is how we have landed ourselves and the rest of the world in the mess that it now struggles to overcome? We have more than enough scientific evidence that proves this to be so. But what is it that drives us on to exacerbate the problems? Why do we tip the balance of the Earth’s delicate systems with yet more destruction, even though we know in our heart of hearts that in doing so we will most likely risk bringing everything down around us?
In the thirty years or so that I have been attempting to understand and address the many related problems, I have tried to ask myself what it is in our general attitude to the world that is ultimately at fault? In doing so, of course, it must have appeared as though I was just flitting from one subject to another – from agriculture to architecture, from education to healthcare – but I was merely trying to point out where the imbalance was most acute; where the essential unity of things, as reflected in nature, was being dangerously fragmented and deconstructed.
The harmonious system of nature is collapsing
The question that should surely keep us all awake at nights is what happens if you go on deconstructing? I fear the answer is all too plain. We summon up more and more chaos.
I have also spent a long time wondering that if we could identify the key fault, would it be possible to fix it? And if we could, what would that “fix” amount to in practical as well as philosophical terms?
What worries me is that at the moment there is not a lot of attention given to the way we perceive the world. We take our mechanistic view of it for granted and believe that the language of scientific empiricism which so dominates our discussion is the only form of language we need to guide us. So let’s be clear – whereas the empirical view of the world makes observational deductions about the laws of nature, the philosophical deals with the meaning of things; and the religious concerns itself with the sacred presence in things. They each have a role to play.
The way in which empirical enquiry has developed to this position of dominance since the Enlightenment has certainly enabled us to improve the material realm of the human condition. But let us also recognize that this progress was only possible because of an earlier and crucial shift which took us away from a traditional sense of participation in nature to the claim of mastery and exploitation over the natural order that has reaped such a troubling and bitter harvest.
That earlier shift, away from seeing ourselves within nature to us standing apart from it, gradually undermined what I have always felt, deep down, to be the true situation – that if we wish to maintain our civilizations, then we must look after the Earth and actively maintain its many intricate states of balance so that it achieves the necessary, active state of harmony which is the prerequisite for the health of everything in creation. In other words, that which sustains us must also itself be sustained.
But we are not keeping to our side of the bargain and, consequently, the sustainability of the entire harmonious system is collapsing – in failing the Earth we are failing humanity.
We are standing at a moment of substantial transition where we face the dual challenges of a world view and an economic system that seem to have enormous shortcomings, together with an environmental crisis – including that of climate change – which threatens to engulf us all.
Of course, we have achieved extraordinary prosperity since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. People live longer, have access to universal education, better healthcare and the promise of pensions. We also have more leisure time; opportunities to travel – the list is endless. But on the debit side, we in the industrialized world have increased our consumption of the Earth’s resources in the last thirty years to such an extent that, as a result, our collective demands on nature’s capacity for renewal are being exceeded annually by some 25 per cent.
Back in the 1950’s and right up to the 1990’s it seemed credible to argue that the human will was the master of creation; that the only acceptable way of thinking was a mechanistic way of thinking; that the Earth’s natural resources were just that – resources – to be plundered because they were there for our use, without limit. But for all its achievements, our consumerist society comes at an enormous cost to the Earth and we must face up to the fact that the Earth cannot afford to support it.
Just as our banking sector has been struggling with its debts – and paradoxically also facing calls for a return to so-called “old-fashioned,” traditional banking – so nature’s life-support systems are failing to cope with the debts we have built up there too. If we don’t face up to this, then nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust. And no amount of quantitative easing will revive it.
It seems to me a self-evident truth that we cannot have any form of capitalism without capital. But we must remember that the ultimate source of all economic capital is nature’s capital. Our ability to adapt to the effects of climate change, and then perhaps even to reduce those effects, depends upon us adapting our pursuit of “unlimited” economic growth to that of “sustainable” economic growth. And that depends upon basing our approach on the fundamental resilience of our ecosystems. Ecosystem resilience leads to economic resilience. If we carry on destroying our marine and forest ecosystems as we are doing, then we will rob them of their natural resilience and so end up destroying our own.
We are not separate from nature
No matter how sophisticated our technology has become, the simple fact is that we are not separate from nature – like everything else, we are nature.
The more you understand this fact the more you see how our mechanistic way of thinking causes such confusion.
Modern agri-industry, for instance, may have made enormous strides to feed the burgeoning world’s population, but at a huge and unsustainable cost to ecosystems, through massive use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and water. It is a reductive approach to one issue that is patently not durable because it sustains nothing but its own decline, solving one problem by creating countless others.
This, of course, is not the way nature operates. In nature the entire system is a complex unfolding of inter-dependent, multi-faceted relationships and to understand them, we have to use “joined-up” thinking.
The ancient Greek word for the process of joining things up was “harmonia.” So, “joined-up thinking” seeks to create harmony, which is a very specific state of affairs. In fact, it is the very prerequisite of health and well-being. Our bodies have to be in harmony if they are to be healthy, just as an entire ecosystem has to be. This is the way nature operates.
Natural sciences like microbiology and botany tell us very clearly that every kind of organism, be it big or microscopic, is a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts – which makes each organism a microcosm of its local environment; the very essence of it, in fact. The sum of these parts builds and maintains a coherence – an active, harmonic unity – with no waste. No one part operates either in isolation or beyond the limits set by the whole.
Facing the future, therefore, requires a shift from a reductive, mechanistic approach to one that is more balanced and integrated with nature’s complexity – one that recognizes not just the build-up of financial capital, but the equal importance of what we already have – environmental capital and, crucially, what I might best call “community capital.” That is, the networks of people and organizations, the post offices and bars, the churches and community halls, the mosques, temples and bazaars – the wealth that holds our communities together; that enriches people’s lives through mutual support, love, loyalty and identity.
Just as we have no way of accounting for the loss of the natural world, contemporary economics has no way of accounting for the loss of this community capital.
This is why we need to ask ourselves whether the present form of globalization is entirely appropriate, given the circumstances confronting us. There are, clearly, benefits, but we need to ask whether it requires adaptation so that it also enables, as it were, globalization from the bottom up. This, after all, is the way nature operates! At the moment we operate under a form of globalization that tends to render down all the rich diversity of a culture into a uniform, homogenized mono-culture. This is where the Modernist paradigm needs to be called into question before the damage being done is irretrievable. …
One of the chief architects of our present economic model was Adam Smith. Interestingly, he was another who recognized that, although individual freedom is rooted in our impulse for self-reliance, it must be balanced by the limits imposed by natural law. As he prepared his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he moved away from the notion that we are born with a moral sense and preferred the principle of there being a sympathy in all things. It is this sympathy that binds communities together.
But there is little chance of such sympathy if what people need is provided through commercial structures that place an ever greater distance between the supplier and the consumer, because economies of scale can destroy the economics of localness. It has become, again, a purely mechanical process with no room for the complexity and multi-faceted dimensions of a proper local relationship between a community and the suppliers that serve it.
A balance between the market and society
Once again, there has to be a balance between the market on the one hand and society on the other, otherwise real problems occur. …
This is why city-level policy to encourage healthy local food systems could scarcely be more important. It is a way to ensure a harmonious relationship between the city and its hinterland, fostering greater understanding and respect for the services that the rural environment and economy provide. It is also a means by which a circular economy can be generated where wastes become resources rather than pollution.
So, with that in mind, how could we better empower all sorts of communities to create a much more participative economic model that safeguards their identity, cohesion and diversity – one that makes a clear distinction between the maintenance of Nature’s capital reserves and the income it produces? That is the challenge we face, it seems to me – to see nature’s capital and her processes as the very basis of a new form of economics and to engage communities at the grass roots to put those processes first. If we can do that, then we have an approach that acts locally by thinking globally, just as nature does – all parts operating locally to establish the coherence of the whole.
Here in Louisville, for instance, I met with representatives of your major food and drink manufacturers, and also spent time with farmers and food producers at what, I would suggest, is a very significant idea – the creation of the Food Hub and the development of the area around that proposed site. Re-localizing your food systems and encouraging the many small and medium-sized farms that surround your city to consider how best to offer locally produced food would make a tremendous difference to the long term sustainability of your economy, especially if real attention was paid to the health of the soil. A long time ago it was President [Franklin] Roosevelt who gave a very prescient warning when he said – “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” So, of central importance will be how to reconcile our urban and rural development. The actions of leading cities like Louisville can provide a demonstration of what can be done that is of value not only to the United States, but also globally.
Likewise, as far as human health is concerned, I was alarmed to hear from your leading cardiologist here, Dr. Bhatnagar, just how directly the high rates of air pollution you struggle with are related to the high levels of cardiovascular disease. If you recognize that the quality of the air is not just an “environmental” issue, but a very serious economic issue, then you can see that the health of people directly affects the health of an economy. So perhaps, at the end of the day, it might be cheaper to join up the dots and put paid to the pollution, rather than pursue the more expensive option of encouraging people to take yet more pills to help their hearts?
So, having spent the day here in Louisville, I can only offer my warmest congratulations not only for what you have already achieved, but also what you are striving for in the future – a model of truly integrated and holistic thinking on a city scale and a beacon of inspiration for others to learn from – for instance, your work in helping build communities such as at the African American Heritage Centre, the boldness of the vision for the Food Hub project (why wouldn’t we all want to shorten the links between consumer and producer?); the remarkable potential of a new discussion between the health insurance companies and your major food companies who, of course, would love to become more sustainable if only the financial climate allowed them.
Could this, then, be part of the solution to the problems we face? Could it be one that might give us hope, for we do still have within our societies and within our existing technologies the solutions that will enable us to transcend our current predicament. All we lack, perhaps, is the will to establish a more entire and connected perspective.
There are many examples where communities have replaced the short-term impulse with the long-term plan. But part of that strategy – to my mind at least at the heart of it – is the need for a new public and private-sector partnership which includes NGO [non-governmental organizations] and community participation. It seems to me that for this to work we need to ensure that community and environmental capital is indeed put alongside the requirements of financial capital and that we also develop transparent means to measure the social and environmental impact of our actions.
We certainly need to refine our ability to measure what we do so that we become more aware of our responsibility. This validates the need for “accounting for sustainability,” which has since become known elsewhere as true-cost accounting – a method by which businesses can take proper account of the cost to the Earth of their products and services, and which I initiated and developed 11 years ago. It is encouraging that this approach is being tested by a range of companies, government departments and agencies, and I hope that it can be adopted more generally so that well-being and sustainability can be measured, rather than merely growth in consumption.
We also need, dare I say it, new forms of international collaboration to value ecosystem services. For instance, the world must recognize the absolutely vital utility that the rainforests provide by generating a real income for rainforest countries – where, incidentally, some 1.4 billion of the poorest people on Earth rely in some way on the rainforests for their livelihoods – an income which can be used to finance an integrated, low-carbon development model. Paradoxically, the answer to deforestation lies not solely or even mainly in the forestry sector, but rather in the agricultural and energy sectors.
It is also increasingly possible to enhance efficiency and economic rates of return by linking different sectors together in what are called “virtuous circles.” You can see this in the relationship between the waste, energy and water sectors where the waste product of one process becomes the raw material of another, thereby mimicking nature’s cyclical process of waste-free recycling.
Alternatives need to become mainstream
The trouble is, at the moment, so many of these brilliant ideas sit on the fringes of our economy. They are seen as “alternatives” when they need to become mainstream.
But for this to happen and for such alternatives to be effective, it will require a system of long-term consistent and coherent financial incentives and disincentives; otherwise, how else will we achieve the urgent response we need to rectify the situation we face?
Another example of an alternative that needs to become mainstream, and which would enhance both community and environmental capital, lies in the way we plan, design and build our settlements. I have talked long and hard about this for what seems rather a long time – and look what it’s done to me! – but it is yet another case where a rediscovery of so-called “old fashioned,” traditional virtues can lead to the development of sustainable urbanism. This approach emphasizes the integration of mixed-use buildings and the use of local materials to create local identity which, when combined with cutting-edge developments in building technology, can enhance a sense of place and real community.
Our need for these solutions is going to grow exponentially as our global population rises and our ecological and economic crises deepen. Is this not a rationale for investing massively in these new and more integrated approaches which, thereby, could help to create the kind of “virtuous circles” based on environmental and community capital that I have mentioned this evening? Such investment would also, I can’t help thinking, have the added benefit of creating many new jobs.
But are we prepared to take such a step? As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” The starting point is to see things differently from the current, dominant world view which in so many ways is no longer relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves. The worst course would be to continue with “business as usual” as this will only compound the problem. We must see that we are part of the natural order rather than isolated from it; to see that nature operates according to an organic “grammar” of harmony and which is infused with an awareness of its own being, making it anchored by consciousness. It is an interconnected, interdependent function of creation with harmony existing between all things.
We are, ladies and gentlemen, at an historic moment – because we face a future where there is a real prospect that if we fail the Earth, we fail humanity. And I don’t know about all of you but, as a grandfather, I have no intention of failing my, or anyone else’s, grandchildren.