HONG KONG — Many years ago, on my second day working in London, I was invited to take tea with Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace. About half a dozen journalists met the young prince who was about to embark on his royal duties but who clearly hadn’t a clue about how the rest of the world lived and worked.
Small talk was strained, but I remember asking him if he would like one day to forget that he was a prince and go down the King’s Road in Chelsea, the hangout of the smart set of those days, and enjoy a coffee and conversation, just like a normal young man.
“Oh, no,” he replied in the distinctively royal bray, “one is not brought up to that kind of thing.” Even young royals know they are special and shouldn’t mix with the plebs.
Prince Charles has long grown up and has been through adventures and misadventures that few of us have experienced. But still there remains something gauche about him and his view of the world.
He has just written his worldview in his book “Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World.” He begins uncompromisingly: “This is a call to revolution. The Earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen.” He pleads that the only way forward is to put “Nature” back at the heart of our way of life, stop plundering and start seeking balance and harmony.
Much of what he claims makes sense. He is hardly the first person to point out that the earth cannot sustain the pressures that humans are putting on it. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore was his notable predecessor in “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Where the Prince of Wales takes the subject further is in his exploration of the wider world and in his practical experience in a wide range of subjects, including organic farming practiced on his Duchy Home Farm, architecture and town planning through his fostering of his Poundbury housing project in Dorset, his public campaigning to save the rain forests, and many other good environmental causes.
His awareness of the place of human beings in the global architecture is captured in his quote from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
His book, along with a video of the same name made by Julie Bergman Sender and Stuart Sender and narrated by Prince Charles, should have made a similar kind of impact as Gore’s film and book. The issue of the safety of the environment and the future of the planet is the most important one confronting humanity because it is a matter of life and death. If the planet dies, the human race is doomed.
Discussions at Cancun to try to agree on a successor deal to the Kyoto Protocol took only baby steps. The atmosphere was more constructive than at the acrimonious meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, and China emerged as a potential contributor rather than a spoiler. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go. World leaders won’t face up to the cost that will have to be paid, and entrenched domestic political forces are fighting tooth and nail against radical changes in their lifestyles that will ultimately be necessary. Japan’s determined rejection of an extension of Kyoto was symbolic of the mess.
So, it would have been good to have a book of the decade, or even of the year, that would be a focal discussion point, would warn of the dangers and open new thoughts and win friends and influence people. But “Harmony” strikes discord in Charles’ own meandering journey through history and geography. His overuse of the royal “I” is one annoying interruption — I counted 13 uses of “I” on page 5 alone plus a few uses of “we” and “our.”
He seems determined to show off his knowledge of the world including, in the order of their introduction, the meaning of philosophy, the spider orchid, Descartes, Bacon and the scientific revolution, quantum mechanics and particle physics, E.coli, Marinett’s Futurist Manifesto, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, William Morris, Hurricane Katrina, the albatross, the red squirrel, the strawberry poison dart frog, soybean harvests, U.K. food journeys of 18 billion miles a year, giant sequoias, Monteverde Cloud Forest, honeybees, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo favelas. And that’s only as far as Chapter 2.
Subsequently, he talks of the Sufi brotherhood, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes (“that which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above,” which philosopher Terry Eagleton suggested in The Guardian might be a coded offer to swap Charles’ Highgrove for a council flat), ancient Greek wisdom, his garden at Highgrove (“planted with fig, pomegranate and olive trees because they are mentioned in the Quran”), Chartres Cathedral, the Egyptian goddess Maat, the magical sequence of numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and similarities between Osiris and Jesus Christ.
More seriously, Charles gets himself into the dangerous position of seeming to believe that the Age of Reason was when humans went astray and the Enlightenment was a turn for the worse. We live in the 21st century, Your Highness, and there are 7 billion people, going for 9 billion, on this crowded fragile plant. Organic farming is a good thing in rural Gloucestershire, but harder to understand in Bihar or Mali or teeming Calcutta.
Please suggest a practical way that will provide prospects of jobs and food, especially for those who live a precarious existence, and offer a route map that carries the wisdom of ages into the dark corners of modern life. It’s also dangerous for princes to talk of revolution without careful knowledge of the world outside their palaces. You should have gone down the King’s Road with your former wife: She knew the way.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.