Facing the Future - Dimbleby Lecture.
By The Prince of Wales
What was instinctively understood by many in King Henry VIII’s time was the importance of working with the grain of Nature to maintain the balance between keeping the Earth’s natural capital intact and sustaining humanity on its renewable income. It is this knowledge that I fear we have lost in our rush to pursue unlimited economic growth and material wealth.
The way in which empirical enquiry has developed to a 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, and I am afraid that I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that we are failing to do that. 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.
By 2050 not only will there be nine billion people on the planet, but a far higher proportion than now will presumably have Western levels of consumption. These are facts which we really cannot ignore any longer. Back in the 1950s and right up to the 1990s it seemed credible to argue that the human will was the master of creation; that the Earth’s natural resources were just that – resources – to be plundered because they were there for our use, without limit. It was on such terms that we founded our present ‘Age of Convenience,’ a way of living that is now spreading around the world. 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.
Since the 1950s, we have reduced the size of the world's rainforests by a third and we continue to do so at the rate of an area the size of a football pitch every four seconds. Hugging the equator, these rainforests are literally – literally – the planet’s lifebelt.
The myriad, invisible functions performed by these threatened ecosystems, operating in all their harmonious complexity, are a central element in the Earth’s life-support system and yet we ignore the fact that without them we cannot survive – both physically and spiritually, for, with the rampant removal of biodiversity in all its forms, we also destroy the reflection of Nature’s miraculous balance within ourselves.
It seems to me of such profound importance that we understand that we are not what we think we are. We are not the masters of creation. 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 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.
We are at an historic moment – because we face a future where there is a real prospect that if we fail the Earth, we fail Humanity. To avoid such an outcome, which will comprehensively destroy our children’s future, we must urgently confront and then make choices which carry monumental implications. In this, we are the masters of our fate.
On the one hand, we have every good reason to believe that carrying on as we are will lead to a depleted and divided planet incapable of meeting the needs of its nine billion citizens, let alone sustaining its other life forms. On the other hand, we can adopt the technologies, lifestyles and, crucially, a much more integrated way of thinking and perceiving the world that can transform our relationship with the Earth that sustains us. The choice is certainly clear to me.
Abridged from The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Facing the Future, by HRH The Prince of Wales, London, 8 July 2009.