Short Cuts

Jenny Diski

There seems to be little doubt that the planet is in a parlous state and that we need to change how we live on it. Who wouldn’t be pleased by a very well-funded, attention-grabbing campaign to raise ecological awareness and encourage the more thoughtful use of natural resources? Any steady drip or sudden deluge that might help to nudge industrial and personal behaviour towards a more sustainable way of life is very welcome, but I do wonder if HRH the Prince of Wales is really the best (though he’s obviously the wealthiest) advocate for the new sanity that might save the planet.[*]

Somewhere in their teens or early twenties just about everyone discovers the inter-connectedness of things material and metaphysical, and tells anyone who’ll listen about the rose window at Chartres and the orbits of Venus and how they’re almost exactly the same, and about homeostasis and the amazing balance between the alpha rhythms of the brain and the tides, and how prehistoric peoples conserved and limited their eco-footprint while drawing rose-like patterns in stone, and that everything is everything, and everything is in that oceanic mystic moment when, just before the curtain closes again, you can see precisely how it all fits together. I know about all that and it’s lovely. But then, for those of us who don’t have our toothpaste squeezed onto our toothbrush each night, there’s the business of regular life, of time and consequence, and of how actually to live in and deal with our own particular sector of the oneness. The quotidian. And unless you have enormous resources (a fleet of household and office staff, think tanks, two cowriters and Duchy Original sausages) to devote to trying to live the insight, you learn to work within the limitations set by time and place, while, if you wish, keeping the great oneness for times when the need to earn a living and not run out of toothpaste isn’t so pressing. It isn’t that the Prince of Wales fails to understand limitations. He repeatedly states that he wants the world to wind down its modernity in order to harmonise with the limits, he says, that Nature Herself places on Herself. However, readers over seven might take exception to HRH’s tone: ‘It may be a bit daunting if I suggest at the outset that I want to include in this journey a brief tour of “traditional philosophy” but I can assure you that such an explanation will be painless and that everything will be explained simply.’ And he clearly means this because he goes on to give us the etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ and concludes: ‘So, to be a “philosopher” is to be a lover of wisdom.’

Since the late 19th century a particular kind of nature spirituality has been dear to the hearts of the half-educated, or angry, or ineffectual (if only in their own heads) English and Anglo-Irish upper classes and landed gentry. It derives in part from Neoplatonism mixed with naturalistic pantheism and more than a dollop of Jungian spiritus mundi; also in part from a general feeling that the lovely world into which they were born entitled has been spoiled by, well, too many people and machines, and life being made warmer and easier, and all that sort of unpleasant thing. From the 1890s onwards there was the Rosicrucians-Golden-Dawn-Hermetic mob, picked up by Yeats and friends, Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy, and various ladylike adaptations of Eastern philosophies; later the pro-Fascist Jorian Jenks joined Lady Eve Balfour’s Soil Association as well as Kinship in Husbandry, started by the enthusiast for early Nazism Rolf Gardiner; Kathleen Raine converted from a modernist poet to found the Temenos Academy (current patron the Prince of Wales), with its Ten Basic Principles: ‘Acknowledgment of Divinity’, ‘Spiritual Vision, as the life-breath of civilisation’ etc. In the 1970s the wealthy businessmen and members of the Clermont Club Teddy Goldsmith and John Aspinall (the latter more concerned for his captive tigers than their keepers who were occasionally killed by them, and for nanny murderers than the murdered nanny) started the Ecologist magazine, supported by Laurens van der Post (spiritual mentor to the Prince of Wales), which suggested in its first issue that it might be an idea to offer the public ‘a bounty for submitting to sterilisation’.

What makes me think of this darker side of the history of English ecology and nature-loving is partly the Prince of Wales’s own frequent references to some of those organisations, people and ideas (the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and the (apocryphal) Gospel of Mary Magdalene get super-large-print quotes, along with Fritz Schumacher, Gandhi and St Augustine), but also his repeated use of phrases like ‘ancient wisdom’, ‘the golden thread’, ‘integrated medicine’ and his insistence that the world has been going to rack and ruin ever since Galileo was so stubborn about the planets and that awful Francis Bacon wrote The New Organon to usher in the Enlightenment with its terrible materialism. Only 400 years after this disaster, along came modernism, which HRH identifies exclusively with brutalism and quotes as its exemplar, not just Le Corbusier, but more importantly in his view, Marinetti (more Futurist, I think, than Modernist). And with all this unnatural badness, and the Industrial Revolution too, the ancient wisdom handed down by ‘the people’ has just plain disappeared. Except for a knowing few, the masses have lost the golden thread, stopped listening to the harmony of the spheres, rejected beauty and love (‘no brain-scanner has ever managed to photograph a thought, nor a piece of love for that matter’) and forgotten how to live according to the natural all-controlling rhythm of the planet.

Now, some of this in some ways is perfectly true, but although the prince does mention global corporations as being part of the problem, he doesn’t get round to the underlying issue: that capitalism is the prime mover of what troubles him, and that capitalism seems well and truly suited to the dominant creatures that inhabit the planet. Actually, he goes from berating Marinetti directly to ‘the Marxism of the Bolshevik regime which totally absorbed, adopted and extended the whole concept of modernism’ to create a ‘profoundly soulless, vicious, dehumanised ideology’.

There is a further problem. Although HRH is perfectly clear about the causes of the oncoming catastrophe, he is not very helpful as to how exactly to alter the trajectory. At least not in the world as it is. He offers all sorts of alternative economic models of farming, housing, schooling, but the real world where individuals put their own toothpaste on their brushes consists of very large numbers of people who have to eat on a planet where resources are not just limited, but are also, to put it mildly, unequally distributed. He does teeter around this difficulty, and announces the issue: ‘There is no doubt about it, monumentally controversial as the question may be, the problems posed by the predicted increase in the world’s population cannot be ignored.’ After describing various small-scale efforts in ‘eye-wateringly’ overpopulated Lagos, ‘the Arab world’ and Bangladesh, he is clear that we ‘cannot make the equation balance, unless we seriously address how we stabilise and even reduce the human population of the world’. Again there is only a hint of a solution: ‘We are all of us “Sons of the Earth” and perhaps the time has come to ponder what is the responsible thing to do in the present circumstances – to think very carefully how large our families should be?’ Somehow, I don’t think he’s got Chelsea and Gloucestershire most prominently in mind.

This ancient wisdom stuff is ineffably silly. When and where was it taken seriously? Most of ‘ancient’ history consists of small populations making a subsistence living in the only way they could with the technology available to them. There never was a non-materialist time, except in the world of magic and the kind of religion and social organisation that made sure the peasants provided a tithe to keep the priestly authorities free to think up theology, and the worldly elite capable of protecting and grabbing land for themselves. Good stories are essential to people, of course, but everyone lives (and always has) within their means when they have to, and beyond them (think potlatch as well as credit cards) when they can. For all the talk of the good, spirit and Nature Herself, I suspect that what HRH is really missing is feudalism. And here’s an awful thought for those who are taken with treading Nature’s path: if as the natural beings we are, we have developed technologies that allow us to fulfil material wishes that might cause the planet to give up the ghost, then are we not just doing the work of Nature Herself?

[*] Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World by HRH the Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly (Blue Door, 329 pp., £25, October, 978 0 00 734803 9).