Earlier this week I happened to catch part of this year’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, given by no lesser person than the Prince of Wales. As I hesitated before cynically flicking to another to another channel, I was rewarded by a snippet that held my attention…

…Just as our banking sector is 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. So 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…

In its entirety, the Prince’s speech compellingly argued for an urgent shift from the complacent consumption that has characterised our resource use and growth in the last half century, towards a sustainable and symbiotic model in order to resolve the current ‘mess’ we are in, and the catastrophe we’re still hurtling towards. It ties in no doubt, to a book he is writing, out next year about how Man has become ‘dangerously disconnected’ from Nature. It’s a message that is not new to anyone who’s even remotely informed about environmental issues and social justice, but the nature of the speech got me thinking.

Now, I’m no fan of the royal family by any stretch of the imagination, but his selection of topic can only be commended. The message of sustainability is one that has been expounded copiously in recent years, but given the reluctant dawdling that characterises the majority’s response to climate change, the risk of over-stating and therefore potentially irritating those who listen, is one that needs to be undertaken. Have no fear – it’s monotonous for me too, having to state and re-state the same old arguments.

Prince Charles may not be the paragon of virtue when it comes to self-sufficiency and restraint (here’s one of no doubt countless examples). However, given his position as member of the Royal family, he is, whether you agree with the principle or not, in a more potent position than the majority of campaigners and activists to persuade particular members of society. Colin Firth makes a good point when he says:

“If your profession gives you a public voice, you have a new relationship with those who don’t. Your voice becomes a cherished commodity. Not for its merits but for its sheer volume. You may have nothing to say, but those who do – the wise, the desperate and the better informed – all clamour to make use of your media connection.”

Choosing your battles is always a difficult one. I’ve often had thrown in my face – as what I see as a last-ditch attempt at de-legitimating my position once the opposition realises they’re losing the argument proper – the challenge “why is it you care about Cause X and not Cause Y, Z and everything else wrong with the world?” It’s often a precursor to thinly-veiled accusations of selectiveness, popular bandwagoning, and even latent racism (insert ‘Palestine’ and ‘Darfur’ respectively).

Sadly there are enough injustices in the world to preclude the possibility of educating oneself and lobbying on every single one, but often one will try. Certain causes tend to align, and you often find those who campaign to avert climate change are also vegetarian, anti-war, and in favour of a fairer economic system. This is – if I may offer a massively over-simplified version of world affairs – due in part because they are all symptoms of an unfavourable system which seeks to erase diversity and equality in favour of personal profit – which is to many, quite clearly wrong.

Unfortunately these logical affiliations often help fulfil the pre-requisites for another diversionary debating tactic – what I like to call ‘lazy labelling’. More than once I’ve had “you’re just a naïve hippy/champagne socialist/tree-hugger/liberal/Marxist/communist/feminist” cast into a conversation, without any understanding of what any of those terms mean, or whether or not I actually fit into them. It’s merely an attempt to embarrass and/or de-legitimise what I’m saying and the points I’m making.

It’s frustrating, not least because I wouldn’t particularly object to any of these definitions if I actually fitted neatly into any of them. Obviously everyone’s politics varies. Moreover it’s indicative of a fundamental refusal to engage in proper debate, and thus an evasion of actual dialogue – thus making the whole conversation rather pointless.

I digress. Everyone is influenced and swayed by someone; it just seems to hinge upon the level to which we perceive them to be ‘preaching’. For some, it’s having Al Gore give a slideshow, for other’s it’s having Joanna Lumley out on the streets. I’d argue, and I doubt many would disagree, that in our contemporary media/celebrity/image culture, prominence = power, whether deserved or otherwise. There is no doubt a segment of this country’s society that either wouldn’t have heard of the issues Prince Charles raises, or would have chosen to dismiss them previously.

Having him on primetime TV however, is the opportunity to reach that section who respects the royal family and by extension what they have to say. I can say with some certainty that my grandparents for example, would probably pay little heed to anything I told them, but if they were to watch the lecture, perhaps they’d change their habits.

The arguments for and against having a royal family are well-worn. Those for it argue that their presence brings in untold amounts of money in tourism, they provide a focus for national identity and emotion and longer-term stability outside of elected government, and that given that their only duty is to serve the people (rather than parliamentary representatives who have their own agendas). On the other hand, it condones antiquated class inequality, inherited privilege, and they’re a largely politically ineffective ‘a waste of money’ (though it was recently documented that the Royal family only cost us each 69p in taxes).

Nevertheless, the fact remains they exist as part of the country’s political and social fabric, and probably will linger for the foreseeable future. So in the meantime, why not make use of their status, and put them to work? The least we can do is demand our money’s worth. A friend’s mother told me once how she was fundraising for a less-‘fashionable’ charity than the ones that make the mainstream, and wrote to Princess Diana requesting a donation or patronage. She received in return a cheque for £10. Considering her engagement ring cost £30,000, the donation seems meagre in comparison.

It’s tricky to mount a defence for Diana’s office in response to this anecdote, and persuade my friend’s mother that she should not consider the royal family with absolute disdain, yet I can’t help but thinking that it’s a difficult position to be in. How much exactly would have been enough to satisfy her that the Royal family are giving us enough back? £50? £200? Or were her perceptions in part pre-conceived?

It’s a dilemma I imagine a number of celebrities of varying description are in, and so are we. I’m sure if I put my utmost dedication into it, I could live an absolutely carbon-neutral lifestyle, not consuming any more than the bare necessity. Unfortunately however, my occupation as a student and my personal commitments to friends and family mean that I end up travelling, and buying items in supermarkets that have cranked up air-miles on their way to my saucepan. We are all hypocrites on some level. However if it’s any justification, there are levels to our ‘sins’, and as Mr Firth points out, some have a louder voice than others, and can chose to undertake this with responsibility and press wider change.

So, after watching this talk in its entirety – and I suggest that you do too – my opinion has altered somewhat on the Prince of Wales. As a speaker he’s articulate, engaging and  at times amusing, and he’s also well informed about the issues, and passionate enough to impart their significance to others. Although some parts of his talk may have been overly-protracted and at times a little obscure for a general audience, it’s refreshing to see the heir to the throne speaking coherently about a subject so progressive.

Further, perhaps by adopting the ‘joined-up thinking’ the Prince proposes, his speech may also have another subtler agenda concerned with the Royal Family facing up to its own future also. If they wish to remain in (or as some would argue regain) position as a central pillar to British national culture, they should begin pulling their weight.

One notable shortcoming was that the Prince did not outline any specific frameworks for solutions. However, there’s only so much that can be encompassed in what seems to be an introduction to sustainability, so I reckon he can be forgiven for these minor drawbacks to what was otherwise a timely and well-delivered talk. Definitely worth whatever share he got of my yearly 69p – now that’s efficient capitalism at its best.


The full version of Facing the Future is available on the BBC iPlayer website until 15th July, and the transcript is on the Prince of Wales’ website.


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