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Opinion: King Charles was a green visionary – will he dare be as radical now?

The point has been repeated many times since September that, as King, Charles has been stripped of much of the freedom that for 50 years he enjoyed as an environmental activist.

But the new job presents opportunities to set his own house in order that may prove the more impactful. If there’s promise in these first months of Charles’s accession to the British throne, it lies in the recent decision to permit a PhD researcher – extraordinarily, for the first time – into the royal archives to interrogate historic connections with transatlantic slavery (and so to the roots of contemporary climate breakdown) rather than his personal track record, however commendable, in organic agriculture and biofuel production.

Like so many within the mainstream environmental movement, Charles’s passion for ecology has seen him, throughout his career, walking the long road away from a eugenicist vision of nature – the idealised vision of a world without people. This idea shaped the commitments of his father. Prince Philip served as a key steward of the World Wildlife Fund from its inception in 1961 while also sharing fantasies in public about being reincarnated as a “deadly virus, to contribute something to the problem of overpopulation”.

The framing of the problem of “nature” versus the human population took hold of the British aristocracy in the late 19th century – a response to the industrial boom that saw Britain’s population more than double between 1851 and 1911, inspiring Malthusian anxieties about quantity versus quality. Many theorised that the environment might best be protected by curbing the reproductive capacity, first of the British working classes and later of the global (racialised) poor.

Charles, from the occasion of his first speech on the environment in 1970, grappled with this inheritance: “In many places,” he said, “the number of people is increasing faster than the resources of the local environment can cope.” He outlined two options he could see for redress. One being “that nothing need be done because nature is bound to react by producing a particularly virulent plague or virus and the other is that something certainly needs to be done by man to prevent his overpopulation.”

He was derided as a mystic and crank for conversing with his plants. I would prefer to credit him as a visionary

This way of thinking about human life, implicitly violent, persists as late as 2010 when, in his book, Harmony – A New Way of Looking at Our World, Charles insists that, in response to urban development in Lagos, Mumbai, Cairo or Mexico City, the problem of overpopulation, in spite of political correctness, would need to be addressed.

From an ecological perspective, this enduring obsession speaks to a sense of misplaced priority. Consider that the carbon footprint of the average Nigerian person (3.37 tonnes per person per year) contributes less than a thousandth of the carbon emitted by the British royal family. Also, resource-use is driven not by rising populations in the global south but by overconsumption in the global north.

To evolve beyond the prejudice of our native ignorance is no mean feat and, it should be said of Charles that the great thrust of his own trajectory has long pointed him away from the mechanistic view of life that underpins eugenicist thinking and towards a vision of sympathy and interconnection with the natural world.

He was an early advocate against the use of pesticides in agriculture and showed a propensity for biodynamic rhythms of planting and harvesting, as well as holding daily conversations with his plants – for which he has often been derided as a mystic and a crank but for which I would prefer to credit him as some kind of a visionary.

More recently, in contrast with his father’s conservationist view of engagement with the natural world, he has been an advocate for progressive platforms including sustainable markets and Cop diplomacy. He’s also spoken of his “personal sorrow” over Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and his own commitment to finding “new ways to acknowledge the past” and “deepen [his] own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact”.

This suggests potential for thinking through the roots of our environmental crisis, literally from the throne of white privilege, to recognise the role of the plantation in shaping contemporary dynamics of inequality – of global profit, pollution and climate vulnerability – that define the sea that we swim in, in 2023.

Black communities in Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas find themselves, after centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation, on the frontlines of climate breakdown. Leadership from the House of Windsor – inheritors of wealth gained, among sources such as the Royal African Company, established by the Duke of York, later James II, in 1660 – on reparations for slavery might put pressure on the wider British aristocracy to reckon with the extent that inherited wealth often derives directly from the uncompensated labour of people who, around the world, endure the rising costs of environmental inequality.

Adopting this perspective might also inspire him to rethink how land in the UK is used. Half the country is owned by less than 1% of the national population, reflecting the dynamics of the enclosure acts since the mid-18th century. We could better use our landscapes to support biodiversity, public health and well-being, food security and low-carbon affordable housing.

Charles would do well to consider his agency as head of the Church of England, an institution that continues to pull in rents gained off the backs of African slaves who died more than 200 years ago. It also presides over much of the nation’s public architecture which now sits empty or underused in every parish, town and city – a monument to a monarchical state that has lost all sense of civic purpose.

As king, Charles might see that the church he leads has done its time and that to give the numinous buildings that it sits on back to the people in this moment of so many interconnected crises, from the cost of heating our homes and the decimation of our hospitals, schools and all kinds of public space, would be nothing less than a transformative act of environmental renewal.

We often make the mistake of imagining “the environment” to be the space of wilderness that lies beyond our world of human interaction when it was always, after all, the space that connects us to one another and to the multitude of interspecies life.

About the Author: Ashish Ghadiali is a filmmaker, critic and feature writer.


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