Issue of February, 24, 2001
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Prince Charles: A Prophet Ignored
By Samantha Sen

The Prince of Wales has been a step ahead of the rest in Great Britain. In the 1970s he was already trying to call attention to the problem of climate change and to promote sustainable agriculture.

LONDON, (Tierramérica).- An environmental campaign running 30 years and raising tens of millions of dollars is still little known, even though the campaigner happens to be Prince Charles.

The Prince of Wales has written hundreds of articles and attended countless functions to raise awareness about the environment in Britain and in developing countries. But he has scarcely been published in the land where he is in line to one day be king.

The British media found acreage of space for the Prince when he fell out with Diana. He is of marginal interest when seen with his friend Camilla Parker-Bowles. He is Queen Elizabeth's son and father of the younger princes. But in the work that forms the passion of his life there is precious little interest.

"Sustainable agriculture" and the concern Prince Charles has for it do not fit into the headline space of The Sun. But it doesn't seem to find its way into the tabloids either. In Britain good sense appears to be bad copy.

But all evidence suggests that Prince Charles has been about 20 years ahead of the rest of Britain in his environmental concerns. His warnings about global warming in the 1970s were laughed off until the floods brought global warming home last year.

His opposition to genetically modified farming was seen as eccentric, but the demand for organic foods is now soaring in Britain. His move to champion alternative medicine was dismissed as quackish, but more and more of Britons are moving now to alternative systems of medicine.

"His interests are very wide-ranging," a Palace spokeswoman told Tierramérica. "He has a number of advisers who keep him informed about developments in the environment around the world." The Prince is now taking "an increasing interest in developments around the world," she said.

Prince Charles admits he was considered something of a "crank" when he first took up environmental matters in one of his first public speeches in February 1970 when he was just 21 years old. He spoke then of "the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms", and the problems caused by waste disposal and the growing demand for water.

It has been a long and mostly uncelebrated journey since then. His concerns have become his country's concerns now, but that has still not established him as a pioneering thinker. Britain listens more to what others are saying, even when it is the same thing the prince has said.

Prince Charles took matters in his own hands when he made a television documentary for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) more than ten years ago.

The documentary titled ''The Earth in Balance, A Personal View of the Environment,'' was broadcast in May 1990. He made some prophetic points about global warming and sustainable agriculture.

Unless mankind's approach to the Earth and its natural resources was changed, "I believe that we shall - sooner rather than later - face a reckoning", he said. It was considered a boring program, and quickly forgotten.

Prince Charles has since made speeches, taken part in television programs, held seminars and discussions and set up many environmental organizations. He has even introduced organic farming at his own farm in Highgrove - a Gandhian attempt to practice what he preaches. The organic farming experiment has been hugely successful.

Among other things he notes that since he got rid of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the sparrows have returned to the farm. To most people in Britain that still sounds hopelessly dull in the face of the great Diana story.

Last month Prince Charles addressed a seminar at the University of Essex on reducing poverty through sustainable agriculture. The Prince took a global view of the problem. "Some of you may know that I have been particularly concerned that the arguments for high-tech approaches to agriculture are increasingly being accepted without question," he said, "and their possible long-term consequences on the environment and agricultural economies are not being given sufficient attention".

Prince Charles invited ridicule when he said global warming was more a threat than Saddam Hussein. Speaking on global security back in 1993 Prince Charles said "the threats from climate change are less easily seen and reacted to than, for instance, Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait; so the effort that we must make to recognize these threats without enemies, in good time, is all the greater".

In the face of the obsession with the supposed threat from Saddam, his remarks only confirmed his reputation as a royal crank.

To make matters worse for himself, Prince Charles stressed the need for clean water as a matter of security. "From the historical record, it is clear that the rise or fall of whole civilizations can be correlated with changes in the water available to them," he said.

But Britain was thinking of Saddam, not of Third World water.

The Prince has often taken positions counter to the prevailing political mood. In a lecture on rain forests he said: "Before we place the blame for environmental deterioration on developing countries, we must ask ourselves in how many cases the process of deterioration was started by the actions of individuals and companies from the industrialized nations of the world'.'

''We should also recognize the extent to which underdevelopment and poverty can account for the inability of the developing countries to husband their natural resources, and to undertake environmental efforts and measures," he added.

Prince Charles even hit out obliquely against the whole colonizing process. "Ever since the first explorers from Spain and Portugal set foot in South America, and the British visited the Caribbean, the people of the so-called 'developed world' have always treated people as total savages, be it to enslave them, subdue, 'civilize' them, or convert them to our way of religious thinking," he said.

Prince Charles's support for integrated medicine brought hostile reactions when he first proposed it. But he did allow himself a pat on the back when he said in an article in the National Health Service magazine last year: "The distinctly tepid response sixteen years ago when, as President of the British Medical Association, I first broached the subject of integrated medicine was ample evidence of the uphill struggle ahead''.

''I took some encouragement from conventional medicine's rather warmer reception for a discussion I convened three years ago to look at practical steps to move forward the agenda," he said. Alternative medicines are now used by 20 percent of Britain's population, and the number is rising fast.

The Prince heads several environmental trusts including the Soil Association, The Wildlife Trusts, Intermediate Technology, Henry Doubleday Research Association, John Muir Trust and Water Aid. It is a path Prince Charles has cut for himself.

After graduation from Cambridge and a stint in the Royal Navy, Prince Charles was left with nothing much to do. He found a great deal to keep him busy in environmental concerns. But Britain does not have much to say about that… yet.


* Samantha Sen is an IPS contributor.

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