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The ways to save the planet

A Jeremiah in cavalry twills, the Prince of Wales has been warning us all about the state of our souls. Western society has become materialist and secular, he told the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Science has objectified nature. The culture has been “de-souled” by consumerism to the extent that we no longer yearn for the spiritual but for more and more material good. For that reason, the planet is in trouble and individuals are unhappy.

No one could accuse Prince Charles of lacking chutzpah. The man who was once thought to be a chinless wonder now leads with his chin whenever he makes a public pronouncement. Here is a man whose considerable everyday comforts are provided by inherited wealth and the taxpayer, delivering a sermon which condemns materialism. His views of science and population control have been dismissed as “royal mumbo-jumbo”.

Yet, if one can put aside the absurdity of the Prince’s position – and, while we’re at it, try to ignore that nagging, told-you-so tone (“Over the years, I have pointed out again and again…”) – something worthwhile is being said.

It may be woolly-minded to argue that science should less mechanistic, but the idea that, beyond and beneath the ecological and financial crises of the moment, there lies a “deeper, inner crisis of the soul” is very far from being mumbo-jumbo. It is because so many people are disconnected from nature, to take an obvious example, that they are what the psychologist Professor Geoff Beattie calls “green fakers”.

Researching his new book Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet?, Beattie discovered that, while many people utter the right pious sentiments about green issues, their real feelings, as revealed by their gestures and behaviour, are at best apathetic. Green talk is often simply noise, a superficial expression of concern which disappears when even the smallest sacrifice (street lights turned out after midnight, slightly more expensive air travel) is required.

Government has often been guilty of green fakery over recent years. Requiring people to change the way they live and expend energy is politically difficult. It is far easier to push through showy symbolic policies which provide the illusion of concern and commitment while impinging not one jot on the lives of most citizens. There are few sights across Britain which represent the green fakery of gesture over action more eloquently than the destruction of unspoilt countryside to put up vote-catching, largely ineffective industrial turbines at a time when the expansion of airports was being supported.

It would be one small but significant step towards spiritual reconnection if the emphasis in matters of the environment was on individual action rather than on grand, sweeping policies. Another would be to move away from today’s assumption that profit and convenience are what matter above all when it comes to buying daily goods.

It has been forgotten that very often, when a new supermarket or hypermarket arrives in an area, the connection between local shoppers and the people, animals, businesses and land which supply their goods is lost. It is a model of de-souling in action.

The main arguments which have allowed supermarkets to destroy communities represent consumerism in its crudest, most debased form. Convenience is invoked, as if the closing down of a variety of small outlets, from greengrocers to petrol, somehow made life easier. Then there is the profit factor; because supermarkets are financially successful, turning in ever juicier dividends for share-holders, then their progress is justified, however grim the side-effects.

Yet a return on investment and success in the markets are not everything. A sensible and practical step towards reconnection with everyday life would be to protect local retail outlets through planning laws, to start favouring the small and local over the big and moneyed.

These small steps – and there are others – would not mean the end of civilisation. They might even be the beginning of it.

Independent, Friday, 11 June 2010