God versus Greens

Environmentalists are foolishly following Prince Charles over the spiritual abyss.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 25th May 2000

It is not hard to see why Prince Charles’s solution to the environmental crisis is spiritual transformation, rather than political awakening. It is harder to see why those environmentalists who have less to lose have chosen to follow him.

His Reith lecture was certainly a bold speech for the heir to the throne to make, and there is no question that the prince, unlike some of his predecessors, truly wants to make the world a better place. But the views he expressed were beset with such blatant contradictions that I can’t understand why anyone should wish to subscribe to them.

Prince Charles correctly asserted, for example, that current measures to reduce the production of greenhouse gases are “insufficient”, and that there is “plenty of evidence” that farming which uses a diversity of crops and few chemicals makes more sense than monoculture. Both of these statements are, and can only be, drawn from science. Yet he used them to advance the argument that only through “an understanding of the sacred” can we truly determine where natural limits lie. He praised Socrates’s definition of wisdom – “knowing that you don’t know” (which is, incidentally, a pretty good description of the scientific model) – but in the same paragraph he suggested that “an instinctive, heart-felt awareness” is “the most reliable guide” to whether or not we are doing the right thing. We already know, in other words, all that we need to.

Yet this chaotic thinking has received nothing but praise from people whose cause it undermines. Writing in the Guardian on Saturday, for example, Sir Jonathon Porritt insisted that “every one of the world’s major religions” contains “an environmental ethic”. Maybe his copy of the Bible differs from mine. The one I’ve read keeps insisting that God granted Man dominion over Nature. In the Guardian yesterday, Dr Mae-Wan Ho argued that “the prince is more in touch with the common people than our elected government.” This may be true, but it doesn’t mean he’s right. Environmentalists are in danger of allowing their critics to define them: as backward-looking and anti-intellectual.

To me, the need to protect the environment springs not from “a sense of the sacred”, but from social justice. It can be defended with the help of arguments every bit as rigorous and scientific as those expounded by the people Prince Charles attacks. The genetic engineering of crop plants, for example, is dangerous not because it is “usurping God” or “tampering with Nature”, but because it grants big business monopolistic control over the foodchain, with devastating consequences for both the poor and the eco-system. Damaging the ozone layer is harmful not because it troubles Heaven, but because it exposes us to malignant melanomas.

Jonathon Porritt complains that scientists have taught us to see ourselves as “random, purposeless bipeds”. This is precisely why science is liberating. It shows us that humankind is not the purpose and pivot of the Universe, that Man has not been cast in the image of God to control the rest of creation. Science teaches us humility. It tells us that we emerge from the natural world, and remain subject to its laws and limitations. Only through the demolition of creation myths can an ecological worldview be sustained.

The problem arises not from science itself, but from the political and economic context in which it operates. Whether science is used for or against us depends upon who controls the purse strings. Interestingly, while Prince Charles attacked scientists, he went out of his way to praise Sir John Browne, the chief executive of BP. Through its university funding programme, BP has done more than any other British corporation to ensure that science meets its needs, rather than those of humanity as a whole.

None of this is to suggest that we must become coldly calculating robots. While human life, resulting from a series of evolutionary accidents, is arguably meaningless, individual human lives are not. Those accidents have bequeathed an extraordinary degree of consciousness, which in turn has granted us an enhanced capacity for both sympathy and suffering. Using the one to relieve the other invests our lives with a purpose which surely requires no celestial justification. Nor do we need God to tell us to protect other species and beautiful landscapes: we can do so simply because we love them.

Prince Charles has dug a hole, into which many of our most prominent environmentalists have felt obliged to fall. They can hardly complain if those who wish to profit from destruction characterise them as the enemies of reason.