Christina Patterson: What I learnt from Prince Charles

I can’t stand white people with dreadlocks, who can’tbe bothered to wash... I can’t stand clothing ranges or spas, or anything that insists on appropriating the prefix 'eco’
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The Independent Online

More than the deficit, more than the "axe", more than tuition fees, more, even, than the sale of a football player who enjoys visiting prostitutes to someone who gives a damn, one subject bores me to tears. I know it shouldn't, but I'm afraid it does. The environment.

I know it really, really matters that we have raped and pillaged the earth, and that there soon won't be an earth for us to pillage, because we can't stop eating everything in sight, including the planet's resources, and that that man who used to wander up and down Oxford Street with a placard saying "The end is nigh" was, for the wrong reasons, right. I know it's a very poor show that a planet that looked in pretty good shape for millions of years, has, in about 50, been turned into a wizened, gasping-between-fags shadow of itself. I know that we have sown the seeds of our own destruction, and that if we don't scrabble around and pick them up again, then it's curtains all round. It's just that the people who bang on about it always trigger the urge to speed the process up.

I can't stand white people with dreadlocks, who can't, in a country where there is plenty of running water, be bothered to wash themselves or their clothes, or multi-millionaire sons of bullying Little Englanders, or rock stars' wives who can't go anywhere without flying out a personal chef, or rock stars who keep their wealth in tax havens, so that as few poor people as possible can be helped by the excessive fruits of their so-called labour, lecturing me on how to live my life. I can't stand bags which say they aren't bags, or people who earn several times the national average, but still insist on wearing strange, clumpy shoes, worrying that little Chloe might be poisoned by a (metaphorically speaking) non-kosher carrot. I can't stand clothing ranges, or five-star hotels, or spas, or anything, really, that insists on appropriating the misleading and sanctimonious prefix, "eco".

And I can't stand the fact that the heir to the British throne, who is worth more than half a billion, and who takes £3m a year from the British taxpayer, and who uses his royal status to put the kibosh on architectural projects he doesn't like the look of, and who thinks that public buildings should be designed along the lines of five-bedroom executive homes in Surrey, and who also reputedly has toothpaste put on his toothbrush by somebody else, feels that he can lecture his prospective subjects on anything at all, let alone on matters relating to that Sunday supplement staple, "lifestyle".

And yet. I can see that, as with Labour and the deficit, it's a subject that one can't put off for ever, and that one shouldn't really shoot messengers (thought I don't see why one couldn't stick them in a rainforest and leave them to fight over grubs) and also that if one is suddenly going to start using the word "one" all the time, one might as well, in the spirit of Alan Johnson and his economics primer, go the whole hog and read the new book that "HRH", as he is billed on the jacket, has just, with the help of two co-authors who may or may not have done more of the writing than he did, written.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (who clearly likes proper titles and who, at a time when our putative prime minister-in-waiting refers to his parents as his "mum and dad", insists on calling his own mother "Her Majesty the Queen") begins his book, which, although it's called Harmony, is not about internet dating, with a call for revolution. Guillotines, alas, are not involved. This is a revolution that aims to put "Nature" (always spelt with a capital N) and the Earth (always spelt with a capital E), but not the Media (always spelt with a capital M) back "at the heart of our considerations once more". This, it soon becomes clear, involves embracing beauty and love, and rejecting the Enlightenment, or what he calls the "mechanistic" values of the Enlightenment, and Modernism. That doesn't, apparently, mean that you have to chuck out your Eliot or your Pound or your lovely fake Le Corbusier chaise longue. It means that you learn from the geometry of Ancient Egypt, and the architecture of Medieval mosques, and from the "golden thread of harmony" that apparently runs through all the world's greatest buildings and greatest sacred art. It also sounds a bit like The Da Vinci Code, but it turns out that it is the Da Vinci code, or rather the Fibonacci sequence, that he's talking about.

Our heir to the throne is nothing if not eclectic. After a quick survey of the world's major philosophical and artistic movements, he plunges us into a contemporary pastoral idyll, on the farm of a couple called Tim and Emma in Hertfordshire, where battery chickens have been set free to roam flower-filled meadows and sleep in yurts made out of Cath Kidston. If my memory of the detail is a little hazy, the general point isn't: that it's a whole lot nicer than the hideous, appalling factory farms where most of our farmed animals live out their nasty, brutish and short lives, and which result in hamburgers each containing the meat of thousands of different animals, washed in ammonia.

Prince Charles, unlike an awful lot of Americans and a number of vocal Tories and columnists who, since they don't, apparently, believe that the earth is flat, really ought to know better, understands that the science on climate change isn't something you can have a little argument about, like whether or not Ann Widdecombe should win Strictly, but more a case, à la Dad's Army, of "we're doomed". He is, in fact, absolutely right about the destruction of the world's ecosystems through the devastation of the rainforests. He's right on the horrendously accelerated scale of melting icecaps, and on the damage wrought by mechanised farming methods that strip the soil and put nothing back. And, unlike most of the people who pepper what you might charitably call their conversation with the E-word, he puts his money (or at least his energy) where his mouth is. He started a Rainforests Project which may have saved great swathes of the rainforest in Guyana; he runs a farm on the sustainable model he recommends; and he has started, and is patron of, a number of related charities.

Where he's a bit shaky is the solution. It's all very well to say that we must ditch the economic model that measures things in growth, but last time a beardy-weirdy type suggested tearing up the global economic system and starting all over again, it didn't turn out terribly well. And it's all very well to say that we should "think about how big our families should be", but, short of mass sterilisation, or a Herod-like slaughter of toddlers, it's rather hard to see how you stop poor people breeding more poor people. What do you do about the Chinese and Indians who quite fancy a tiny taste of the gas-guzzling high life? What do you do about countries which depend on tourism, and exports, and air miles?

I know columnists, like celebs and princes, are meant to tell other people what to do. You can, for example, tell people that they really shouldn't fly, and then no one checks whether you swap your nice fortnight in Italy for a miserable wet one in Wales. But I have absolutely no idea how we can, as Prince Charles puts it, "turn the tanker round". Unless the whole world does it, I can't see how we will, and I can't see the whole world doing it. But let's, by all means, have the conferences on biodiversity, and global warming, and sustainable energy, and let's set the targets. Maybe we could even stick to them. And maybe we could listen to some of the words (if he wrote them) of a slightly dotty, deeply irritating and rather thoughtful prince.