We must respect nature if we are to survive

From remarks made by the Prince of Wales during a discussion between this year's Reith lecturers, broadcast on BBC Radio 4

Thursday 18 May 2000 00:00
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The idea that there is a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator, under which we accept a duty of stewardship for the Earth, has been an important feature of most religious and spiritual thought throughout the ages. Even those whose beliefs have not included the existence of a Creator have, nevertheless, adopted a similar position on moral and ethical grounds.

The idea that there is a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator, under which we accept a duty of stewardship for the Earth, has been an important feature of most religious and spiritual thought throughout the ages. Even those whose beliefs have not included the existence of a Creator have, nevertheless, adopted a similar position on moral and ethical grounds.

It is only recently that this guiding principle has become smothered by almost impenetrable layers of scientific rationalism. If we are to achieve genuinely sustainable development we will first have to rediscover, or re-acknowledge, a sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world, and with each other.

Fundamentally, an understanding of the sacred helps us to acknowledge that there are bounds of balance, order and harmony in the natural world which set limits to our ambitions, and define the parameters of sustainable development. In some cases Nature's limits are well understood at the rational, scientific level. As a simple example, we know that trying to graze too many sheep on a hillside will, sooner or later, be counter-productive for the sheep, the hillside, or both. More widely we understand that the overuse of insecticides or antibiotics leads to problems of resistance. And we are beginning to comprehend the full, awful consequences of pumping too much carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere.

Yet the actions being taken to halt the damage known to be caused by exceeding Nature's limits, in these and other ways, are insufficient to ensure a sustainable outcome.

In other areas, such as the artificial and uncontained transfer of genes between species of plants and animals, the lack of hard, scientific evidence of harmful consequences is regarded in many quarters as sufficient reason to allow such developments to proceed.

The idea of taking a precautionary approach, in this and many other potentially damaging situations, receives overwhelming public support, but still faces a degree of official opposition, as if admitting the possibility of doubt was a sign of weakness, or even of a wish to halt "progress".

On the contrary, I believe it to be a sign of strength and of wisdom. It seems that when we do have scientific evidence that we are damaging our environment we aren't doing enough to put things right, and when we don't have that evidence we are prone to do nothing at all, regardless of the risks.

Part of the problem is the prevailing approach that seeks to reduce the natural world, including ourselves, to the level of nothing more than a mechanical process.

It is because of our inability, or refusal, to accept the existence of a guiding hand that Nature has come to be regarded as a system that can be engineered for our own convenience, or as a nuisance to be evaded and manipulated, and in which anything that happens can be fixed by technology and human ingenuity.

Above all, we should show greater respect for the genius of Nature's designs, rigorously tested and refined over millions of years. This means being careful to use science to understand how Nature works, not to change what Nature is, as we do when genetic manipulation seeks to transform a process of biological evolution into something altogether different. The idea that the different parts of the natural world are connected through an intricate system of checks and balances, which we disturb at our peril, is all too easily dismissed as no longer relevant.

Of course, our descendants will have scientific and technological expertise beyond our imagining, but will they have the insight or the self- control to use this wisely, having learned both from our successes and our failures? They won't, unless there are increased efforts to develop an approach to education which balances the rational with the intuitive. Without this, truly sustainable development is doomed.

Only by bridging the destructive chasm between cynical secularism and the timelessness of traditional religion, will we avoid the disintegration of our environment.

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