Can England reach the twenty-first century with Charles in charge?

Published November 1, 2000

In a recent lecture broadcast to a worldwide audience of millions, Charles, the Prince of Wales, delivered a gloomy commentary on the direction being taken by modern science. The lecture has led some observers to question whether the Prince is able–or even willing–to bring England into the twenty-first century.

Charles delivered the sixth and final lecture in the BBC’s prestigious Reith Lecture series, broadcast throughout the month of May. Five other lecturers–including Chris Patten, European Union commissioner for external relations; Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization; and Dr. Tom Lovejoy, chief biodiversity advisor for the World Bank–addressed the theme, “Respect for the Earth: Can Sustainable Development be Made to Work in the Real World?”

Reason versus “instinctive wisdom”

“The idea of taking a precautionary approach . . . receives overwhelming public support,” said the Prince, “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,” he continued, “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.”

The world is destined for environmental catastrophe unless humankind develops an “urgent sense of the sacred,” Prince Charles said. Because of the “inability or refusal” of scientists, politicians, and business leaders “to accept the existence of a guiding hand,” Charles said, “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.”

“We need to rediscover a reverence for the natural world, irrespective of its usefulness to ourselves,” Charles asserted, and “to become more aware of the relationship between God, man and creation.”

Delivered from his residence at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, the Prince’s lecture took swipes at technology, globalization, modernization, and industrialization. “We need to restore the balance between the heartfelt reason of instinctive wisdom and the rational insights of scientific analysis,” Charles urged. “Neither, I believe, is much use on its own. So it is only by employing both the intuitive and the rational halves of our own nature–our hearts and our minds–that we will live up to the sacred trust that has been placed in us by our Creator.”

“If literally nothing is held sacred anymore,” Charles asked, “what is there to prevent us treating our entire world as some great laboratory of life with potentially disastrous long-term consequences?”

“High-minded pontificating”

The Prince of Wales has weighed in environmental debates before, most recently in the debate over genetically modified foods. But this time, his attack on the scientific approach went broader and deeper. Already, critics have interpreted his remarks as an assault on the entire medical and agricultural revolution being ushered in by the new era of genetics.

“Prince Charles, of course, has a long history of high-minded pontificating on issues about which he is generally quite ill-informed,” noted the Oxford-based Social Issues Research Center. “And his profound lack of understanding of the true motivation and role of the scientist in modern society revealed the underlying vacuity of his sentimentalist speech. . . . The Prince’s unqualified support for the precautionary principle again exposes his failure to appreciate the consequences of what he is proposing.”

The Prince’s well-known concern over genetically modified foods is but one example of a deeper philosophical opposition to scientific rationalism. His belief that tampering with nature is an affront to God was spelled out more explicitly in his Reith Lecture than in previous statements.

The Prince’s 22-minute speech drew on such green gurus as Fritz Schumacher and Rachel Carson; natural theologians, including Philip Sherrard; and radical economists, including Herman Daly, formerly of the World Bank. His lecture was well-received by British environmental leaders, who are increasingly at odds with mainstream science.

Peter Melchett, director of Greenpeace, had high praise for Charles’ Reith presentation. “It’s long overdue that someone pointed out how bereft and barren of humanity are those people who claim they are acting on the basis of ‘sound science,'” said Melchett. “They say in effect that culture, society, values, and religion don’t exist.”

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said the speech would be a wake-up call to politicians and business leaders who thought nature was “a piece of machinery.” Noted Secrett, “[Prince Charles] is reminding us that nature is something wondrous and beautiful and that we have to learn that humility to develop a truly sustainable relationship with nature.”

The Prince’s lecture did not attract universal praise, however. His comments provoked a strong response from Richard Dawkins, the renowned zoologist and award-winning science writer.

“Far from being demeaning to human spiritual values, scientific rationalism is the crowning glory of the human spirit,” Dawkins wrote in an open letter to the Prince. (See page 11.) “Of course you can use the products of science to do bad things, but you can use them to do good things, too.”

Others were less understanding in their criticism. “He’s attacking everything that has been done by mankind in the past 100,000 years,” said Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs. “Man should consider man foremost. Does Prince Charles think we ought to go back to the point where we are at the whim of nature? In Genesis, man is called on to take charge of nature. The Prince seems to be advocating something akin to a pagan love of an Earth goddess.”

For more information

Transcripts of the 2000 Reith Lecture series are available on the BBC Web site at