I have always believed that great challenges present great opportunities. Becoming more sustainable is possibly the greatest challenge humanity has faced and I am convinced that it is, therefore, the most remarkable chance to secure a prosperous future for everyone.
Unfortunately, far too many of us see the journey towards a sustainable future as only a burden, a threat to our quality of life or a danger to our economy. We only ever seem to hear about how much it will cost to lighten our footprint on the planet, how difficult it will be to travel or how hard it will be to provide enough food. The predictable result of this is that we do nothing, despite ever more serious warnings of catastrophe from those most qualified to make such calls.
I can understand why it is so tempting to walk away from these huge problems. Given that people are often led to believe that the only choice is between catastrophic climate change and giving up all that makes life worthwhile, it is no surprise that most would rather bury their heads in the sand. This is why I have launched an initiative, called START, and why I will be hosting what we are calling a Garden Party to Make a Difference at Clarence House in September.
The idea behind START came from a realisation that simply warning of rising tides, melting ice caps and collapsing fish stocks was irrelevant to ordinary, hard-pressed people. They are concerned – quite understandably – with other things, such as the economy, their health or the education of their children. They have scant time to think about the future, especially when the consequences of doing nothing seem a long way away. After all, the worst effects won’t be felt for years, and those who will be hardest hit live far from here. Why should we do anything about it?
Yet all the evidence shows that, in general, these same people want to do the right thing. For example, there are very few who are happy to eat unsustainably harvested fish if they know it will kill off stocks for future generations. There are few who wish to buy certain goods if they are told their production directly contributes to the destruction of the world’s rainforests and the extinction of tens of thousands of animal and plant species.
However, people also want to eat delicious food whenever they choose, and want to buy goods and services that are fashionable and popular. START, therefore, is all about demonstrating that these demands and desires are not mutually exclusive. It is about showing people that it is possible both to enjoy life and to protect nature.
This initiative is backed by household names such as Asda, B&Q, M&S, Waitrose, BT, IBM, EDF, Addison Lee and a consortium of water companies. Under the heading “Let’s start something good”, they are going to urge their customers to start doing one thing to make a difference. For example, Asda will encourage its customers to eat food that is in season.
There are, in fact, endless possibilities to consider – such as recycling bath water onto the garden in the summer, or turning old curtain material into what could perhaps become a series of fashionable bags – things I am doing myself.
START is about putting a positive face on what I can only call a Sustainability Revolution. People are much more likely to act if the message of sustainability is framed in positive terms. The message of START is designed to be far more motivating than the language of “stop”; using the language of enjoyment rather than the language of deprivation, and the language of involvement instead of the language of admonishment. By giving people a glimpse of a more positive, exciting future, real change can be effected.
Of course, this has been done before. In 1849, at the very zenith of the Industrial Revolution, Prince Albert, my great, great, great grandfather, held a meeting at the Royal Society of Arts to call for a Great Exhibition, which would demonstrate to people all the wonders of the modern world. He saw that by showing people the future in an exciting way, they would not be afraid of it and, instead, would see the advantages it could bring. He said the Great Exhibition would, if nothing else, be, and I quote: “a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions”.
This year, START will echo the idea behind the Great Exhibition by showing people the technologies, techniques and principles that exist now and which will not only improve our lives but also help the planet sustain us all, by operating more in harmony with nature’s processes and cycles than against them. It will neither lecture nor hector but, instead, demonstrate and explain in ways that everyone can understand, using everyday language.
Just as the Great Exhibition used the tools of the Industrial Revolution (such as the railways and iron buildings), so START will use the tools of the modern age (such as television and the internet) to show people how it is possible to adopt more sustainable ways of operating and, put simply, to do their “bit”.
A key feature of START is the festival I am hosting in the gardens of Clarence House, as well as in those of neighbouring Lancaster House and Marlborough House. This festival – a Garden Party to Make a Difference – will run over 12 days in September and aims to give people of all ages an enjoyable day out while, at the same time, demonstrating the small steps that can, and are, being taken by all those of us interested in building a more sustainable future.
A remarkably talented team of curators from the worlds of music, comedy, debate and the environment will be helping us create an event that will, I hope, be entertaining, enjoyable and informative. This festival is just one way in which START can help to demonstrate how we can all make a difference, however big or small the steps we take – even if those steps could involve having an allotment or keeping chickens or bees…
There is no doubt that time is running out – and fast. For those of us who have been attempting to draw attention to these awkward issues for many years, it is tempting to give up and ask: “what is the point?” But giving up is simply not an option. We must all strive, harder than ever before, to convince people that by living sustainably we will improve our quality of life and our health; that by living in harmony with nature we will protect the intricate, delicate balance of that natural systems that ultimately sustain us; and by valuing nature’s resources properly, we will secure all our futures.
Perhaps you may be inspired to visit this “garden party,” or at least to take a look at the START website, thereby to appreciate that looking after our small, fragile and stressed planet is not about doom and gloom, sitting in the dark or not having nice things.
Rather, it is perfectly possible that taking action – and even having “slower” food, “slower” architecture and “slower” medicine – can actually help to create more attractive communities, enhanced health, more worthwhile lives, jobs and security. And that it is possible to have fun on the way.