Those of us, as I know only too well, who have dared to question the existing models of development are invariably accused of being out of touch and not living in the “real” world; anti-science, anti-progress; pilloried as looking backwards – hankering after a mythical Utopian past which, in reality, never existed! Well, at this conference organized by Google, that most modern of companies, it seems appropriate to talk only about how we can move forwards, learning from the wisdom of the past, towards a truly sustainable future.

Your Royal Highnesses, Your Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I just start by thanking everyone at Google for inviting me to speak at this most prestigious conference?

The word Zeitgeist, of course, comes from German and, when translated literally, means “the spirit of the time.” In English contemporary usage it captures something even more immediate; a sense of what is fashionable and brand new; something which I am told internet people might say is not just at the cutting edge – but the bleeding edge of technology (I know the bleeding feeling!). It conjures up a sense of immediacy and progress which, unless you grab it right now, will slip through your fingers and you will be left behind as some kind of unfashionable, lower form of life.

Well, speaking from the perspective of a lower form of life – and proud of it! – I hope you will forgive me if I use a broader definition of zeitgeist; one which attempts to capture the many layers of meaning the word holds in the original German. This will let me define the word as “the trend of thought and feeling in a period.” And in the German it is completely acceptable to use it to define a period in the past, as well as the present.

So I would like to talk about the zeitgeist of our development over the course of the 20th Century, and then to ask whether this has left us in a fit state to confront the challenges that all too clearly face us in the 21st Century.

Almost 10years into the new century, this seems to me to be an important question to ask. Far from the brave new world that some predicted, we find ourselves in a perfect storm of environmental, economic and social challenges which threaten the very fabric of our way of life and, frankly, our continued survival as a species on the planet.

This is not, of course, the first time that humanity has had to confront major fears about the future. The great ideological battle between Communism and democracy presented the world with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction – annihilation from a nuclear war that would leave the atmosphere poisoned globally, humans killed in horrific numbers and Nature horribly disfigured.

And then, through the 1970s and 1980s there were great economic challenges for many of the world’s economies – with fractures opening up in society.

Seeing those fractures with my own eyes as I went around the United Kingdom in the 1980s, drove me to start working with Business in the Community – of which I am now President and have been for more than twenty-four years. Our aim was quite simply to encourage, persuade and, if necessary, politely coerce companies to use their skills and resources to help rebuild communities which had been desperately damaged by mass redundancies and the pain of terrible economic recession. It was by no means easy, but the key was to convince the companies that this was actually in their own best interests, as well as of the wider society in which they were operating – in other words, a healthy backstreet makes for a healthy high street.

That spirit of co-operation and partnership, with a dash of enlightened self-interest, achieved – and continues to achieve – very remarkable things for communities across the country and, increasingly, across the world. The concepts of corporate social, or environmental, responsibility and ethical behaviour – first developed by a very few far-sighted businessmen in the Victorian age – have now become part of the wider zeitgeist in many businesses, large and small.

So, until the outlook for the global economy went from green to red, seemingly overnight and certainly without passing through amber, it looked as though we had, more or less, come through those challenges. None of you needs me to tell you that now the future looks very different. We are facing major economic difficulties, just as the full horror of potential environmental disaster is becoming ever clearer. But the complicated contortionary practice of placing the head firmly in the sand seems to be a popular pastime in various quarters…

The sheer scale of economic problems can be hammered home by a myriad of statistics – Stock market prices, unemployment figures, growth rates, interest rates, exchange rates, and the price of every conceivable commodity all tell a story. You will be aware though, ladies and gentlemen, that we are also facing a major environmental crisis and oddly, it seems to me at any rate, few of these environmental indicators rate a mention in daily newspapers and broadcasts. But let me give you some: in the last three hundred years, the area of global forest has shrunk by forty per cent. In the last century the world has lost about 50 per cent of its wetlands. In the past two decades, thirty-five per cent of mangrove swamps have disappeared. And we all know what happened with the Tsunami with the loss of mangrove swamps! Today, twenty-five per cent of all wild marine fisheries are over-exploited, with a further fifty per cent fully exploited. Inter-linked with all of these issues is the over-arching threat of climate change.

Only a few weeks ago, Lord Stern, whose seminal report did so much to help us understand the financial cost of climate change, spelt out the threats. He said that wars, famines, floods and hurricanes would wreak havoc unless greenhouse gas emissions were controlled. His view is that society has not even begun to understand the extent of the problem.

He predicted that a four or five degree rise over the next hundred years, which is now looking more likely unless urgent action is taken, would result in collapses in crop yields, rivers drying up and perhaps billions – yes billions – of people being forced to leave their homes. And what would be the implication of that? In Lord Stern’s own words, “extended social conflict, social disruption, war essentially, over much of the world for many decades.”

I said when I was in Brazil just two months ago that we had 100 months left in which to take the necessary action to avoid this awful outcome. This was based on the assumption that, globally, we must see our carbon emissions peaking by then to avoid tipping over into catastrophic climate change. And this isn’t my assumption – this is what the scientific experts are telling us.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, time has moved on and we now have ninety-eight months left. And every week that doomsday countdown continues with remorseless inevitability. And if this isn’t bad enough, remember that every year and sometimes monthly scientists are having to recalibrate their own predictions because the speed with which climate change is occurring is increasing all the time. We are in uncharted territory, but we do know that there is such a thing as the accelerator effect which means that the whole process of global warming speeds up as certain changes take place. For instance, as the glaciers and ice caps melt, there is less refection of the Sun’s rays away from the Earth and so the heating process quickens.

You may well be aware of the work recently completed by the remarkable explorer, Pen Hadow, who has been leading the Catlin Arctic Survey, of which I am Patron, to measure the thickness of the ice wilderness of the Arctic Ocean.

The team has just returned home and, I must tell you, the initial findings are not encouraging. Of the area of Arctic Ocean that they explored the ice was much thinner than they expected; in fact the ice was half as thick.

Speaking on his return to the country, Pen said: “There is a high-probability that we are going to lose the ice-cap, one of the Planet’s defining features, within a few years.”

If climate change were the only problem, it would be serious enough but, of course, it is not. Other environmental challenges such as over-fishing, soil erosion, diminishing water supplies and the loss of biodiversity on a large scale are urgent problems and problems that directly affect our health.

The link between biodiversity and human health was made very clear to me recently by Dr. Eric Chivian, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Harvard Medical School and one of the leading scientists looking at biodiversity. He has demonstrated quite conclusively that there is a direct relationship between the health of humans and the levels of biodiversity in the world; whether it is the destruction of the world’s rainforests, which provide the vital rainfall on which global agriculture depends, or the loss of natural organisms that has a direct effect on the spread of infectious diseases. In this regard the spread of the H1 N1 ‘flu virus is a mere overture to what is to follow if we do not tackle this issue…

Many of you will have heard recently about the plight of the honey bee. The British Beekeepers Association wrote to me about this last year and I have been trying to find ways to help them ever since. A third of British honeybee hives did not survive last Winter and Spring, largely due to the varroa mite. So severe has the problem become that the British Government has predicted that if nothing is done to arrest the decline, the honey bee could be extinct in the United Kingdom within ten years. It is almost unthinkable, isn’t it? But it is a very real prospect and not just in our own country. The crisis of the honey bee is spreading across the globe. And why is it a crisis? Because without the pollinating services of honey bees, agriculture will be decimated, food prices will rise and the consequences for the health and well-being of every man, woman and child are obvious.

So we have a multi-faceted environmental crisis that neatly coincides with the terrible economic conditions around the world. And I happen to believe that there are important parallels to be drawn. I should say at this point, just in case anyone is in any doubt, that I am not an economist. I am in fact an historian, and that can be quite instructive at times! Having said that, I don’t think it necessarily requires specialist knowledge to identify perhaps two key features of the financial crisis. First, and most importantly, there was a huge increase in debt – in consuming today and paying tomorrow – with, for example, indebtedness in the United States increasing from 163 per cent of annual G.D.P. in 1980 to 346 per cent in 2007. Second, there was clearly a degree of over-confidence in the ability of market and regulatory systems to identify and mitigate the risks of this over-consumption.

Ladies and gentlemen, these same characteristics apply equally to the global ecological crisis.

I think, therefore, we have to ask how on earth we could have allowed ourselves to reach this point? What is it about our society and its values that has led us to act with such thoughtless destructiveness? With all our knowledge, our resources and our capacity for sophisticated analysis of any and every problem known to man, how is it that we have permitted these things to happen? If we could answer these questions, we could be more confident about our ability to discover and implement solutions before it really is too late.

The assumption behind our economic model – whether stated or unstated – was clear and simple. It was accepted as a universal truth that as long as everyone had more money than before, then happiness would surely follow. But that has turned out to be a false premise. Richard Layard, the distinguished academic from the London School of Economics, pointed this out when he said that “Despite massive increases in purchasing power, people in the West are no happier than they were fifty years ago.”

The trend is clear. Although consuming more and more – with our ever-increasing purchasing power – we have failed to increase our levels of contentment. As Senator Bobby Kennedy said in a speech at the University of Kansas in March 1968, the nation’s gross national product measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

I am afraid we face this crisis because, for too long, we have blindly assumed that however big a mess we create, we can somehow engineer and innovate our way out of trouble. We have compounded this grave error by not assigning proper values to the ecosystem services which sustain us (in other words, the forests, the wetlands, the mangroves, the marine ecosystems), and by failing to assess the risks to our most vital assets – the ones that literally keep us alive – in any meaningful way. However, unlike the financial crisis, the option to restore balance to the climate and ecosystems through the equivalent of an injection of cash simply will not exist. Once we have spent our natural capital, it cannot be replenished.

A hundred years ago – very recently in truly historical terms – few people thought that we might be damaging our own life-support system, and those who did were unable adequately to substantiate their concerns. But over the ensuing years the evidence has emerged, bit by awful bit, to the point where you might imagine that no-one can be in any doubt whatsoever about the nature and scale of the damage we are causing. But if we imagine that, we delude ourselves – for there are still far too many people who should know better who are in denial of this evidence. Why, though, should this be the case? Is it because it threatens the very foundations on which the whole conventional economic model is based? Whatever the case, it is surely not a question any longer of seeing development of the economy and the protection of the environment as choices. The evidence now shows us that if we prioritize one above the other then we are likely to fail with both. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example, produced a stark warning that if we do not halt the damage we are causing to ecosystems it will simply not be possible to achieve any of the Millennium Development Goals on reducing poverty.

The crux of the problem, I believe, is that we have come to see ourselves – no, we have been trained to see ourselves – as being outside of Nature and free to manipulate and control her constituent parts, imagining somehow that the whole will not suffer and can take care of itself, and of us, whatever we do. This illusion of separateness from Nature conceals the degree to which we are still entirely dependent on natural systems for our basic needs, notwithstanding our technological genius.

Nature provides – in the jargon – “ecosystem services,” such as the way the Rainforests produce water for the world’s crops to grow, or the way the Arctic reflects the sun’s rays to regulate the planet’s temperature. If we destroy these then our economy will, quite simply, be unable to function. We must recognize that we cannot continue without Nature’s support; we cannot have Capitalism without capital – Nature’s capital. The trouble is that the whole business of economics has become so abstracted and rarefied that it, too, seems to have lost touch with Nature. Economists often base their modelling on the assumption of “ceterus paribus” or “all things being equal”. The problem surely is that things are now, thanks to climate change, definitely not equal and, I fear, are unlikely to be so again for a very long time. We simply must recognize that fact if we are to find a way out of this crisis.

The challenge, then, is how to move forward. What should we do about it?

Those of us, as I know only too well, who have dared to question the existing models of development are invariably accused of being out of touch and not living in the “real” world; anti-science, anti-progress; pilloried as looking backwards – hankering after a mythical Utopian past which, in reality, never existed! Well, at this conference organized by Google, that most modern of companies, it seems appropriate to talk only about how we can move forwards, learning from the wisdom of the past, towards a truly sustainable future.

At the heart of this future must surely be a society living in balance – and dare I say harmony – with Nature. This will require a great deal of re-connection, because in many nations the days when the majority of the population lived close to the land have long gone. In particular, we will have to find ways of building a much wider and deeper understanding of the manifold ways in which all human life depends on Nature; of the consequences if we breach natural limits and of the real value of those essential services which we take for granted.

We need to reach a situation in which each time we sit down to a meal we think of the environment that provided it. When we turn on a light, or a tap, we need to think about where the energy and the water come from. Rain is actually a blessing and we cannot exist without it, and yet day after day the weather forecasters seem deeply disappointed if they can’t sell us a “product” based on wall-to-wall sunshine. 

When we buy something in the shops we need to think about the natural resources, as well as the energy and water, that went in to making it. And when we put out our rubbish, or flush the lavatory, we need to recognize that we are asking the environment to absorb our waste. Of course, all sorts of manufacturing and utility companies, as well as farmers and fishermen, will have had an important hand in those processes. But it is Nature that ultimately has to cope. So we have to take on far greater responsibility for the pressures we put on Her.

Experience shows that natural processes are remarkably resilient, but they do have limits. The current combination of increasing per capita consumption, rapidly increasing global population and increasing technological power is a volatile and dangerous mix, making it ever more likely that natural limits will be breached. So the much-derided “precautionary principle” has, in my view, never been more important. Nor has individual awareness and responsibility. But at the moment it seems as if we are hell-bent on a desperate competitive scramble to consume the last of everything – literally, “the Devil take the hindmost.” The fact that this is, so we are told, a perfectly rational response to price signals does not exactly provide reassurance! The price signals need to be changed. So the battle against climate change must be led by governments and supported by businesses – though I have to say in passing that in some cases businesses are currently leading governments in that respect. At the end of the day, this is a battle that can only be won through billions of individual choices made by each and every one of us, in every nation.

And this is where I will turn, for a moment, to the Internet. One of the Internet’s great strengths is that it can enable diverse communities to come together to ensure that everybody’s views and actions can really be made to count. It provides the potential to create global determination for change, on any number of issues. It is interesting to note that the priorities chosen by online communities reflect the huge diversity of humanity. These issues are frequently those that are essential to local communities. It is an example, if I may say so, of what I can only call “globalization from the bottom up”. Corporations and governments need to listen and understand the concerns of these online communities and consider how their products and solutions might be adjusted to reflect them. It is for this reason that I have chosen the Internet as the primary means of communicating the desperate urgency of halting Rainforest destruction.

You have already had the opportunity to see the short film I have made – with a frog! – to urge people to sign up in order to call for action to stop the Rainforests being cut down by the time the world’s leaders gather in Copenhagen for vitally important international climate discussions. I am hugely grateful for all the support Google is providing for this campaign, it really is quite remarkable and is making all the difference, and I am pleased to say that the video is being watched in large numbers and is making something of a splash in the United States. The old story of the Frog Prince is well known. What’s not known is that I may easily turn back into a frog if we don’t halt deforestation in time!

Stopping the destruction of the rainforests is vital because, as I have already said, they provide some of the most important eco-system services that we are testing to destruction. They are home to hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals which, once lost, we will never ever see again and whose potentially valuable properties are then forever denied to us and our descendants. Tropical deforestation accounts for almost twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions but their conservation could be forty percent of the solution – that’s why they matter so much.

Thinking, therefore, of “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” would make it easier to recognize when we are living off Nature’s capital, rather than the interest, and to see where we are taking supposedly “free” services for granted. Such a mindset would also allow us to identify where we could actually re-invest for a greater natural return, or a better natural service, in the long run. It really is all about helping Nature to help us. And, to me, this lies at the heart of “sustainability.” But it is very much not about “business as usual.” It requires knowledge – yes, good science, but also humility, courage, restraint and long-term thinking. And it is, of course, the antithesis of the “quick fix” mentality that lies behind many of our current difficulties, both economic and environmental.

Just to be clear, I am most certainly not talking about seeding the oceans with chemicals that might increase absorption of carbon dioxide, nor of producing genetically-modified trees (or indeed genetically-modified anything, for that matter) to achieve the same or different aims. I am actually talking about tried and tested methods that work with the grain of Nature, such as restoring degraded soils with organic matter, increasing fish stocks through “no take” zones in the oceans and producing biogas through anaerobic digestion and so on and so fourth. It means giving back something to Nature in return for what we take out. It also means stopping the destruction of the tropical rainforests, which emits more carbon dioxide into the environment than the entire global transport sector – and that is what my Prince’s Rainforests Project is working to achieve. At the same time, we need a huge drive for the efficient use, and re-use, of natural resources and natural services. This must tackle not just energy efficiency, though that is surely one of the easiest wins in the battle against climate change, but also the efficient use of every natural resource, including water. A growing population will need more irrigated land, yet large parts of the world are already water-stressed, so every irrigated drop will have to count, and be counted.

But how do we develop a price signal that encourages people to take a “rational” approach to the “rational” use of Nature’s capital? It seems to me that the concept of a market-based approach to the Payment of Ecosystem Services has enormous merit, but we need to recognize, I believe, that such a market can only really work if there are robust policies to support it. A market cannot operate effectively in a vacuum. Perhaps the U.S. practice of “conservation banking” could be used as an example? It is absolutely vital, though, that the financial benefits of these markets are accessible to local communities so that their standards of living can be positively affected. The internet will be a critical tool in empowering local communities’ participation in any ecosystem services market and, apart from anything else, can add enormously to the monitoring that will be required to make a market credible. I know that in this regard Google has already had very promising projects in the forestry sector in Africa.

This is a different way of looking at the world; rather more radical, perhaps, than suggesting – as I did in the 1980s – that companies might have responsibilities to the communities in which they operate.

If we wish to have anything like a stable and secure planet, then we simply have to change the basis on which we operate. How do we do this? Well, over the last thirty years my own efforts to foster this longer-term approach have been directed mainly at the business community. My Business and Environment Programme has seen nearly 2,000 business leaders participate in its seminars, and there is a thriving alumni network exchanging ideas and information in all sorts of productive ways. The participants tell me that their involvement has changed their thinking and that even if they cannot implement everything immediately, the attitude of mind is crucial. Business in the Community’s May Day Network is now working with over 1,100 companies to help them change the way they do business so they can reduce their impact on the environment.

What I suspect we need now is an extensive programme to inform and challenge the thinking of everyone on the planet, expressed clearly and simply, with no room for misunderstanding. My own foray into the digital world for my Rainforests Project is an attempt to bring the issue of rainforest destruction and its potential solution to the widest possible audience. The power of the Internet is growing exponentially. While the problems the globe faces are greater than ever before, perhaps we do have the most effective tool in history to overcome them. Could, perhaps, the Internet help us to change the zeitgeist of the remainder of this century? Could Google help to provide that catalyst for action that is so urgently needed?

Albert Einstein, with all his wisdom, told us that “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So now is the time for fresh thinking; for rediscovering that all-important balance and harmony and, above all, humility. Ladies and gentlemen, if we fail, every one of us will suffer – and our children and grandchildren even more so. We are at a defining moment in our history literally. We simply must, must act.