A Prince to the Rescue
In February, Prince Charles declared, not for the first time, that planet Earth is an ailing patient doomed to die if Earthlings don’t reduce collective consumption immediately to reverse global warming. The Prince did not cause much of a stir. Nor should he have. What he says is not true.
Which is a good thing, since we Earthlings are helpless to respond to his message. We have some capacity to contribute to a common cause, but we don’t feel comfortable about it. We know what happens. Just consider unemployment insurance. We’ve all heard stories similar to these: A neighbor quits his job as short-order cook and, to his surprise, is awarded unemployment compensation. He manages to keep those checks coming for the maximum two-year term allowed with the remark, “I deserve a vacation.” When the checks stop, he gets his old job back. Another fellow is given a generous settlement of $250,000 when he is made redundant. He, too, manages to get unemployment, also for the full term. His defense, prompted by the disappointment he reads in friends’ faces: “It’s not half what I paid in.” Sting is not quite the right word to describe the injury these mild betrayals deal the rest of us, who pay faithfully into such “common cause” funds hoping never to need them. Quotidian whiplash may be more accurate. Getting cheated like that goes a little deeper and hurts just a little longer, but happens every day.
So no wonder conscientious citizens respond with but subdued enthusiasm to Prince Charles’ urgent appeal to save Earth. They can’t help feeling the ones likely to benefit from their sacrifice will be the gluttons, and the Prince is one of the biggest ones around. He certainly won’t be participating. How could he? His wealth is too vast to admit any reduction in consumption. Beef-tea dinners at Clarence House weekends perhaps? We all know he’s got more – and consumes more – than many, many people put together. That weakens his message somewhat.
Of course, this surly reasoning is riddled with faults, and fatal for sure, but that’s how we think. The logic informs our strategies no matter how minor the skirmish. Witness my attempt just the other day to work a crowd of two to get them to use less for the common good. They would sooner have skinned me alive.
Two young women from nowhere wandered into my backyard – in a manner of speaking; the courtyard to my building is private property; use is restricted to residents, hence, my backyard. The ladies spread out their things as if for a picnic, took out their stereo player, turned it on, and settled down to chat the afternoon away.
As I crossed the courtyard on my way to the train, I mentioned that they should turn their stereo off. All chatting stopped. After a measured pause, they turned their heads toward me with self-assured insolence. “Why?” one finally lobbed my way like a live little bomb. I felt the sizzle. “Because it bothers everyone who lives here.” A weak return, I realized; I had already lost. In asking her to turn off her toy and in front of her friend, I had assailed her dignity, and by God, she wasn’t going to let anyone do that. Wasn’t she a person just like me? Me as person wasn’t going to tell her as person where she could play her stereo, and she as person wanted to play her stereo right there. She was a citizen of a democracy; she knew her rights. To stop her, I’d have to force her, and to force her I would need a court order representing the judgment of the entire democracy. Until I got that court order, disturbing anyone’s peace be damned, she was going to play that stereo wherever she felt like. This was Wi-Fi rhetoric, not delivered quite out loud, but it crackled all the same. I do not believe the lady thumbed her nose at my back as I hurried off to the train. I do believe she increased the volume, which helped, I am sure, reconstitute her wilted dignity.
The same psychology is at work with the Ferrari driver who blasts along our impoverished street late at night. He jets from one traffic light to the next. It’s a blast. He, too, is living his life as a person. Do not try and stop him. He will fight you. His dignity is at stake as well. The issue has become so sensitive because what we consume nowadays and how much we consume are perfectly arbitrary. That means an individual’s consumption reflects choice, and that is a very personal thing. Very personal indeed.
When the Prince asks us to trim consumption to save Earth, he has to answer such sophisticated, by no means well-heeled, members of society. For heavens’ sake, they’ve just gotten hold of the technology they can use to catch up, and they’re set on doing it. Their foremost considerations are their convenience, their comfort, and their image. We are not talking about a “me first” attitude here; this is a “me only” attitude, fired by murky desperation, anger, and resentment that blur the vision somewhat and curl the lip because, you see, they’re not sure what they’re catching up to, what it is they’ve always been missing, what it is you’ve always had that they want. But whatever that is, they deserve to have it too, in fact are pretending to have it by playing their stereo in your backyard, by gunning borrowed V12 engines to burn as many of your trees as possible as they hurl themselves towards the next red light. Talk to the disinherited, oh Prince, about reducing consumption to save Earth.
Last year, Prince William, son of Charles, stepped forward with a slightly different mission, articulating his passion to save iconic endangered species, such as the beast of the coveted horn, aka the odd-toed ungulate of family Rhinocerotidae, that is to say, the strange armored creature beloved as the mighty rhino. Prince William caused more of a stir, which is good. What he says is true. But his campaign is as hopeless as his father’s. Who’s supposed to implement this big idea? Any solution is expensive. Once again, so fatal to the cause, it is the speaker who has money. The nations he is asking to implement his strategy cannot afford to marshal their meager economies to alleviate the worry of a rich man’s mind. They are pressed by painful exigencies unknown to the societies whose concerns Prince William espouses, whose knowledge of such exigencies is informed primarily by publicity campaigns they have been told, quite rightly, to be wary of.
Add to that the danger any exploit undertaken in support of Prince William’s mission entails. Those poachers have more than their dignity to defend; their livelihood is at stake, they’re armed, and they know how to kill.
Let’s look at just one sticky wicket the younger Prince’s game plan thrust into tropical turf: In rising to Prince William’s call for action, an African nation assumes the responsibility of escorting a herd of rare elephants as it makes a wider-than-usual migratory circuit due to the region’s severe drought, a circuit that will take that herd through a section of the continent torn by war. The men conscripted for the job are municipal workers who get not a lot of mandazi for what they do, cleaning streets and such. Out there in the bush, in shorts, helmet, and sniper fire, it’ll get thick. It won’t be readily evident what you’re doing. There will be no pointing to mighty Jumbo and saying, “I’m just here because of my elephant.” Jumbo’s nowhere to be seen. It’s just you and – sudden chill – you’re not a municipal worker anymore. You’ve skyrocketed to soldier status in William’s army. And William? Where’s he? Where’s Jumbo? That guerrilla guy just sees you.
While Prince William’s message is undoubtedly urgent – animals are getting annihilated to shore up the human male’s confidence in his sexual potency – we can at least rest easy knowing Prince Charles’ dire message is nonsense. Earth is not dying. Earth is not in danger. Earth is not sick, or ailing, or even out of sorts.
Earth has been here for billions of years. The beginning may have been chaos, dust, and swirling. But the molten phase arrived, then the crusty phase, the heavy bombardment phase, vigorous tectonic movements, rapid continental accretion – all cataclysmic. At some point Earth, somewhat subdued perhaps but never friendly, grew susceptible to the infestation we call life, fermenting in every crevice, pullulating in every drop. And voila! Here we are. It is left to those of bold imagination to envision Earth billions of years from now. Long after its myriad life forms have vanished, its rigid surface grown wizened, its horizons stark, Neil Young’s Silver Seed long shot off in search of some other sun, Earth will still be here.
And Prince Charles fears the orb is threatened by accumulating greenhouse gases? Oceans rising three, eight, ten feet? An oxygen-poor atmosphere? Poppycock.
Let’s adjust Prince Charles’ message slightly: Without the rain forests Earth will do just fine; it is homo sapiens sapiens who cannot do without the rain forests. To adjust Prince William’s: Earth can do without the rhino, the elephant, even the precise and delicate bird. But please God save us from the day when we drive them from this planet forever and abandon ourselves to ourselves and the rat as the only extant models of nature’s miraculous work in fauna.
And so to the task. We must convince the boy behind the wheel it is not Earth he’ll save by cutting his engine, but himself.