Although the coronation of King Charles III followed ancient precedent, the new king sometimes looks quite modern. As Prince of Wales, he was famous for his environmentalism—an apparently very modern stance. What could be more up-to-date than going green? Who is more hip than Greta Thunberg? In reality, however, his views are even more anachronistic than the ceremonies in which he just took part.
The king’s environmentalism derives from his support for a little-known philosophy, Guénonian Traditionalism, that is promoted in the United States by George Washington University professor emeritus Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian American scholar and environmentalist whose work has had a significant impact on the British king. For both Nasr and the king, the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings. The solution is not just technical, but a return to the values and practices of earlier periods. Two questions arise: what exactly are these traditional values and practices, and to what extent are they compatible with the values and practices of liberal democracy?
First, however, an account of Charles’s environmentalism, which covers the built as well as the natural environment. It first became a topic of interest in 1983 when the then Prince of Wales described a planned extension to the National Gallery in London as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The design of the proposed building had just won a national competition organized by the British architectural establishment, so the prince’s dissenting view was initially ridiculed by the arbiters of taste. Some also wondered whether it was proper for the heir to the throne to be intervening, even indirectly, in the process of granting construction permits. But it turned out that the British public mostly agreed with the prince’s architectural views, and ridicule slowly turned to respect. The term “carbuncle” is now used in the United Kingdom to refer to modern architecture more often than to real boils.
Even those too young to remember 1983 are familiar with the Duchy Organic brand, which started life in 1990 as Duchy Originals, oaten “biscuits” (cookies) grown organically on the prince’s own lands in the Duchy of Cornwall, and now sold at Waitrose supermarkets.
The connection between Charles’s architectural criticism and his organic foods is explained in a book published by the prince in 2010, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. To solve the environmental crisis and restore harmony to the planet, he argued, we need a new way of looking at things. Without a shift in perspective, any good done will remain isolated and marginal. Real improvement depends on viewing the relationship between people and nature in terms of “traditional philosophy.”
Prince Charles did not cite sources for these ideas—Harmony was not that sort of book—but his arguments closely resemble those made since 1966 by one of America’s most creative Muslim thinkers, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr, who was born in Iran but educated at MIT and Harvard, has lived in the United States since the Iranian Revolution, which—ironically—he both opposed and helped produce. He opposed it because he was close to the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah, and because he saw the revolutionaries as untraditional; but his criticism of modernity and emphasis on traditional spirituality helped turn many young Iranians’ attention toward Islam.