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Growing Public Awareness

Growing Public Awareness

Speech given by HRH The Prince of Wales to European Year of the Environment Eyecatcher Awards, Merchant Taylor’s Hall, London

22 March 1988 

Ladies and gentlemen, the European Year of the Environment has passed by extremely quickly. Too quickly, I would suggest. Because the subject we are concerned with is far too important and pressing, both nationally and internationally, to be confined in emphasis to just one year. Believe it or not, I am now old enough to remember the Countryside in 1970 movement, when I became Chairman of the Welsh Committee which organized that year’s events. At the end of that year we were determined to continue the impetus that had been created and to increase awareness of the issues throughout Wales. 

Eighteen years later we still have the prince of Wales’ Committee operating in the principality, thanks to some very dedicated and hardworking people. How, then, are we going to maintain the impetus of the European Year of the Environment? How are we going to build on the remarkable achievement of EYE, which has been the strength of response it has drawn from ordinary people throughout the United Kingdom? The statistics on participation are impressive. More than 3,000 events were registered on the EYE computer. This probably underestimates the number of events which have actually taken place. Nearly 200 local authorities organized events, as did over 700 environmental groups; 40,000 schools took an environmental education pack. The Eyecatcher award scheme is but one of fifty such competitions and award schemes run during EYE. 

This very high level of public participation reinforces the evidence from opinion polls, from the media and the rapidly growing membership of environmental organizations, now standing, believe it or not, at over 3 million, which is more than the combined membership of all Britain’s political parties. A highly significant factor. But it emphasizes – it reinforces – the evidence that the British public is very concerned about its environment, and that, given the opportunity and inspiration, it is willing to see this strength of feeling supported by practical action from those in authority. The trouble is that there is not enough evidence, so far, that those in politics or in industry believe that the British public is indeed ready to dip into its pocket to support environmental measures, even if the penalties are, to a certain extent, lower economic growth and higher prices. Despite all the efforts made during eye, despite all the publicity – the eight television series and thirty television programmes – an article in the February issue of Director magazine said that in a small survey of seventy manufacturing companies, made halfway through eye, 57 per cent had not heard of the initiative. Of the 43 per cent who were aware of it, only 4 per cent said that they had participated. Some big companies are seen on a corporate level as being environmentally sensitive – for instance Shell, ICI and BP – but in general, the picture is fragmented, and industry still too often waits for the threat of impending legislation rather than setting the pace. And yet the consumer is clearly concerned about the issues. When the magazine Which? surveyed a sample of the Consumer Association’s 1 million strong membership in 1986, 90 per cent said they were worried about environmental issues – particularly pollution. 

It would seem that there is still a prejudiced misconception, in certain circles, that people concerned about the environment and what happens to this earth, are bearded, besandalled, shaven-headed mystics who retreat every now and then to the Hebrides or the Kalahari desert to examine their navels and commune with the natives! But this is simply not true. There is a great groundswell of genuine concern about these issues, which are very much the issues of our day and age. There are many people who are now reacting against those who have held sway for rather too long, and who have become completely out of balance with nature. When you consider the built environment, for instance, and what has taken place in the last forty years, you see what happens when the past is denied and its relevance is abandoned. The result is, literally, godforsaken buildings, in many instances, which deny Man’s place in nature and which imply that the merely mechanical and utilitarian are what count most in our lives. This unbalanced trend in our own time, when we have armoured ourselves with such an arsenal of machines and chemicals to do what we like to nature, and to reshape the world, has led us to see ourselves as somehow separate from, and superior to, nature. However, there is a major change in attitude taking place – a growing realization that we are not separate from nature; a subconscious feeling that we need to restore a feeling of harmony with nature, and a proper sense of respect and awe for the great mystery of the natural order of the universe, as we see it, and indeed sense it, on this earth. 

What we are being inexorably forced up against is the realization that in the end our own long-term interests, and those of all life on this planet, are inextricably bound up with each other. We are beginning to realize that whatever we do to nature, whether it is on the grandest scale or just in our own gardens, is ultimately something that we are doing to our own deepest selves. We have not been put on this planet to destroy it. Because so many more people are beginning to think like this, they are not prepared to tolerate the avoidable abuse of our environment – such as pollution for example – whether of rivers, or the sea, by nitrate run-off and sewage effluent, or of the air, in the form of emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power stations or our cars. These emissions in the United Kingdom are unfortunately rising, having been on a downward trend for many years. The governments of the member states of the European Community have succeeded in adopting one directive of real significance in eye, and that is on vehicle emissions. But it is widely regarded as setting inferior standards to those which have been in force in the United States and Japan for many years. 

It is perhaps worth remembering, ladies and gentlemen, that the Commission chose as its principal goal during EYE the task of raising public awareness about the environment. As I have said earlier, I am convinced that there are far larger numbers of people only too aware and deeply concerned about the environment than politicians realize. The problem is how to translate this concern and awareness into effective action. That is the job of governments, local and public authorities, industries and other institutions. They are clearly lagging behind the public concern in this field. In 1980 the global 2000 report began with the words: “if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.” 

EYE has seen the 5 billionth person born on this earth. In forty years time, when a person starting a job today reaches retirement age, there will be 10 billion people on the planet. Can we afford that to mean twice as much pollution or twice as much environmental destruction? Isn’t it the responsibility of today’s parents to try and ensure that future generations inherit a world which provides them with hope, fulfilment and wonder, rather than one which has been tested to destruction? We need to take preventive action now, because otherwise the cure will inevitably come too late and will have to be too drastic for people to take. 

Many people are now aware of the problems and dangers; of the possibly catastrophic climatic changes through air pollution; of the mass extinction of species threatened by the loss of tropical forests and other essential habitats. When we read that over the next sixty years, if we go on as we are doing, something like a third of all the forms of life at present living on this planet may be extinct, can we feel anything but a kind of cosmic horror? This may sound like alarmism on a hysterical plane, but there is mounting evidence of a gigantic problem that won’t go away. 

How, then, do we tackle these mammoth challenges? Many of the problems of the environment are inherently international, as the Chernobyl disaster so powerfully demonstrated, so therefore they require international cooperation on an unprecedented scale in order to solve them. The European Community, I would suggest, is a unique mechanism for creating such cooperation. The environmental laws now adopted by the community have a direct effect in twelve countries and indirect effects in many more. The single European act, which consolidated the treaties forming the European Community, came into force during EYE. It insists that environmental priorities must be a component of all community policies; but this has to be more than just a pious hope – for all our sakes. What EYE shows is that the public support for a better environment is there. What is needed is for governments to move a lot faster. 

In the United Kingdom we could do a lot more. As the Better Environment for Industry awards showed, there is no shortage of ingenuity or inventiveness in this country. Surely now is the time for our industrialists and environmentalists to cease hoping that each other would go away, and instead sit down together to work out how our engineers and designers can solve the problems? Surely local authorities and government departments could do more, for instance, to encourage recycling by using their purchasing power to encourage reused materials? Is there not a role for our retailers to encourage green consumers, as they are known now, by clearly identifying those ordinary household goods which are better for the environment or are more energy efficient. It is surely extremely important that consumers should be properly informed on the package or the bottle, whether the product is unharmful to the environment so that at least a choice can be made. We could also do more in this country, I would suggest, to improve the situation with regard to forestry. The United Kingdom seems to be one of the few countries in the world where afforestation is treated with suspicion and sometimes outright opposition. This is perhaps hardly surprising when the planting up of heather moorlands and other valued areas with dense Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine takes place on a large scale. 

The future of forestry could be brighter; but this will not happen when, for instance, the Forestry Commission’s remit is too narrow to allow it to assume the wider social, environmental and heritage role that woods and forests could play in our lives. Only by a fundamental review of the Forestry Commission’s remit, and of the future role of forestry, are we likely to see forests become a part of the natural heritage of this country, as they are in Germany and other European nations, and not simply planted in interminable furrows to be harvested like fields of wheat. 

In this country, it is clear that we could follow more clearly the example of other countries in the environmental field, several of whom have progressed further and considerably faster than we have in response to widely-held public concern. But when all is said and done, we are facing a serious and urgent challenge on a huge international scale. We have to realize that all these problems take place in a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent; but still too many political leaders give more attention to the obvious costs of action than to the concealed costs of inaction. It is an issue, however, that political leaders with a sense of vision can view as a chance to exercise creative collaboration on an unprecedented scale. 

This is becoming an absolute imperative, however difficult to achieve in practice, because we face an environmental situation where we shall all win together or we shall all lose together. I only pray that europe can really show the way towards enlightened cooperation in this area, and that we in this country will be able to play our full part in response to a widespread public concern which is not – repeat not – a figment of one or two environmentalists’ imagination. 

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