Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

Even if you don’t have any intention of reading the new book by Prince Charles of Wales, it’s almost worth buying a copy just to admire it. Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World is beautifully bound, with thick, glossy pages full of photographs that take you on a visual journey of the natural and architectural wonders of the world. Some, like the two-page spread of a humpback whale breaching, are joyful; others, such as the carcass of a young albatross, its digestive tract stuffed with plastic debris, are distressing.

The actual contents of the book were unique, but compelling. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and discussing it in depth, Prince Charles swept through just about every discipline you’d find in a modern university – agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…and that’s only the A’s. This broad approach could easily have fallen into confusing disconnect, but he managed to connect each subject with what he referred to as a “golden thread”: a philosophical principle emphasizing the importance of following patterns seen in nature, and not trying to overwhelm or conquer it.

This approach is not really a “new way of looking at the world”, as the subtitle proclaims – in fact, it predates the dominant practice of Western society. For example, among indigenous civilizations that have modestly endured for many thousands of years, “not one…considers itself to be a master of creation”. Compare that to today’s industrialized society, which is only a few centuries old, and already views nature as a huge machine composed of independent parts which we can tweak at our will, rather than as a complex, dynamic system.

Prince Charles makes both emotional and scientific arguments to support his message, but he emphasizes the emotional ones first. I found this framing to be a turnoff, especially in the first chapter, which began, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth…is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen,” and continued from there. I couldn’t really take this narrative seriously, as I hadn’t yet heard his rational arguments, so the opening seemed far too dramatized. Perhaps others will find the initial appeals to emotion more effective than graphs and citations, but I was not impressed by them.

The meat of the book, however, was far better. Prince Charles explored a wide array of fascinating subjects that never managed to bore me. From the mathematical relationships found in the biosphere, to the importance of agricultural crop diversity in a changing climate, to the fascinating stream of engineering known as biomimicry, to the history of Islamic architecture…they may seem unrelated, but in fact all lead back to the importance of sustainability, in every sense of the word, and the incredible wisdom and beauty that can be found in nature.

The major flaw of Harmony, in my opinion, was the frequency of Prince Charles’ self-promotion. It seemed like nearly every second page contained a sentence similar to “(this particular problem) is very significant…and that is why I decided to start (some charity) to address it.” I think it’s wonderful that such a powerful and prolific figure is supporting projects for sustainability, but a better approach would have been to include an appendix of his charities at the end of the book. That way, the writing would have been less about him, and more about what he had to say.

There were also some obvious errors in the book, more serious than simple typos. 22 does not follow 13 in the Fibonacci Sequence, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not 24.5º (at least not at present). I expect these errors will be fixed in future editions.

The text’s discussion of climate change was fairly standard – think Al Gore’s slideshow, condensed into a few pages – but nonetheless very accurate and effective. There were some brief forays into paleoclimate which I enjoyed, too. Climate change was not the focus of this book, it was instead presented as a piece of a larger picture, but I appreciated the clarity with which it was addressed.

Although the scientific side of my mind is hyper-vigilant when I read nonfiction, I can relate to the deep affinity and spirituality people feel for the natural world. Nothing builds a sense of kinship like being out in the wilderness and recognizing how much smarter other species can be, in their own ways, than human beings. Nothing feels quite as healing as the quiet awe that strikes when a deer steps out onto the path ahead, or the joy and laughter that inevitably follow from watching songbirds. Nothing builds acceptance of the phenomenon of death like witnessing its omnipresence and necessity in any functioning ecosystem.

We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.


6 thoughts on “Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

  1. There is a limit to how far Prince Charles ‘romanticism’ travels in respect to environmental sustainability. His views on architecture limit the innovations possible in cutting carbon emissions and resource use.
    We are in a situation now where technology and innovation is the only way in which many environmental problems can be solved, that includes architecture.
    Other areas, he is broadly correct, although on the issues of ‘alternative’ therapies, he has probably also lost the plot.

    Yeah, I didn’t think his arguments in favour of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, were very compelling. He relied on personal anecdotes rather than studies and trials. Luckily, that was a minor part of the book. -Kate

  2. Thanks for sharing this and for pointing out Islamic Architecture. We are keen to find what Prince Charles had to say on Islamic art and architecture.

    Senior Editor

  3. While I have my doubts about altenative medicine, who cares if it works. Even if it is a placebo effect, relief from pain is welcome.

    Good point. I don’t really understand why attributing treatments to “just the placebo effect” is so often seen to be a bad thing. The placebo effect can be incredibly powerful. For relatively minor, non-infectious afflictions like chronic headaches or anxiety, if a placebo does the job, fantastic. Of course, for something like HIV, accepting its use in place of anti-retroviral medication would be quite dangerous. -Kate

    • Full disclosure: I’ve been involved in the fight against homeopathy (one particularly pervasive branch of alternative ‘medicine’) for a while. Basic overview from the CBC, if you’re not up to speed with this.


      Kate, the problem comes in assigning the cause of the healing not to placebos, but to surrogates for the placebo. For instance, no one buys bottles of sugar pills since the placebo effect works – rather, placebos are only intended to be used during medical research, to determine if a particular piece of medicine has an effect beyond spontaneous remission.

      Alternative medicines are essentially doing the same thing as selling people the placebo and gambling on it to heal them. There are obvious ethical concerns with this, but it also has two serious health-related concerns as well.

      1 – Marginal cost to self. This is what Tony’s trying to justify. If alternative medicines make the pain go away (read: if you spontaneously recover or have a placebo effect), then what’s the harm? The harm comes later on, in trying to use the same “alternative medicines” instead of evidence-based medicine to recover. People have died because they have sought out homeopathic, traditional Chinese, or religious-based treatment instead of actual medical treatment.

      This has a twofold effect: It not only places yourself at risk, it empowers those who prey upon the gullible. Think about it – what else are the people who peddle alternative medicines except elaborate snake oil salesmen? They make their money by convincing people to risk their health, and the reason they do that is because people don’t think critically about these things – or at best, they ask, “what’s the harm?”. We can continue to pressure for better medical regulation to hamstring these bastards, but a more effective measure would be taking their market away, which can be done simply by educating the people about what they’re buying – i.e. understanding “what’s the harm”.

      Now, you might argue this is fine, everyone has the right to do what they will with their own life. And I can accept that – even as I challenge what are objectively verifiable bad ideas, I can understand the argument and leave the final choice to you.

      The line is crossed in some cases of this:

      2 – If the condition you’re trying to treat puts others at risk, then your lack of critical thinking is a tangible threat to other people’s health. The most obvious example is vaccination. Some people are medically unable to be vaccinated (allergies being a common reason), and instead rely on herd immunity to protect them. If enough people decide not to vaccinate, they breach herd immunity, and place large segments of the population at risk. Diseases that are under control can actually make a comeback (Polio comes to mind, but more recently in England even measles has had outbreaks).

      A few months ago, by coincidence, another person named Tony raised a similar point on a post on my blog (which is now offline; I might bring it back later), asking that if alternative medicines make the pain go away, what’s the harm, and why should it matter if we understand why? My reply then is as applicable now:

      Tony, if the goal is mere removal of *this particular* pain, then I suppose you can make an argument that the difference doesn’t matter, right now. However, if the goal is understanding the pain so that it can be treated in the future, or in others, then a causal understanding is required. Every attempt at understanding the causes of pain and treating them points in the same direction as medicine, not (say) homeopathy or TCM [ED: Traditional Chinese Medicine, includes acupuncture]. Sure, the patient may subjectively be assured for a little while, but it doesn’t treat the problem – and that misdirection leads other patients to ignore conventional treatment in favor of platitudes. That is why I care.

      Or, to put it more succinctly, we can rephrase your comment as a simple “What’s the Harm?”. There are costs to wooly thinking – and not just to yourself, but to others as well.


      I suspect this is actually similar to your post in August, 2009 on evolution and anti-science movements; many of the same points I raised then overlap with the case for evidence-based medicine. (How much trust would a child, raised by alternative-medicine, “don’t trust the scientific establishment” parents, have in the scientific method?). The only major difference is that with medicine, unlike teaching evolution, people’s immediate health is at risk. (In fact, medicine was one of the “infrastructure” things I meant in that comment!)

      (My primary anti-pseudoscience cause is of course fighting climate inactivism, but like what I mentioned there, I do also fight for improved critical thinking skills, which means challenging demonstrable irrationality wherever I see it.)

      The two additional resources I’d suggest reading on this are Science Based Medicine and the absurdly proflic Orac’s Respectful Insolence. The latter also covers climate denial along with other pseudoscientific thinking, but as a surgeon his specialty is medicine.

      Very good points, Brian. I will check out those links. -Kate

  4. “We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.”

    I would agree strongly. In the UK we have just fought off a government attempt to sell our residual forests to the highest bidder. Half a million people signed the online petition against it. Marches were held, a mock Parliament burned, and the letter pages and blogosphere swung strongly against it.

    Such sudden and strong determined opposition caught the government strongly off balance. I was left wondering what more we could achieve in conservation and Ecology if such energies could be chanelled into them.

  5. Sorry I am so late to the game, but I feel compelled to comment. Given this site’s fight against ideology overshadowing climate science, I am surprised you would not take Prince Charles to task.

    His views often place ideology over science, perhaps just not in climate science. But, you cannot expect to gain ground in the fight for climate science if you turn a blind eye toward other ideological threats to science.

    Alternative medicine is one such threat. Apathy toward this ideological threat to science has various effects:

    1. It teaches that science does not matter. If you allow science to be belittled in one area, how can you expect science to matter in your area of interest?

    2. In the US, this has led to the establishment of the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. More than $100 million has been spent on research that has produced a big fat zero. Wouldn’t you prefer that this was spent on a science that matters, like climate science?

    In the end, you cannot accept science because it aligns with your ideology. You must adopt ideologies that align with the science.

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