King Charles’ Little Climate
How a reactionary worldview infuses the environmentalism of the ‘Green King’
What is it with royals and gurus? Russia’s Nicholas II, of course, had his Grigori Rasputin; Catherine de’ Medici of France, her Nostradamus. Recently, Princess Märtha Louise of Norway announced she plans to step down from royal duties in order to marry “Shaman Durek,” formerly Gwyneth Paltrow’s guru. (Though the royal wedding is currently postponed due to Durek’s health, the happy couple still posed for the cover of — I can’t believe this is actually real — Gurus Magazine).
The reigning monarch of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realms, King Charles III, is no different from his royal colleagues in this respect. Following the death of his mentor, Lord Mountbatten, in 1979, the young Prince of Wales gravitated toward Sir Laurens van der Post, an author, Jungian mystic, and “seer” who had “a particular following among right-wingers,” including Margaret Thatcher. Up until van der Post’s death in 1996, he was “reported to have more influence over Charles than any other person,” The Washington Post writes.
Revered as a “modern-day saint” during his lifetime, van der Post, like many a guru, was posthumously exposed as a fraud and a charlatan. Critics also rightly pointed out his penchant for espousing racialist primitivism, especially regarding the San people, the Indigenous community in southern Africa; it further came to light that van der Post had sexually abused a 14-year-old girl entrusted to his care in 1952, when he was nearly 50, resulting in the birth of a daughter he never publicly acknowledged. But by the time of these revelations in the early 2000s, the damage was already done: Charles had named van der Post as his firstborn son’s godfather; had sought van der Post’s counsel with Princess Diana during the dissolution of their marriage; and wholly absorbed van der Post’s traditionalist worldview — the same one, in fact, that admirers now mistake for Charles’ progressive stance on climate change.
In the lead-up to Coronation Day, many have speculated whether Charles will be as green a king as he was a prince or if assuming the throne will require of him a constitutionally mandated self-muzzling. Liberals have their fingers crossed that he’ll subtly continue campaigning for sustainable living, organic farming, and twice-a-week vegetarianism; conservatives, meanwhile, have hand-wrung about the king’s apparent “woke pandering,” as Petronella Wyatt bemoans in The Telegraph. “It is particularly disturbing that the Earl of Derby has not been asked to provide falcons [for the coronation], as his family have done since the 16th Century,” she went on. “These little things deprive people of their purpose in life.”
Wyatt can rest assured, though, that Charles is far more of a traditionalist than meets the eye. Sure, the king’s Aston Martin might have been modified to run on bioethanol fuel made from surplus wine and leftover whey from cheese-making, but his real creed, The Spectator cannily observes, is that “there is divine wisdom in all human traditions until modernity comes along and rips us away from any semblance of harmony with nature.”
In practice, this driving philosophy of Charles’ has often clashed with the greater climate agenda: He has resisted and blocked onshore wind energy on aesthetic grounds; he refuses to let his model village install energy-efficient windows, insisting they be made of traditional wood; and while he’s a conservationist most of the time, he once pressured the prime minister against enacting a ban on foxhunting, defending it as “completely natural … in that it relies entirely on man’s ancient and, indeed, romantic relationship with dogs and horses.”
The king also hates, hates, modern architecture, which once led him to suggest — in what, it must be acknowledged, was an absolute banger of a galaxy-brain moment — that you’ve sorta gotta hand it to the Luftwaffe. And while his work toward recognizing the colonialist violence of the empire against the First Nations people of Canada has been meaningful (though he’s stopped short of an actual apology), Charles’ interest can at times contain traces of the exotified difference his guru expressed toward the San as “children of nature” and “mystical ecologists”: Recently the king urged working with “indigenous knowledge-keepers” in Canada to “restore harmony with nature.”
Taken into consideration with his obsession with Britain’s “forgotten” farmers and his comments blaming population growth in Africa for overtaxing nature’s “bounty,” Charles begins to seem less like a progressive environmentalist than a traditionalist yearning for an imagined, idyllic, pastoral past.
But Charles did not arrive here all on his own. Van der Post was a primitivist who styled himself, misleadingly, as an experienced anthropologist — “a believer in the higher wisdom of tribal culture ... and in the need for civilized people to re-connect with this wisdom,” The Spectator writes. It was van der Post, further, who “fired Charles’ interest in multiculturalism and gave him a philosophical framework for his ideas, ranging from organic farming to the need for modern Britain to embrace religions other than Christianity,” The Washington Post says (at his coronation, Charles will be declared the defender of Faiths, rather than the Faith).
Charles’ interest in homeopathy and natural medicine, including what Gawker once described as a “decades-long failed quest to get the NHS to consider implementing Gerson therapy for cancer patients, a diet in which a sick person drinks 13 glasses of juice a day and takes regular self-administered coffee enemas,” can also be traced back to van der Post. Most significantly, it was also the guru who reportedly urged the young prince to use his platform to “restore the human being to a lost natural aspect of his own spirit; to restore his relevance for life and his love of nature, and to draw closer to the original blueprint and plan of life.”
Charles has been a good disciple. In 2010, he published Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, a book that echos van der Post’s theory of oneness (itself a derivative of the Jungian concept of “collective unconscious”). Harmony continues to be heralded as an environmentalist manifesto with its calls for a “Sustainability Revolution,” although its chief target is the rise of modernism since the Enlightenment. This nostalgia for the pre-industrial past is a common reactionary response that can be traced through the global right; pesky modernism, of course, also brought about the political agency of the working class, greater living standards, and liberation movements. “[King Charles] is fond of saying that we have an obsession with economic growth, which he says is bad,” Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, added to The American Conservative. “I would say another way of putting it is that you would like people to be poorer.”
Or, put another way: The “harmony” King Charles raves about is just another word for “order,” as Jonathan Healey, the author of “The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689,” proposed to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead. “It hinges on everyone knowing their place,” he elaborated. “The peasants don’t question who is in charge, and they are happy.”
It’s understandable why a king of a dwindling empire might have his focus on the halcyon days. This also makes him especially inclined toward existing right-wing schools of thought. When pouting over the Foreign Office denying his trip to the Kalahari with van der Post in the mid-1970s, for example, Charles reportedly recognized in a letter to a friend that Britain’s government was “still operating, and thinking, as if we were a major world power ... That is palpably not the case at the moment.” Here, though, he ends up sounding like a Little Englander, a member of a nationalist movement that has embraced Britain’s diminished imperial standing by pivoting to “sentimental ideas about preservation of the English rural establishment and English nature” (in addition to anti-immigrant stances, natch). Sure enough, a recent op-ed in Unherd applauded King Charles while making the case for a modern “Little England” movement.
Or how about Charles as an adherent of “reactionary radicalism,” what author Paul Kingsnorth defines as “a defense of a pre-industrial, human-scale system, built around community bonds, empowered people, local economics”? Others have certainly made the connection: “The affinity between Charles and [the writer Wendell Berry] is instructive,” The American Conservative writes, calling the pair “traditionalists, though not exactly conservatives … what my friend Bill Kauffman would call ‘reactionary radicals.’” What unites them is a criticism of “industrialism, consumer capitalism, and scientism,” and their belief that “family farms [...] are the only basis for a stable and happy society.”
Charles’ defenders might make the case that surely a green king is better than a king of a different color, however woo-woo the origins of his interest might be. But as Mead notes, the sum of his philosophy, while perhaps not quite “feudalism-curious,” ultimately “does appear to incorporate an implicit defense of his monarchical position.” Writer Sam Circle, in a review of Mead’s piece, reaches for a sharper characterization: “He’s Ecofascism-curious,” Circle writes. “There are some obvious things which go along with the return to an earlier, unsullied time that Charles wishes for, and you don’t have to look much further than his reaction to his son’s interracial marriage to see them reflected in Charles.”
Whatever progressivism does creep through Charles’ otherwise traditionalist brand of environmentalism is rickety and undermined by his nostalgia. It’s too simple, though, to dismiss him as just wanting the good ol’ days when being king really meant something. Charles’ crisis is an existential one: an irrelevant king clinging desperately to the ideas of the person who once gave him meaning. “The battle for our renewal can be most naturally led by what is still one of the few great living symbols accessible to us – the symbol of the crown,” van der Post had written long ago to Charles.
Rather than a champion of the planet, Great Britain is gaining a champion of a very specific vision of the U.K., one where mending your tartan tweed and supporting your local farmers is of equal importance to uniformly painted homes and an absence of visible satellite dishes. How attainable, much less desirable, a return to Britain’s pastoral roots actually is might be beside the point. The power of a monarch, much like the power of a guru, comes from convincing others to believe in him. Once formally anointed Sovereign by the coronation spoon on Saturday, it will then become Charles’ turn to whisper into the ear of the nation, to instill grandeur into his vision of how things could be.