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Harmony: A new way of looking at our world

Jemima Roberts

21st October, 2010

Prince Charles's new book reacquaints us with a sense of our collective spirit, a place that has become increasingly remote from our digitally 'enhanced' worldview, says Jemima Roberts

To grasp fully, this book demands something above and beyond the realms of intellect. I read it avidly and yet it is not useful facts or a wider knowledge set that I value or recall; it is something less tangible, but inordinately more substantial.

This presents a challenge for the reviewer, namely to summarise and distil what makes little sense in the lexical sphere. I can only direct you towards a sense of 'gut instinct' as the closest comparative place, where the logic of rationale is superceded.

But let's anchor, and be brave as the authors are bold. 'This is a call to revolution’... So begins Harmony: A new way of looking at our world, a triptych of authorial effort from Prince Charles, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. I winced at such an ambitious throw-down of the gauntlet, but applauded inwardly too, for it certainly piqued my curiosity. However, in light of the vulturous media scrum that invariably surrounds Prince Charles's well-documented opinions, it is a risky strategy: prematurely inflated hype invariably results in swift deflation in a world waiting to pounce.

The central message of the book is clear, rousing as it does an alarm call for the need collectively to organise ourselves into more ‘durable’ ways of living. We have damaged this planet and the life it supports, and are continuing to do so. Our greatest imperative is to pause and reflect, with depth and humility, on the entrenched assumptions that have propelled us along this perilous path.

So far, not so revolutionary. What hoists Harmony's ambition is the pioneering course the authors chart in order to expand on this call to arms.

Harmony with heart

In contrast to the more cacophonous chapters that follow, the introduction appears resolutely singular in its voice and is perhaps where Prince Charles's personal philosophy is most lucidly platformed (also in Chapter 3). It makes for a touching and resounding soliloquy: a soulful, impassioned plea to re-enchant ourselves with the beauty, the spirit and the underwritten ‘grammar of Nature', realigning ourselves to become a more integrated part of nature, as opposed to apart from it. This encapsulates the central tenet of the book.

What unfolds is an intricately woven tapestry, threaded with a diverse range of subjects: Pythagoras’s theories on arithmetic, the alchemical philosophy of ancient Egypt, medieval Christianity and the Islamic symbolism of ‘magic carpets’, hemmed in with more familiar regal cloth of architecture and agriculture.

The breadth is panoramic – indeed, positively ambitious for a 326-page book – and at times it is a breathless journey, but for the main part we keep up. Written in the first person, the book has an engaging candour, inviting the reader into a one-on-one conversation. Broad sweeps over complex subjects are not injurious to the nexus of the authors’ explicit vision – quite the reverse: alongside the plentiful pictures, supporting on-the-ground examples and illustrations, they serve to bolster the wider authorial vision.

Natural reverence

The capitalisation of ‘Nature’ across the text is a way of resituating nature at the centre of creation rather than the space it occupies in the modernist conception: marginalised to an adjunct to humanity, an inanimate resource to serve the greater human need.

This rests appositely alongside the charge that in our blinkered pursuit of ‘progress’ we have secularised the natural world at the foot of the altar of modernity. We have frayed the threads of centuries-old wisdom, of the innate, shared intuition and knowledge that weaves our lives with, as opposed to against, the grain of nature. We have 'dismembered' our collective psyche from the source of our own sustenance and survival.

The Golden Thread

'Golden Thread', chapter three, is a spiritually arresting read, offering an astutely observed, methodically realised treatise on the 'sacred geometry' that underpins the 'design' of the entire natural world. Insistently nuanced and intellectually esoteric, it is sensorially crystal-clear and deeply affirmative.

The elaboration on the well-ordered 'design' of a daisy is a delight, as are the explanations of the cathartic principles at the foundations of our sacred cathedrals and churches, and correlations with modern designs such as the ubiquitous credit card.

Despite a spiritual element to the book, the authors have not neglected the intellect. A strong appeal is made against the misappropriation of science, the absence of spirituality and religiosity, and our inobservance of the inherent limitations of an overly mechanistic 'economic' world-view.

Disharmony

Certain issues – complex social issues, for example – are approached naively and, at times, with misplaced romanticism. The authors celebrate Dharavi in Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum, as a model of community-centred living, with its sophisticated, well-organised waste-management system, a point that jars alongside the statement that there are ‘600,000 people crammed into a square mile'.

But this also begs some reflection: what good does it do to toe the familiar narrative line with regard to the desperate reality of the world’s poor if it does nothing to lift them from that poverty? A sideways look, even if not so sensitively elucidated, returns some colour to the cheeks of a demographic often characterised in two-dimensional, statistical terms, restoring the pride and dignity denied by data.

A sense of dislocation

The book's weaknesses are dwarfed by the towering strength of its underlying philosophy, however.

Harmony reacquaints us with a sense of our collective spirit, a place that has become removed from our remote-controlled, digitally 'enhanced' worldview, dominated as it is by a mechanistic approach to natural resources. Glimpses of a satellite view saturated by the floodlights of our high-energy lives suggest this is a relationship we would do well to nurture – and with some urgency.

I end with a nagging sense of dislocation. Harmony is written by three high-profile authors and is well-placed to be widely read; it is accessible, lending it the potential of mass appeal – but will it slip into the cracks between a readership already sympathetic to its message and a media waiting to pounce?

If it fails to start the revolution heralded by its opening cry will this be due to overinflated ambition? Or does it point to the critical conundrum at the heart of the climate-change debate: that we need a revolution but risk frightening the masses away with calls for anything too radical?

Harmony is published by Harper Collins priced £15

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