harmony: a letter to my brother

harmony prince of wales book cover_header

Letter written on January 16, 2013 to my brother Will:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 1.54.57 PM“Engineering and design in the clean energy and transport sectors have, in recent years, shown us the vast potential that exists for working with the grain of Nature in meeting our energy needs.”

– The Prince of Wales

Dear Will,

I recently read a book about conservation that gave me a new framework for understanding why living in harmony with nature matters.  The book, written by The Prince of Wales, is called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World.  Reading this book, I thought often of you – both the gifts you possess today and those that will be revealed to you over your lifetime.  It also made me think of the pioneering biofuel research you are doing with engineering to identify new sources of energy inspired by nature.

Until I read this book, I had no idea that for the past 30+ years Prince Charles has been committed to finding a way to reincorporate the fundamental principles of nature back into our world – a process of restoring what he calls harmony.  In his book, he touches on subjects as diverse as bioengineering, organic farming and environmentalism, science and technology, architecture, sustainable development and the alleviation of poverty, education and healthcare —and presents these various strands as part of an over-arching philosophy of the quest for harmony. If it is okay with you, I’d like to share some of the concepts from this “conversation” with Prince Charles that may appeal to you, as they did me.

Engineering: Inspired by the Grain of Nature

One of the sections of this book that you may find most fascinating was that of biomimicry. That is, a branch of engineering that studies how plants, animals and other natural elements meets their energy needs and/or have evolved to survive. In fact, most of what we know has already been discovered by Nature, we just fail to notice and learn from it.

It seems simple, but the technology that has been developed over the past 3.5 billion years by Nature is anything but.  Here are a few examples presented by Prince Charles:

  • Termite-Inspired Air Conditioning –termite mounds were digitally scanned, revealing a unique ventilation system.  With this, engineers built a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe that has no air-conditioning, yet stays cool.
  • Non-toxic Alternate to Kevlar – our toughest and strongest fabric known, requires a lot of energy and toxic by-products to produce.  Spider silk has been found to be 5X stronger (ounce by ounce) than steel and is currently being investigated as a non-toxic manufacturing replacement for Kevlar.
  • Solar Fly Trap – a prehistoric fly found to have eye characteristics that were used in increasing the effectiveness of solar panels by 10%.

Economics of Nature

In economics class, you will have learned that imbalance in our economy happens when resources (supply) are more or less than demand.  This relatively simple concept can also be applied to nature, and today, we are using more natural resources than we have available.

In our current economic model, however, we consider a “healthy” economy one that is perpetually growing.  In fact, that is what our GDP is based on.  A huge topic of unrest in our political environment today is the fact that our economy isn’t growing (recovering) quickly enough.  If we step back and look at what happened to our housing market, we can clearly see that rapid, continual growth is not sustainable endlessly. Taking a cue from Mother Nature – what goes up must come down and what goes down will come up.   All things in nature are cyclical, so too is our economy.

Right now, if we continue to have an insatiable consumption of resources and growth, there will inevitably be an end.  As such, this book makes a simple, yet brilliant point that slower growth (or even, god forbid, staying where we are) “may be vital to durability.”

Question Everything

Question everything. Do not look at stars as bright spots only – try to take in the vastness of the universe.
– Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell, the first woman Professor of Astronomy, once said, “Question everything. Do not look at stars as bright spots only – try to take in the vastness of the universe.” I believe wholeheartedly in questioning our assumptions – even the assumptions of our assumptions.

There was a quote from the book that sparked a desire to question the idea that the damage we are doing to our world is not natural or good.  Questioning this throws everything written in this book, and much of what I am dedicating my life to, into question. Cool! Right? This quote was: “Don’t think of the world as matter – think of it as music – always moving and unfolding – harmony and dissonance.”

winter-spring-summer-fallWhy then, isn’t this simply a time of dissonance in our world? Why isn’t the deterioration of nature that is occurring just a bigger part of a larger natural cycle, like the leaf that withers and dies in fall?  Is this period of time a larger representation of fall moving into winter?  I can honestly say I do not know the answer to this.  I only know how I feel when I have been too long away from nature and trust that my internal compass is part of wisdom deeper than I alone am fully conscious of.

Outside the pages of this book, an eco-philosopher named Joanna Macy suggests that we are in the midst of a “transformational moment in human history that is similar in scope and magnitude to two previous revolutions” – the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  What we have today is yet another revolution which she refers to as “The Great Turning” of our time.  I encourage you to learn more about it because it is a hopeful call to solicit greater participation in this movement.

The Good & The Ugly

It may interest you that another meaningful insight I gained in my reading was derived from my only criticism of the book. There were times I felt uncomfortable with what I interpreted as a hint of “told-you-so” smugness in Prince Charles’ writing.  I got the sense that he was somewhat defensive of the work he has been doing, citing his many projects and how he has been doing it for many years.  I did a little research and found out that when he began work in this field almost 30 years ago, he was criticized heavily; in fact, the British media labeled him as a tree-hugging kook.  Given this history it is understandable that he might feel this way.  The tragedy for me is that this may hinder his ability to communicate this all-important message.

In the presence of my discomfort with his tone, it became clear to me that the work we do is not for the sake of our ego, or perhaps in this case self-vindication.  Instead, it is a commitment to a positive contribution over the course of our lifetime.  It is the cumulative effect that matters – not what or how we did it.  I’d like to share a quote with you that I found reading another book and feel articulates this concept of ego-less purpose more elegantly than I:

Serving anything worthwhile is a commitment to a direction over time and may require us to relinquish many moment-to-moment attachments, to let go of pride, approval, recognition, or even success. Serving life may require a faithfulness to purpose that lasts over a lifetime. It is less a work of the ego than a choice of the soul.
– Rachel Naomi Remen, “My Grandfather’s Blessings”

This book has both inspired and given me pause. As I begin work with nature education and focusing my efforts in support of conservation, I see my life’s peripheral view expanding. It is in these moments of reflection and the prospect of contributing to a collective change that infuse me with reverent anticipation for the future and a clearer understanding of the ripple I intend to have in this world. I want you to know that I am extremely proud to be here, in this lifetime, with you. I know deep in my bones that our world, and the world of the many generations to come, will be better off – with you in it.

Wonder & Partnership,

Your sis
(and biggest fan)

water-ripples-21

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