Prince Charles, once dismissed as a plant-talking oddball, takes his environmental bona fides to COP26

GLASGOW, Scotland -- Britain's future king, Prince Charles, told world leaders at the U.N. climate summit on Monday that they should seek solutions to global warming in nature.

"After billions of years of evolution, nature is our best teacher," the Prince of Wales said. "In this regard, restoring natural capital, accelerating nature-based solutions and leveraging the circular bio-economy will be vital to our efforts."

Unlike the presidents and premiers who will be speaking at the Scottish Event Campus, the prince has spent his life developing deep thoughts about sustainability, organic farming, biodiversity - and the sanctity of Nature, which the prince always capitalizes in print.

Unlike the others, Charles has no real power over laws or budgets. But the 72-year-old, ruddy-cheeked royal in the immaculately tailored pinstripes is a potentially powerful voice on climate change - now, and when the heir apparent takes the throne some day as the 21st century's first eco-king.

The question: Will the people listen to him?

Charles is often judged the most environmentally committed royal - and the one with largest carbon footprint.

With a lifestyle unimaginable except to the planet's billionaires, Charles oversees vast holdings in the Duchy of Cornwall, more than 200 square miles of land, mostly in southwest England. He maintains multiple royal estates, and to represent the monarchy abroad, he travels widely by private jet with an entourage of aides and security staff members.

He is a potent influencer with global reach, and his realm - the United Kingdom and the 54 Commonwealth nations - includes 2.4 billion people. His soapbox is Buckingham Palace.

And it is safe to say few of the leaders at the summit, known as COP26, know more about composting than Charles.

He is an extoller of the benefits of bees, homeopathic medicine, gardening, elephant conservation and hedgerows. Charles sees a "sacred geometry" at work -in the pattern of flower petals the movement of Venus across the night sky over time, and the stained-glass windows at the Chartres Cathedral.

Charles believes we have fallen from grace, from a more traditional, natural, edenic state, by succumbing too much to mechanistic, technological, modernist thinking - rather than the "whole-ism" (his spelling) he believes is the virtuous path.

In his 2010 book "Harmony," a 336-page exposition of his princely philosophy, Charles decries how the Age of Convenience produced the Age of Disconnection.

The prince also talks to plants.

Last year, his courtiers confirmed he often gives a branch of tree "a friendly shake to wish it well."

On his 1981 honeymoon with Princess Diana aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, his biographers say, he read the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who argued there was a human collective unconscious, informed by deep instincts, just as a baby sea turtle knows to scurry toward the sea.

Humans have such instincts, too, Charles believes.

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In the early years, his harshest critics dismissed the young duke as a kind of New Age mash-up of half-baked ideas.

"At the beginning, everyone thought he was crackers, the mad prince who had these strange ideas. They wrote him off completely," said Penny Junor, a biographer who has written volumes about Charles and the royal family.

"He's been saying these things for 50 years, but world has caught up to Charles, hasn't it? she said. "He's certainly not a crank now."

The prince's moment may have arrived.

"I've always felt it, I think intuitively," this sense that nature was being desecrated, said Charles in a video posted last year on the royal family's YouTube channel.

"I remember years ago, in the '60s, when I was a teenager, minding so much about all the things there were going on, the destruction of everything," he said. "The uprooting of trees and hedgerows and draining of wet places. . . . This sort of white heat of progress and technology to the exclusion of nature . . . this complete determination somehow to defeat nature."

His first major speech on the environment was in February 1970, when the young prince warned, "We are faced at this moment with the horrific effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms."

Charles has called for a revolution in sustainability in all things: urban design, corporate production, organic farming, energy generation. He brings together many people, recommends many solutions, most them now viewed as mainstream.

But does he also represent the problem?

In the run-up to COP26, the prince defended his lifestyle and ticked the boxes of his green bona fides to the BBC. The duke now forgoes meat, fish and diary several days a week. He loathes stockyards and factory farming and decries the cheap American poultry that must be rinsed with chlorine to wash off E. coli bacteria.

Most eye-catching in the BBC documentary, Charles revealed he runs his beloved 51-year-old Aston Martin convertible on "surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process," essentially bioethanol fuel.

Pressed about his energy consumption, the prince said he had installed a hydroelectric turbine on one of his rivers and biomass boilers fueled by trees felled at his Scottish home, Birkhall, on the 52,000-acre Balmoral estate of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

He has put solar panels on top of his London mansion, Clarence House, and on the farm buildings at Highgrove House, his residence in the Cotswolds.

At COP26, Charles can't commit Britain to anything, not net-zero emissions nor the decarbonization of the energy sector. But what he can do in Glasgow and beyond is promote his vision, and his vision is . . . complex.

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In her biography "Charles: the Heart of a King," Catherine Mayer explained, "Charles's overarching quest - the motivation behind everything he does - is to restore harmony. It is a particular irony that his mission frequently plunges him into conflicts and disharmony."

As Mayer told The Washington Post, it is not correct to view Charles as a standard-issue environmentalist.

"People give him a bit of a free pass these days, saying how forward-thinking he is. It's a false understanding," Mayer said. "He was ahead of his time in articulating all sorts of things that are now mainstream, but his conservationism comes from a very deeply conservative place, not a radical one."

She noted that Charles refers to nature as a "she" and thinks of it as "embodying a trio of celestial essences, the true, the beautiful and the good."

These patterns and essences have been rejected by modernism, Charles believes.

This explains his dust-ups with modernist architects, whom he has infuriated for years with his interventions. The prince abhors modernist urban planning and brutalist buildings decoupled from nature.

At times, his enthusiasm for a natural order has struck some listeners as an endorsement of hereditary order, placing a monarchy squarely in the natural order of things.

"He does good things, like he criticizes the sway of global corporations," Mayer said. "He's been very important in questioning the idea that the solution to problems caused by technology is more technology."

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Charles does more than talk. He is royal patron or president of more than 400 organizations, including Surfers Against Sewage, Bees for Development, and the British Deer Society.

Through his Prince's Foundation and Prince's Trust, Charles buzzes through his days, a kind of super-pollinator, among governments, corporations and charities. Even his homes serve as education centers for sustainability and harmony.

One of his latest projects is Dumfries House in Scotland, just an hour's drive south of climate summit in Glasgow.

In 2007, the 18th-century palladian manor and 2,000-acre estate was in disrepair, about to be sold at auction. Its arboretum was a mud pit. The bridge to the property was tumbling into the river. But the estate also had one of world's most intact collection of Chippendale furniture. Charles and a consortium purchased it for £45 million ($60 million).

Charles doesn't live at Dumfries, but he visits often. These days on the property, there's a health and well-being center, where locals can attend yoga and mindfulness classes, and learn about holistic medicine, to address obesity, chronic pain, menopause.

There's course work to train in traditional building arts, sustainable textile manufacturing and organic farm-to-table cookery. There's also a rare-breed farm populated by Scots Dumpy hens and Tamworth pigs.

"What Charles has done at Dumfries is extraordinary. He's taken a mothballed, forgotten stately home in a very unfashionable industrial part of Scotland and opened it up to the public . . . and used it as testing ground for new ideas," said Robert Hardman, a royal biographer, who writes for the Daily Mail.

When the Prince's Foundation took over the walled garden, it was a sea of knot weed. Today, there are gorgeous formal gardens and organic vegetable gardens that see busloads of schoolchildren come to learn about . . . soil health.

"A lot of them, like a lot of children everywhere, have no idea, and so we show them that a carrot doesn't come from a shop. It grows in the ground. And then they make carrot soup," said Melissa Simpson, head of gardens at Dumfries.

Because the prince not only wants children to eat their vegetables but know where they come from.

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