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An open letter to His Royal Highness King Charles III

September 3, 2022

Your Royal Highness

I marked your accession to the throne by reading the book that you wrote a few years ago in collaboration with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly -- Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World (2010). It is a one of the most enlightening and inspiring works I have ever come across. In it you reveal yourself as a remarkable and extremely unusual person -- a thinker of great depth and breadth who bridges the divide between the 'two cultures' of science and the arts that C.P. Snow lamented in his 1959 Rede Lecture, as well as a popularizer who takes difficult ideas and makes them easy to understand. 

My purpose in saying these things is to substantiate the point that what you do and say, and what you do not do and do not say, matter enormously to the world. True, the survival of human civilization depends on all of us, but it depends on you more than it depends on most individuals. 

In your first speech as king you said:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others. 

It is good to know that you will still be able to give some of your time and energy to the issues for which you care. And yes, others will be continuing the work. However, I ask you to recall these words from your book:

We are currently on course for a massive and rapid ecological decline. It is as if we are sailing on a giant tanker and heading straight for a hurricane… We can see this danger ahead and we need to change our course, but tankers do not turn swiftly. It will take a monumental effort if we hope to avoid disaster – with all hands to the pumps and all engines brought to bear. We do still have time to turn the tanker, but not much (p. 82; my italics). 

And now, twelve years later, we have even less time. If your hands will no longer be ‘on the pumps,’ at least most of the time, that is a significant setback in the effort to ‘turn the tanker.’ 

I understand that the constitutional principles of parliamentary democracy that you have promised to uphold permit you to ‘encourage and warn’ policy makers in private but not to speak out on controversial matters in public. You have not been allowed even to attend the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt next month. 

How you feel about being in this position will depend on how much you are able to accomplish behind the scenes compared to what you might achieve if you still enjoyed freedom of speech.  

You are a deeply conscientious person. You do not take your obligations lightly. Therefore you will face a very difficult task in trying to reconcile your obligations as a constitutional monarch with your obligations to humanity, the biome, and our home planet, and also with the inner need that each of us has to be true to ourself. 

If the struggle to reconcile conflicting obligations becomes too difficult, too painful, if it exacts too heavy a toll on you, there is one honorable way out that you might consider – that taken in a different context by your great-uncle, King Edward VIII. Edward chose to abdicate rather than give up the woman he loved. By so doing he made people reflect about what is really important in life. You would be giving up the kingship not for the sake of a woman but for the freedom to devote your great talents to the supreme cause for which you care so deeply.

Sincerely yours

Stephen D. Shenfield

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