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HRH The Prince of Wales speech at WWF's Global Forest Trade Network forum

8 September 2011

At St. James’s Palace on 8 September, WWF-UK's new President, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, gave a keynote speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the Global Forest & Trade Network. The GFTN is a WWF initiative that aims to improve responsible management of the world’s forests - one of the many environmental issues close to the Prince's heart, as he explained...

"Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am particularly pleased to be with you this morning, not only to accept the Presidency of the WWF-UK, but also to mark the anniversary and many achievements of WWF’s Global Forest Trade Network (GFTN).

"As environmentalists, it is all too easy to dwell on the overwhelming problems we face and to forget all that we have seen and achieved together over the years and GFTN is an excellent example of this. It seems incredible that 20 years have passed since this initiative started, albeit under a different name. In those days it was truly the mark of a forward-thinking company to be involved in such a project.

"I remember very well how difficult it was in the early 1990s to gain any attention at all for issues of deforestation, species loss and climate change, and so the Network has played a vital part in changing people’s willingness to engage with these problems.

"It is a truly remarkable feat to have brought together companies that are responsible for nearly half of the imports of forest products, and to have gained such a high level of consensus on the way forward. I know from my own endeavours how incredibly hard it is to do this, never mind encouraging them to reach agreement on complex issues of every kind. It is not always possible to get it exactly right and not every company is always involved for the best of reasons, but there have been some real benefits.

"It should be widely recognised, I think, for instance, that your work has helped elevate the profile of forests and has galvanised plenty of positive action, not least through the groundbreaking Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme. Not only has this scheme helped to promote the more sustainable management of forests right around the world, it has also inspired important dialogues between many different stakeholders and created other certification schemes, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

"I would also like to recognise the achievements of WWF and its partners over an even longer period in what is an important year for the organisation, as it marks half a century of activity - which, as it happens, very nearly coincides with my own interest in the causes you have so successfully championed. Perhaps I warmed to your work from such an early age because, from the outset, you stood up for endangered species!

"I wonder, though, who among the founding members of WWF would have foreseen how the world has been transformed - for the better - in the last 50 years. There is plenty to celebrate, if you think about it.

"People are more aware than they were of the issues you set out to resolve all those years ago and there is now real engagement in board rooms, with governments and with the public. This has led to many specific achievements, from the huge expansion of protected areas to the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals; from the clean-up of many major rivers to all kinds of successful conservation programmes that have averted the extinction of critically endangered animals and plants.

"So, if I may, I would like to pay my own, heartfelt tribute to those many members of WWF who have achieved so much over the years with a great deal of blood sweat and tears.

"Among those environmental champions I must, of course, include my darling cousin, Princess Alexandra, who has been WWF-UK President for the past 29 years. And you don’t need me to tell you that it was my father who helped to make WWF a defining voice when it was first launched in 1961. He was the first to hold the position of President and he only relinquished it 20 years later when he became President of WWF International.

"Although much has been achieved, there are still, as we all know, many huge challenges ahead which, if you don’t mind, I would like to touch on briefly before discussing how, by working together, by building on all our work over many years, we can secure a future for our species on this planet - let alone the myriad of others on whom we depend for our survival, both physically and spiritually.

"We are, of course, witnessing what some people call the sixth great extinction event - the continued erosion of much of the Earth’s vital biodiversity caused by a whole host of pressures, from the rising demand for land to the corrosive effects of all kinds of pollution. This is an important point that needs to be stressed more than it is, because its ultimate impact is plainly not at all clear to most people - without the biodiversity that is so threatened, we won't be able to survive ourselves.

"The Earth is also being depleted of many of her natural resources, from top soil to fish, and if we carry on as if it's “business as usual”, we will receive a dangerously diminishing return from Nature’s capital that will begin to threaten our very survival. For too many years, it seems to me, we have been concentrating on Climate Change as the number one threat when, unfortunately, it is merely a threat multiplier to the risks we face from the rapacious way we have used our natural resources.

"As many of you will know, I have been harping on about these challenges for many years and although this leads to inevitable criticism from some quarters, I must tell you that I put up with it because the issues we face are so important. None of us must be afraid to stand up and be counted. It is what unites environmentalists across the generations and, in my experience, across the world.

"Despite all the brickbats, all the doubts, all the despair at the state of the environment or depressing news of the forests burning in Sumatra once again, I have learnt that when people come together positive change is possible.

"This has certainly been my experience of working with WWF so far and it is why, in October 2007, I brought together many organisations at your gala event at Hampton Court to launch my Prince’s Rainforests Project. The result of the initiative was a successful agreement in Oslo in 2010 to secure funds for a deal on rainforests. I will return to this again in a moment, but one of the key points of the project was my desire to create a public, private and NGO partnership which would work together to tackle the problem of the rainforest’s destruction.

"The work of the project - now subsumed into my International Sustainability Unit, or ISU - is to continue these efforts because I see this sort of partnership as being the only way of achieving any meaningful traction and making any impact at all. This is why, lately, my ISU has also been trying to convene stakeholders in the fishing industry to create a positive conversation about the key drivers of over-fishing so that fisheries might be better managed. If they can be managed more sustainably - and there are many examples that demonstrate that they can - then we may help to secure jobs for the future and keep fishing communities vibrant and together, as well as providing vital nutrition to the world’s population. I know that WWF-UK is working closely with my ISU to help achieve these sorts of breakthroughs and innovative partnerships.

"So, Ladies and Gentleman, I take up the reins as President of WWF-UK at a crucial moment, with some victories under our collective belts, but with the most enormous challenge still ahead of us and, if I may, I would just like to outline two key areas where I feel action needs to be taken and attention directed.

"Fifty years ago, the emphasis was very much on the conservation of individual species. Then, for reasons that are now very obvious, the focus widened to include the conservation of habitats - forests, coral reefs, peatlands and so on. Then came the whole idea of establishing sustainable levels of development, which is the process of meeting the needs of people now while maintaining the ability of future generations to meet their needs too. All of this has been vitally important, and all of it remains critical today.

"But it seems to me that we need to go further and, if I may say so, deeper - the emphasis has to include a deeper understanding of how the economy and the environment should interact.

"I know that WWF-UK has already been doing vital work to come up with innovative market models which create a crucial financial solution through investment in the preservation and maintenance of Nature's capital - in other words, clever ways of making ecosystem services pay so that they attract corporate investors.

"One example is the work being done in the Iwokrama Rainforest in Guyana - in fact I was asked to be Patron of it some time ago - to find economic value from investing in the management of the rainforest. In the United Kingdom, Professor Bob Watson led the important National Ecosystem Assessment, which has gone some way to mapping out what we should be paying for the services Nature provides.

"But there are still barriers to the successful adoption of this approach. I referred earlier to the landmark deal signed in 2010 in Oslo, to be administered by the Norwegian and Indonesian governments, which committed some 34 countries to putting money into measures that reduce deforestation in developing countries. I can only say that the deal which the conference was kind enough to acknowledge was helped in no small way by the efforts of my Rainforest Project. The money pledged fell under the rubric of the Fast Start package that had been discussed at COP 15. However, sadly, the money has not yet been spent. And as it hasn’t yet started, it can hardly be called fast!

"I have, therefore, asked my ISU to try and find out what has happened and what might be done to help speed up the disbursement. But, in general terms, we also have to accept that one of the reasons for inaction across a wide variety of environmental problems is a lack of support for change amongst the general population.

"One of the core faculty members at my Business and Sustainability Programme, Paul Gilding, argued in his recent book, The Great Disruption, that a wall of denial was holding back action. He paints an optimistic portrait of what will happen when that wall breaks - as he is sure it will - arguing that humanity will be galvanised into action and will perform remarkable feats of innovation to secure a stable environment.

"When you think about it, the environmental movement, and WWF in particular, has been tremendously successful at identifying those triggers that really make people sit up and think about the changes that are necessary - the famous cause célèbres, if you like. Whether it was the survival of the panda or the banning of DDTs, the world woke up and we made the necessary progress. So I wonder if we can now find the issue that will make humanity really see the extent of our predicament?

"Every year, for instance, we seem to come ever closer to the terrifying prospect of an ice-free Arctic Ocean - the loss of sea ice on the top of the world. As we view the world from space, just think what we might see all too soon - nothing but dark oceans rather than white at the top. Would this make us all think more profoundly about what we are doing to our world?

"The second idea I would urge you to think about may appear, at first sight, to be a more esoteric aspect of our predicament. It is to do with the general perception that our culture has developed towards the natural world.

"Last year I tried to explain what this amounts to in my book 'Harmony'. My two co-authors and I sought to explain how the many environmental, economic and social challenges that confront our world today are not only linked, but all related to a fundamental disconnection from Nature. The industrialisation of the world has brought us many benefits, but it has severed our personal sense of connection to the natural world and, indeed, the realities that actually govern life on Earth.

"And let me be unfashionable here. What I am alluding to is our spiritual connection to the natural world because, without it, life would surely be pointless. It may not seem to make much difference economically if the swallows, swifts and housemartins no longer turn up each Spring, but what would life be like if we just accepted their extinction because their habitats have been destroyed?

"This is why I consider the work of the WWF to be so important. Because you do consider what I would call the sense of the sacredness of the natural world and seek to get that important feeling across to people. It is important because the consequences of this disconnection are many and varied. Top of the list for me is that we feel free to assume there is absolutely no problem in expecting that more and more economic growth can come from an ecological base that is actually shrinking.

"The two are linked. The result of our spiritual or inner disconnection is that society condones a system that depletes the very natural capital which is actually the fundamental foundation of capitalism itself. And notice how the more vigorously we pursue unlimited growth, the more success we think we have achieved! This is a very fundamental flaw which, as I say, I believe is borne out of the great distance we have put between ourselves and the natural order of things. And unless we heal that crisis in our perception, we will only continue to compound the many problems that now abound.

"So, there is an urgent need to see our world, not in terms of separate, disconnected silos, but as a series of interacting, integrated systems, with humanity very much integral to the whole and deeply connected.

"Holistic is a dangerously loaded term to use these days, with all sorts of unfortunate associations, but it is the case that if we wish to understand the whole system we need to take a “whole-istic” approach - holistic spelt with a “w,” that is. This is vital, not only for the sake of Nature and natural systems, but for human well-being too, now and for those who come after us.

"Problems of water supply, international food and energy security and many other issues critical to our survival will only be resolved by ensuring there are resilient natural systems at work in the world to support human development. And if, as a species, we are also to be resilient to the shocks that are inevitably heading our way, then a whole-istic appreciation of how systems work, how they interact and depend upon each other in balanced ways is a vital modern competence.

"Perhaps we should even see the main job at hand as not so much protecting Nature from people, but finding a way of shifting our understanding of our relationship with the rest of the world - essentially, that we are not so much “a part of Nature,” but that we ARE Nature - fundamentally connected to the rest of it and certainly reliant upon its continued health and vitality.

"It is a symbiotic relationship, in fact. Nature is our sustainer, but for Nature to endure she, in turn, must be sustained by us, as she is by every other living thing. If we were able to crystallise that way of looking at the world then perhaps we wouldn’t need to expend so much energy protecting Nature because we would more naturally live in harmony with her.

"To urge this general shift in our view of the world cannot be achieved by dictat or by regulation, handed down from above. It has to grow as an understanding from the bottom up - which, in turn, requires partnerships and engagement between different groups of stakeholders, including those that might not at first appear to be natural allies.

"Fortunately, things do appear to be changing. The supermarket chain, Asda, part of Walmart, is about to publish the results of a survey of thousands of its customers. Over the course of a year they have been trying to find out what 'green' means to them - do they understand it, does it matter to them and their families, and does it affect how they shop? What they’re saying is pretty powerful stuff. It subverts the myth that being 'green' is limited to a fortunate few and says loudly and clearly that it is part and parcel of customers’ daily lives. Sustainability is normal, not weird, and it is something ordinary shoppers genuinely care about. Surprising? Perhaps. Inspiring? Absolutely.

"Over the years, I have been repeatedly heartened by the willingness of different groups and disparate sectors to engage with the hugely complex discussions posed in our transition to a more sustainable approach.

"Working in partnership with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, of which I am Patron, and Business in the Community, of which I have been President for more than 25 years, I have seen at first-hand how many different companies have demonstrated their readiness to understand the issues and rise to the challenges at hand. I have seen how many of them are now prepared to go far beyond the basic legal level of compliance which they once saw as the limit of their ambition. They now assume the kind of forward-looking positions which the world will need if we are to re-shape our culture and our expectations and create a truly sustainable future.

"I have also been struck by the success of WWF-UK in its many efforts to build positive partnerships.

"And Ladies and Gentleman while these multi-stakeholder dialogues that encourage real leadership are not always easy processes, I think they are essential if we are to have any chance of meeting the needs of the nine billion people who are expected to live on Earth in 40 years’ time, while at the same time conserving and nurturing the natural capital that will sustain their welfare.

"These are, Ladies and Gentlemen, the main focal points that I see as vital if we are to achieve a “sustainability revolution.” I have found that the more we work within a framework guided by these two points, experimenting with approaches that mirror Nature’s processes and cyclical economy, the more effective techniques become apparent.

"By being honest about what is needed, by setting ambitious targets and by stretching every sinew to achieve them, we really can do what is needed. And what is needed is robust leadership into the future. For history will not judge us by how much economic growth we achieve in the immediate years ahead, nor by how much we expand material consumption, but by the legacy we leave for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We are consuming what is rightfully theirs by sacrificing long-term progress on the altar of immediate satisfaction. That is hardly responsible behaviour.

"There is an urgent need for all of us to concentrate our efforts on sustaining, nurturing and protecting the Earth's natural capital and, moreover, reshaping our economic systems so that Nature sits at the very heart of our thinking. This is the mission of WWF-UK, and it is my mission as well. I am delighted and touched to have been asked to become your new President. It is a role that I take very seriously, I assure you, and will give it a very great deal of attention. You may even come to regret it!"

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