The Sustainable Food Trust has been influenced by the Prince of Wales’s thinking on the concept of ‘harmony’. The SFT’s Adele Jones, recently joined a party of educationalists on a tour of the farm and gardens at Highgrove. Here she outlines some of the key issues that were discussed and explains how the Harmony principles can help us to make food, architecture and education fit for the challenging future we all face.

It often takes the words and actions of a public figure to make us think in new ways. In recent years, the Prince of Wales has been encouraging us to make better sense of our relationship with the world through an understanding of the principles of ‘harmony’. His thinking is based on the conviction that everything is connected, and that an understanding of this connectivity through the harmony principles – which include geometry, diversity, cycles, oneness and health – enables us to see the world around us in a completely different way. The philosophy behind the principles is set out in his book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World (2010), which is based on the premise that nature is our greatest teacher.

Prince Charles believes that “economic and social development will best succeed when it works in harmony with Nature, rather than in conflict with it”. He feels we live at a time when reductionist science and fragmented thinking predominate. We can see the effect of this in architecture, agriculture and education – some of the most important areas of human activity. All these fields are currently suffering from a lack of integrated thinking, resulting in serious negative impacts on the built environment, food and children.

Taking the example of architecture, the Prince’s concept of Harmony suggests there can be a stark contrast between the atmosphere and impact of an ancient parish church and that of many modern buildings. Why, we might ask, does the former have a calming effect, feel right in its setting and evoke a ‘sense of place’, while the latter often makes us feel alienated and disconnected from the surrounding environment? For instance, the design of many churches and cathedrals built during the gothic period was informed by fundamental geometric and mathematical principles, which intentionally evoke a sense of harmony and order. According to the Prince, this is no accident.

Buildings that feel harmonious are not restricted to churches and cathedrals. The Harmony book also highlights Britain’s Georgian architecture, pointing out that its pleasing aesthetics are due to an understanding of the mathematical laws of proportion, as expressed in the ratios of the height and breadth of windows and doors. In other cases, harmony principles have been applied intuitively, for instance in traditional rural housing and farm buildings. It’s telling that these traditional buildings, usually built with local materials and sited in harmony with the landscape, continue to look beautiful over prolonged periods of time.

The concept of Harmony can also be applied to agriculture – it faces similar problems to architecture. In a world where intensive farming has become the most profitable option for producing food, the result has been a physical disconnection from the natural world by both farmers and consumers. A large proportion of our food is now grown in fields where nature and agriculture are completely separate. Soil is treated as an inert medium with only chemical and physical properties, instead of vibrant biological life, the home of a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity. Synthetic pesticides are needed on crops because pests and predators are out of harmony, and antibiotics and wormers are needed for livestock because we no longer allow animals to develop strong immune systems.

In contrast, farming systems that work in harmony with nature produce food that is not only better for the environment but also for our own health. In such systems, the book claims, one of the most important principles is ‘cycles’. These can be observed everywhere – in the ever-changing seasons, the rotation of crops, the recycling of nutrients, and even in the daily, monthly and yearly rhythms of the work routines on the farm. High energy inputs, be they fossil fuel or high carbohydrate feed speed up natural cycles and digestion adding to climate change and land degradation.

In the sphere of education, the combined pressures of league table success and the need to do well in exams have created an environment that leaves pupils with little sense of connection to the world around them or how they could harness the skills they learn at school in order to address the huge environmental problems of the future, such as climate change. The challenge of applying the Prince’s harmony principles in the education system has been taken up by Richard Dunne, head teacher of a state primary school, near London. After reading Harmony, Dunne decided to embed the principles into the education programmes at his school and managed to achieve this without sacrificing the government’s Ofsted outstanding status that it has held for the past seven years.

The children at Ashley School use compasses to explore the way geometric principles, including the movement of the planets, inform many of the shapes and structures that we commonly observe in nature. They also grow their own food and learn about the importance of issues such as composting, biodiversity and energy efficiency. Dunne believes we need leaders to emerge from the next generation who are equipped to face the consequences of our past misguided actions. Because of this, he says, creating a curriculum that helps children become future stewards of the planet is not only vitally important, but actually our duty to them. Dunne’s vision and leadership has not escaped notice and his school has now become a place of pilgrimage for education leaders and other head teachers. He has recently been asked to visit Bhutan to help advance the country’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ programme, and hopes to inspire others by describing the harmony journey his school has embarked upon.

The ideas behind the harmony philosophy are also now beginning to find expression in other parts of the world. The Mayor of Louisville, in the US, hosted a ‘Health and Harmony Symposium’ in conjunction with a visit from the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall to the town. In discussing the journey the city has embarked upon in applying harmony and health principles, the Mayor described a scorecard system they have developed that closely mirrors the Prince’s harmony principles. This will be used to monitor the city’s progress in each area of sustainability and health.

The word ‘sacred’ features prominently in Prince Charles’s book, highlighting the opportunity for faith leaders to play their part in engaging global populations with the harmony thinking and environmental issues. One such example is the Pope’s recent encyclical (circular letter to bishops), released just a few weeks ago, in which he states:

[…] economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.

It is of potentially great significance that the Pope has now added his voice to this key question of how society can begin to address environmental issues in a more holistic and interconnected way. It evidences a pressing need to recognise how society fits into the natural world.

In many ways harmony thinking is timeless, but the Prince of Wales’s public voice has the power to bring this alternative way of seeing the world to wider attention. Commenting on the harmony message delivered by Prince Charles in Louisville, Rhea Sur, President of the Natural Resource Defense Council in the US commented, “You know we’ve come a long way when the future King of England comes to America to call for a revolution.” Let us all hope that the authentic voices of Prince Charles and the Pope on these issues will encourage a new global movement that challenges current orthodoxies and catalyses a mainstream shift in our thinking and our actions.

Photograph: Tiltti

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