Ecologies of Class:
Prince Philip’s Conservationist Politics

Buckingham Palace announced this morning that Prince Philip has passed away at the age of 99. In the interest of partisanship, most of the press has skirted around saying anything too critical, neglecting to mention his most horrific gaffes.

I’m all for not speaking ill of dead before they’re even in the ground, but as the press reflects on Philip’s influence over the royal family in the twentieth century, it is telling how his own ideological tendencies are revealed nonetheless. He has been held up as a moderniser, encouraging the royal family, as an institution, to adapt to a changing world. For better or for worse, I couldn’t help but see this attitude reflected in his work as a conservationist.

This legacy, in itself, was built on a founding gaffe. The Guardian, for instance, in its long-winded and otherwise glowing obituary, notes how Philip was credited with killing a tiger on a hunting trip to India in 1951, the same year he became President of the newly founded World Wildlife Fund. As if the Prince immediately turned on an ideological dime, various commentators have celebrated him today as an early public defender of the natural world. And yet, it seems that these two pursuits — of royal modernisation and natural conservation — are fundamentally connected, and in a far less “progressive” sense than the press hopes to suggest in its memorial coverage.

The Prince’s change of heart about killing those “kings of the jungle” seems to reflect his own sense of the royal family’s dwindling relevance. Watching the BBC’s increasingly awkward rolling coverage over the course of the day, the quotations chosen to illustrate the Prince’s interest in conservation seem to make this clear.

“We depend on being part of the web of life”, he is shown to say at one point. “We depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us.” This attitude of “we’re all in this together” echoes the changing nature of the British class system, and the royal family’s relationship to its subjects. Over the decades since, this sense of a class equilibrium would gradually come to dominate. Our prior understanding of the “ruling” class has been downplayed in favour of a liberalised sense of difference, through which class positions are defined less by disparities of wealth and power than they are differences in taste and tradition.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century remained a time of great upheaval, and Philip’s fear for the monarchy shines through the ages. In a colour clip, evidently filmed later than the Prince’s appeals to equilibrium, increasing democratic power and its threat to the monarchy permeates his ecological anxieties. Philip says:

If we as humans have got this power of life and death — not just life and death, but the extinction and survival of other species of life — then we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense… Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?

More than any other clip, it is this one that contains the most subtext relevant to the royal family’s own survival. Nevertheless, Philip’s seemingly wholesome and compassionate attitude was repeatedly contradicted by his love of hunting and other stereotypical class pursuits, which make attempts to show a mastery and command over nature that no other stratum of class seems compelled to exercise.

The BBC, to its credit, nodded to this tension in its coverage, whilst nonetheless privileging the Prince’s own defences of fox hunting and the hunting of game birds. Defending himself, the Prince explains:

There is an advantage in people wanting to shoot, because if you have a game species you want it to survive, because you want to have some more next year. It’s exactly like a farmer — you want to crop it, you don’t want to exterminate it.

Though it may sound cynical, this seems commensurate with the ruling class’s attitude towards the working class and their own position in contemporary society. Don’t exterminate us, the royal machine cries, we are prime crop for tourism! It is an argument that seems to oddly resonate with the more reactionary quarters of the working class, who mistakenly believe the royal family contributes far more than their own families do, in terms of their economic impact on the national bank account. In the sprawling class (eco)system of the postmodern Britain, the royals position themselves as a particularly regal animal, which has its place alongside more common species.

It is a belief that the Prince would more or less confirm for himself in his later years. In an interview for the BBC, for instance, he rejects being labelled “green” — that is to say, an environmentalist in the compassionate post-hippie sense of the word. When asked why, he responds:

I think there is a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny-hugger. When I was president of the WWF, I got more letters about … the way animals were treated in zoos than about any concern for the survival of the species. People can’t get their heads around the idea of a species surviving.

It seems the Prince, in turn, could not get his head around the fact that some people see survival in captivity to be a technicality rather than a life worth living. Meghan Markle’s complaints about royal life come to mind. Her experience of royal captivity made her suicidal. It seems that Meghan and Harry, in their arrogance, have revealed themselves to be bunny-huggers of another variety, more concerned about their own reputations and comfort than the survival of the royal species.

But here we see how Prince Philip’s ecological thinking has always been outdated. His primary interest was in preserving the natural world for his own enjoyment of its riches. Though his anxieties reflect the anxieties of the royal family in general, he hoped to maintain an existing ecosystem, static and doing just fine, rather than interrogate our understanding of ecology — the relationships between species, ourselves included, and the consequences of those relationships of the environment at large.

This was, of course, an argument put forward by Felix Guattari in his book, The Three Ecologies. Arguing that a new kind of ecological thought is necessary if we were to understand how the media, technology and class are integral to any genuinely radical environmentalism, he suggests that “this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic Universe”.

Guattari’s insistence that we think about the environment politically — that is to say, as a concern that is innate to other sociopolitical concerns, such as class and capitalism — casts the royals’ environmentalism is stark relief. In fact, it is telling that many members of the royal family have taken up environmental causes as a way to root around their agreement not to get involved in the country’s political affairs. (Although Prince Charles has often revealed how thin this line is in being repeatedly accused of political “meddling” on environmental issues.) Guattari was, once again, ahead of the curve here. He continues:

Current ecological movements certainly have merit, but in truth I think that the overall ecosophical question is too important to be left to some of its usual archaizers and folklorists, who sometimes deliberately refuse any large-scale political involvement. Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the past decade.

In light of the present discussion, the royal family loom large as a peculiar set of actors in this debate. In making the environment an apolitical or suprapolitical issue, they have found a way to make a subtly political stand in favour of their own survival, reinforcing their own relationship to the land and the peoples and creatures who live on it. Prince Philip’s death has given the establishment an excuse to put this kind of thinking on display, and we might take note of this in thinking about the future of the royal family themselves, as members of what Guattari calls a “social ecology”.

The death of Prince Philip will remind many people that the Queen herself cannot be much longer for this world. When she passes, Prince Charles will likely become king, and Prince Philip has coached his son magnificently in the game of environmental suprapolitics. Charles’ own passion for Britain’s various ecosystems will surely enable the royals to persist in their place for decades to come. Unless, of course, we find a way to discuss their cynical environmentalism for what it is — a belief in the preservation of one species in particular: their own.

2 Comments

  1. That opaque and mysterious entity, “The Crown”, a ruthlessly bourgeois-capitalist corporate structure seemingly immune and aloof from quotidian regulatory frameworks and never seriously examined either by investigative journalists or historians, was directly involved with the WWF from the beginning: the WWF is largely a cynical front for a giant colonialist land grab, with huge tracts of its “nature reserves” parcelled out under-the-table to multinational mining companies for crass resource exploitation, from Canada to Australia, the obscure “The Crown” ultimately having direct multi-million investments in those companies. So, really, The Crown is just another capitalist institution, albeit a more privileged and secretive one, using the disavowing alibi (as with so many other corporations) of a conservative pseudo-environmentalism to deflect attention from – and further legitimise – its continued bourgeois-capitalist plunder of that environment.

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