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  • Writer's pictureMarc Camanag

Unpacking the Prince of Wales’s Terra Carta

In a royal effort to address the climate crisis, the Prince of Wales has recently unveiled his Terra Carta, a visionary charter targeted at the private sector that outlines the economic path to a sustainable future. Composed of a series of actionable strategies towards sustainability, the Terra Carta places industries and their leaders at the forefront of the collective effort to save the planet, and entrusts them with the hefty goal of accelerating the current regime of climate and biodiversity action. But without the formal binding power of a contract or treaty, the ability of the document to enact its agenda is still unclear. Will the Terra Carta bridge the gap between private industry and the natural world, or will it fall short as the latest corporate take on performative environmentalism?

Art by Jessica Kamman

Who is to blame for climate change? Environmental discourses have long grappled with this question, and it’s one that continues to define our opinions and worldviews on who should bear the burden of mitigating the crisis. Arguments for “responsibility” can be made at every level of society — from the failures of the individual consumer to the unwillingness of governments to treat climate change as a political issueand ultimately inform our approaches to this complex global issue. To appreciate the Terra Carta and its vision of the future, we have to consider foremost the role of one entity in producing our climate crisis: capitalism.

If we are living in the Capitalocene and capitalism is truly to blame, then the Terra Carta is one moderate solution to our environmental dilemma. Designed as a roadmap to sustainability for eco-conscious companies and their leaders, the charter seeks to “guarantee the rights of nature in capitalism” by inviting businesses to commit to a bold plan of action that exists beyond legal obligation. In practice, the Terra Carta urges private companies to think of their moral and social responsibilities as agents of a system that has thus far failed to sustainably coexist with nature.

The content of the Terra Carta is far from novel, but that may not be a bad thing. By focusing on the acceleration of internationally-codified climate objectives, the charter recognizes the inherent difficulty of attempting to replace an entire economic system. Rather than setting its sights on a post-capitalist future, the Terra Carta seeks to reshape the global economy as it currently exists, so that capitalism might no longer have to be synonymous with environmental degradation.

An advantage of the Terra Carta operating within the bounds of capitalism is that it is able to delineate concise and actionable steps for the private sector. Capitalism represents our political and economic reality, and the charter’s solutions are a reflection of that. Every action within the document — from the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to investment in game-changing, scientific innovation — is tangible and moves us closer to securing the future of our planet. Now more than ever, theory and the abstract must be paired with praxis and concrete initiative; neither is sufficient on their own, and the urgency of the climate crisis demands that we stop imagining a sustainable future and start working towards it.

The Terra Carta is not a radical manifesto, and that could be the key to its success in the time to come. Ascribing responsibility for climate change to the individual does not suggest that humanity should cease to exist, nor does blaming politicians insinuate that our government institutions must be abolished. If we are willing to reform these other proposed sources of the climate crisis without advocating for their eradication, should this opportunity not be extended to the private sector? Our aspirations for the future revolve around fostering a healthy interdependence between humans and the earth, and the successful implementation of the Terra Carta would put us a step closer to doing just that — notwithstanding the perpetuation of capitalism.

Even without the binding force of the conventional international treaty, the Terra Carta is still ostensibly capable of enforcing commitment. As noted by Bruce Rudyk of NYU Law’s climate program, its utilization of annual reports and disclosures will serve to keep companies in compliance with the document’s objectives. To that effect, it should operate like a contract, with the prospect of shame and censure acting as the presumed consequence for non-compliance by its signatories. Juxtaposed with the contemporary salience of the environmental movement and the prominence of call-out culture, the fear of ostracism might be enough to steer companies in the right direction.

As visionary and commendable as it is, the voluntary nature of the charter means that its impact is unpredictable and for all intents and purposes, unknown. Thus far, the signatories of the Terra Carta represent a curious pastiche of companies that will more or less determine the contours of the document’s influence. The commitment of certain entities — chiefly the fossil fuel industry giant BP — gives pause to supporters and critics of the Terra Carta alike, but such an unprecedented move may indicate a change with the times. Although support of the Terra Carta does not absolve the private sector of its past environmental transgressions, doing so may become a popular option for those companies seeking to make early amends as we transition towards a net-zero future.

The Terra Carta itself is a lesson in the adaptability and versatility of environmental change; at the same time that it can be swift and revolutionary, it can (and sometimes, must) also be protracted and incremental. The Prince of Wales’s endeavor alone won’t right the wrongs of capitalism or save the Earth, but it does carry the potential to usher in the type of transformative change that we are already seeing from individuals and national governments. As these efforts from different sectors of society accumulate, the hope is that they will eventually coalesce into a sustainable reality.

Considering the unsustainable form of capitalism that has led us to this moment, the Terra Carta is a much-needed movement away from the status quo. Tackling our climate crisis requires accountability at all levels, and the Terra Carta takes on the daunting task of reorienting a system that has profited from the exploitation of natural resources for centuries. Its success in doing so is still to be determined, but we shouldn’t dismiss it so quickly — it may just be our generation’s Magna Carta.

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