Kensington Palace announced last week that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is leaving the military to focus on his royal duties and charity work. His philanthropic activities will centre on conservation, particularly the protection of endangered species. His current initiative, United for Wildlife, brings together seven conservation organizations including Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund United Kingdom and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature with the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
As president of United for Wildlife, William is taking the long view, considering the impact of environmental degradation on humanity for centuries to come.
He explained: “The threats to our natural heritage are extensive, but I believe that this collaboration of the best minds in conservation will provide the impetus for a renewed commitment and action to protect endangered species and habitats for future generations.”
As a future sovereign of a monarchy that dates back more than a thousand years, William is ideally situated to use his public profile to address issues that cannot be resolved within a single election cycle or even a single generation.
In recent decades, royalty in the Commonwealth and the rest of the world have assumed leadership roles in the campaign against global warming, habitat destruction and the depletion of natural resources. In his environmental advocacy, William is following in the footsteps of his father, the Prince of Wales, a longtime advocate of organic farming, and his grandfather, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was the United Kingdom president of the World Wildlife Fund from 1961 to 1982.
In the world’s other monarchies, royalty is also advocating conservation and responsible environmental stewardship. As crown prince, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands was chairman of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation from 2006 until the abdication of his mother, Queen Beatrix, this year. The Dutch king’s successor on the advisory board is Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan.
In 2009, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway visited Greenland to take part in research seminars with environmental experts, visit the vulnerable Ilulissiat glacier and study the impact of global warming on the local population.
In an interview a few months after his visit to Greenland, Frederic highlighted the role of royalty in bringing public attention to climate change, stating, “I think it’s important for me to have a message for other people … to convince the broader population that there are changes happening and that we are making the change.”
The numerous partnerships between royal patrons and organizations devoted to the protection of the natural world demonstrate the unique perspective that royalty brings to the table in the 21st century.
Since Prince William and his fellow members of the world’s royal houses do not have to face a four- or five-year election cycle, they are free to focus their energies on long-term causes where progress occurs over the course of decades rather than months or years. Representatives of the world’s monarchies have a vested interest in ensuring the long-term survival of the planet as they envision their descendants in their positions for centuries to come.
Other philanthropic causes supported by today’s royalty demonstrate a similar concern for long-term goals over short-term objectives. In 2006, William’s brother, Prince Harry, with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, founded Sentebale, an organization committed to offering long-term support to community organizations that work with children, particularly those orphaned by Lesotho’s AIDS pandemic. In his work with Sentebale, Harry is continuing the efforts of his late mother Diana, Princess of Wales, who was instrumental in bringing public attention to the plight of people with HIV and AIDS.
The world’s surviving constitutional monarchies have succeeded to the present day because of their adaptability and willingness to adopt new roles in society. King George III and his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, oversaw the emergence of philanthropy as a key aspect of the modern monarchy during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Queen Elizabeth II developed a dynamic role as head of the Commonwealth, becoming the most well-travelled monarch in history and fostering connections among the 54 member nations including the 16 realms where she is head of state.
In the 21st century, Prince William and other members of the world’s royal houses are demonstrating the continued relevance of monarchy by addressing issues that require decades of sustained attention. William and Harry are continuing the work of their parents and grandparents through their philanthropy. Like the AIDS pandemic, environmental degradation is a problem that will require more than one generation of solutions for generations to come. With their long-standing traditions and global public profile, royalty are well placed to assume leadership roles in the conservation of the natural world.
Carolyn Harris is a lecturer in the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto.