Royally perplexed by myths and Malthus

Prince Carlos de Bourbon de Parma, a member of the Dutch royal family, travels to Abu Dhabi and talk sustainable societies with Rupert Wright.

HRH Prince Carlos de Bourbon Parma. Celerant Consulting Sustainability conference, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Duncan Chard.
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The noble idea of a sustainable society has found itself on the back burner recently. But one of its leading proponents feels that clearing up a few misconceptions will get it back on track

In the week the 7 billionth person pitched up on the planet, Malthusian fears of sustainability are back in vogue.

Can the world cope with that many people? What are they going to eat, how will they get their energy supplies and what sort of cars will they drive?

There are few better people to discuss these vexing issues than Prince Carlos de Bourbon de Parma, who has a family tree dating back more than a millennium. He is the head of the royal and ducal house of Bourbon-Parma, a member of the Dutch royal family and considered the pretender to the defunct throne of Parma.

He says he grew up thinking and talking about sustainability over family meals, and is passionate about the subject. "It's genetic," he says. "We were always talking about long-term issues stretching over many generations."

His grandfather was one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund, although Prince Carlos is rather disparaging of that body. "It's now a fantastic branding agency," he says. "The mentality has changed. We didn't set it up to be a seal of approval institution."

With his blond hair and blue eyes, Prince Carlos is the very model of a north European. And in a blue suit, white shirt and wearing an orange Hermès tie, he could be mistaken for still being the banker he once was. But he is now a successful businessman, the part-owner of Lemnis Lighting, which makes long-life bulbs. And he works part-time for Celerant Consulting, a consultancy that opened offices in Abu Dhabi and Muscat two years ago, and is about to open in Doha. Sustainability is one of the eight pillars of its advisory work.

Amid the gold leaf and the sound of an oud at the Emirates Palace Hotel, he recently talked about how there is 20 per cent more gold by weight in mobile phones than in gold ore, the lack of principles in some business circles, and the decline of the West.

You've flown in from Europe. How is it there from a sustainability perspective?

I see a serious slowdown in Europe in the idea of changing to a sustainable society. In the 1960s conservation and environment were against big business. This has merged NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and businesses to work together. Last two years it has slowed down tremendously.

Due to events in 2007 and 2008?

Yes, most probably. Plus a lot of political parties in Europe have changed from the left to right. Sustainability is not left or right. In Holland, the right talks about energy security while the left talks more about environment, climate change etcetera. The same technology could solve both their problems, but for some reason they don't want to mix.

Is sustainability seen as an expensive luxury?

Yes, this is one of the hardy myths around sustainability, the idea that it costs money. I think it is a hangover from the 1960s. But I have a lighting company that makes LED bulbs and we make cashloads of money. Sustainable businesses are cheaper in the long run. The problem is sustainability has a label of being a leftist thing. It shouldn't be. After all, it is the biggest job creator in Germany.

So sustainability is not anti-growth?

No, that's another myth. But is it qualitative growth or quantitative? Ask the London Symphony Orchestra; do they want to grow and be bigger? Of course not. They want to be better. That's where the growth is.

And your view of Europe?

There is a value crisis. We have allowed systems to reach their limits, bonus structures out of proportion with reality. We have become devoid of rhyme or reason, it is a moral issue, an ethical one. It is not a market issue. With ABN Amro Bank, after it was nationalised, there was this enormous fear that if you didn't pay bonuses you wouldn't get good executives. In fact, the contrary is the case. They are getting a tenth of the bonus they would have got, but they are working well. All these crises have a common base and it's all down to values. We daren't look further than our noses are long, we are sticking our heads in the sand. There is a lack of education.

How do you convince businesses that you should be doing this?

Large businesses are. It has taken 15 years, but they are doing it. What do we do now? One of the things Celerant does is it has a proven way of improving efficiency. If you can increase productivity, can you reduce waste too? And we are implementing that now, and that is one of the eight pillars that forms the strategy of Celerant.

In the Middle East, presumably everybody could improve their sustainability?

Of course, the market is huge. Here, natural resources are scarce, apart from energy. We are running a linear economy today. If you want to have 9 billion people living together in harmony we have to share the pie. We need to be circular, not linear, we need qualitative growth, not quantitive. That is the future of the job market and the Middle East is geographically perfectly positioned to service India, China, Europe and Africa.

Where do you see hope for this vision of sustainability in the Middle East?

Here you have Masdar City, aerospace and education. These all hold out hope for the future. There is also a strong moral vision, the UAE is doing more on sustainability than the US. Even China has become conscious over the past few years. The UAE has a significant role to play. It is good to see there are islands going against the trend.

In the past 10 years, have people changed their habits enough or not even close?

Not even close.

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