The British Monarchy Helped Mortgage Our Collective Future

England is facing an energy crisis and Pakistan is underwater. The Queen also died. The monarchy’s role in our existential climate crisis is still being overlooked by the chaotic analysis. This was because it served as a surrogate sacred object to society, which had lost its meaning and connection to the earth and other living things.

The belief in the sacredness and beauty of this world once enabled Britons to overthrow monarchy. The seventeenth-century radicals who rebelled against their king in the name of the “common liberties” that we take as the essence of secular democracy, dreamt up their novel political and social arrangements partly out of faith that Christ’s kingdom was about to come, striving to perfect human governance in line with the perfection of God’s will. However, the chaos of those times produced a new Protestant constitutional monarchy, which became gradually the only place Britons could go.

In the eighteenth century, the new state was defended and strengthened by constant wars that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution. In Britain and the colonies, fossil fuels and metals from the earth were extracted in a constant manner. This quietly unleashed a climate change process and transformed human relationships to nature, work and other human beings. The passage of thousands upon thousands of enclosed acts in Britain made common lands private property. Colonial settlers and administrators then conquered land around the globe and privatized it. This was industrialism. These revolutionary changes were fueled by the monarchy. The monarchy was one of the key corporate partners to the British empire of 18th-century Britain. It established and invested in slavery trading, colonialism, and more.

The Enlightenment philosophers believed that God didn’t directly intervene in the affairs of human beings, but rather provided Providential care. The goal of human perfection is not a magical endpoint, but an historical point to which humanity is inexorably heading. And this narrative of progress entailed “necessary evils,” including war and greed. There was no meaning in the worlds of this and other worlds, only in the ending of history. In this view, Earth’s bewildering variety existed only for man’s utility, so that, as the Victorian economist John Rae imagined, “[e]ven the barren deserts of Africa may…be fertilized,” and water may “in time” be drawn “from the depths of the earth.”

The more the world was understood as a resource, the more it lost meaning, Amitav Ghosh explains: “To see the world in this way requires not just the physical subjugation of people and territory, but also a specific idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.” Everything, from land to plants to people, was commodified. A conquered, inert Earth could no longer “ennoble, nor delight,” writes Ghosh. Karl Marx saw in 1848 that all things holy were profaned in the Industrial Era.

He echoed the Romantics who strove to preserve a space of enchantment in books, asking readers to engage in “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith,” Coleridge wrote. Modernity was to move myth from art and magic away from the real world. There were the real world and the imagination.

The monarchy, and the immigrant nation that it represented, was a holy object for Britons. As Britain became the world’s most transformative, terraforming power, the very material benefits the monarchy derived from that activity allowed it to project an illusion of timeless continuity through ceremonial ritual. The corporate-partnership state yielded to a more institutionally differentiated apparatus presided over by Queen Victoria: the monarchy was the romance that helped legitimize the bureaucratic structures and impersonal, often brutal social relations of colonial and industrial capitalism. The nation was portrayed as one of patrilineal rather than plunder wealth. This image was reinforced by the fact that working class were told they belonged even though they were not allowed to use its benefits and were denied access.

As a result, Britain evolved an image of such unique constancy that thinkers like George Orwell could promise that even with revolution, “England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past…having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” This was the England imagined as a country house amidst rolling grassy hills—a pastoral, aristocratic romance based on forgetting the very recent transformation of rural landscapes in Britain.

Queen Elizabeth II at the Tissisal Falls, where the Blue Nile begins, with Emperor Haile Selassie during a royal visit to Ethiopia, Feb. 7, 1965. (Terry Fincher—Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Haile Selassie at Tissisal Falls where the Blue Nile starts, during Queen Elizabeth’s royal visit to Ethiopia on February 7, 1965.

Terry Fincher—Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Elizabeth II and Victoria were the queens who ruled longest during this time of trauma, and they encapsulated it with maternal care and forgiveness as all other forms of belonging faded away. Britons can find explanations here British journalist this week, “The Queen is their spiritual grandmother.” William Dalrymple, the popular historian descended from a lineage tied to colonial India, called the Queen “the foundation for the life of any of us who were born and brought up in Britain over the last seventy years.” The monarchy, in short, became theA culture that has seen other bonds broken by class, race, destruction of place and the dynamic of colonial capitalism’s dependency on them.

It enabled the instrumental attitude towards the earth that is responsible for our current crisis. According to a 2020 study, nations of the global north are responsible for 92% of all “excess global carbon dioxide emissions.” They have “effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons.” Victorian Britons knew that “[t]He white man robs [Native Americans’] woods and waters of the stores with which nature had replenished them” and that white men had been “the bearers of unspeakable calamities or utter ruin” for Indigenous Paraguayans. However, they considered such devastation necessary for historical advancement. Likewise, after Indians rebelled against the rule of the British East India Company in 1857, British officials defended Britain’s “wholesale confiscation” of land and “reign of terror” in India as the result of “over-eager pursuit of Humanity and Civilisation.” British elites martyred their consciences in the present as they promoted ecologically and humanly devastating practices aimed at transforming the land, with an eye toward future vindication—and the solace of monarchical ceremony.

After the violent defeat of 1857’s rebellion, the government of India was transferred to the Crown. The Empress of India Victoria was declared in 1877. The monarchy’s romance, ritualism, and materialistic allure substituted for the loss of meaning in human relations to one another and the earth that was unleashed by capitalist colonialism. When the Earth lost its magic, ordinary human beings who had served as monarchs became enchanted. Petrifying an entire subcontinent into “the jewel in the Crown” gave the monarchy an unearthly grandeur, while diminishing the majesty of the South Asian climate systems—the monsoon and glaciers—on which the world’s security depends (and effacing the reality that the actual Crown jewels, proudly worn by the late Queen, are looted stones from India and Africa).

We now know that land-use practices such as clearing and enclosing ever more expanses actually mortgaged our collective future, and environmental experts today advocate policies based on Indigenous people’s careful husbandry of the earth’s land, forests, and water towards perpetual mutual preservation of land and life.

The Crown also failed to fulfill the ideal of spirituality and family it was supposed to represent: just like every other family, historians. James Vernon points out, it was “full of resentments, affairs and broken marriages.” And so, ultimately it survived by commodifying itself, merging with the culture of celebrity.

Despite all this, Dalrymple, the historian Maya Jasanoff, and others insist on the importance of the Queen’s personal virtues of duty, decency, and stability. What is decency in a person who has dedicated her entire existence to public service? For whom it is impossible to distinguish between institutional and personal decency. It is more than just meeting all ranks with grace. It would have been far more decent and substantive for the Crown not to pay reparation for colonies that it held violently and profited (many of them Elizabeth II presided over) especially since they are the ones who will bear the brunt the consequences of climate change.

If the Queen was not privy to the gory details of British counterinsurgency in Kenya during the first decade of her reign, she has been for the last decade at least, yet has never expressed regret over them, or over British violence in Yemen, Malaysia, Cyprus, and elsewhere, up to Britain’s eager participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. This silence only served to increase the political harms caused by slavery and colonialism. Far from taking a stand for decency, the Queen imported the racial dynamics of empire in her household—with the clauses in the Equality and Diversity Act that allowed her to ban “coloured immigrants or foreigners” from her household staff, her tolerance for Prince Philip’s infamous racism, and the family’s toxic treatment of Meghan Markle.

When she was in New Zealand, 1995, the queen made a historic apology to Britain for their actions in the 1860s. This allowed the Maoris to return a small amount of the land they had taken. In 2011, she expressed the “regrettable reality” of British relations with Ireland. You can imagine what Britain and monarchy might look like today, if she had not gone so far as to apologize for all the looting, violence and racism that her empire enacted during her reign. What if she had publicly acknowledged that her family’s wealth derived from it? How would that change things? MoralHow much capital has the institution gotten?

Britons can be proud of their empire, rather than being reflective on its devastation. This is because of hollow moral leadership that has been supported by an extravagant and ill-gotten wealth. This has prevented the fall of empire, and it continues to detract from the existential crisis that the imperial age has created.

If “stability” means enabling continuity of dynamics that Should It is not something to be admired, but it does seem to have come to an end. This stability prevented the need for empire-building. It was necessary since the 1950s when anticolonial thinkers such as Fanon called for a change in consciousness between colonizers and colonized. Perhaps less “stability” would have been better for the U.K. and the world.

In speeches made in Ghana (2018) and Barbados (2021) and Rwanda (2022), King Charles recognized the damage and legacy of slavery. Prince William, however, admitted the same in Jamaica last year. They did not apologize, possibly out of fear that they would open the doors to restitution. However, this is what is required for a monarchy which has functioned as distraction from and consolation against destruction that was pursued in the dubious guise of progress.

The queen was deeply invested in the Commonwealth, what she termed an “imperial family” in 1947; it was the global stage that justified the pomp and scale of the Crown. This is the opportunity for the Crown’s new king to gain legitimacy through moral capital rather than imperial capital. It will do the good thing by returning the loot, making reparative words and taking actions that affirm the natural world’s greater splendor.

There are many things to be thankful is reason to be hopeful, given Charles’s longstanding outspokenness about climate change and the sanctity of Nature (which he always capitalizes), if the press that mediates the world’s relationship to this monarchy evolves a better grasp of history. The New York Times’s insistence that, as king, Charles “will no longer be able to throw himself into…policy issues, like climate change” and must become an “imperial symbol…a largely ceremonial figure, strictly removed from politics,” forgets the political nature of monarchical ceremony—its dependence on the place names, wealth, jewels, and artifacts, and racial hierarchies of empire—and fails to grasp that the king might, by continuing to speak about climate change, help reframe it as an existential and moral rather than political subject.

The Pakistanis are at serious risk from famine due to glacier melting, while the British face winter without heat. We need to rediscover our place in the natural world and pay reparation for all the damage colonialism has caused.

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