The idea that the Universe is governed by principles of harmony is not altogether new. The philosophers of ancient Greece saw in the movement of the planets the workings of a celestial harmony, producing a subtle ‘music of the spheres’ or musica universalis that underlaid not only astronomy but mathematics, geometry, philosophy and the workings of nature.  This celestial harmony informed the work of many great thinkers, among them Pythagoras, Plato, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In recent years, the quest for harmony has become sidelined by more materialist philosophies. But it seems the tide may have changed. A key moment was the publication of Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, written in 2010 by the Prince of Wales with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. 

Towards a harmonious financial system 

Inspired by the book, the concept has recently been applied to new fields of human activity, among them education and agriculture. For Triodos Bank, the principles of harmony can be enabled through finance and banking and the different environmental, social and cultural areas the bank supports.  The idea may seem perplexing to some, in that the workings of our everyday banking and finance system seem to reflect not so much harmony as cacophony: an aggressive, discordant sound which, in our modern word, is responsible for so many of the problems we face as a society. But then, believes Triodos UK managing director Bevis Watts, that’s precisely why it is so important to establish a new, life-enhancing approach to finance that reflects the workings of nature and the wider Universe.

“In a divided and challenged world we want a positive and new way of looking at the future. The concept of harmony and finding a better balance of a more sustainable and fairer society is what Triodos aspires to contribute towards. The essence of Triodos is that every consideration of who we lend to or work with starts with a discussion on what it is we are trying to achieve together and what the environmental, social or cultural outcomes are that we looking to deliver.”  What it’s all about, says Tony Juniper, a former director of Friends of the Earth, now Chair of Natural England, is “working out how the human world can adapt its way of doing things to nature, rather than the other way round, and developing a financial geometry that reflects nature rather than an infernal geometry of exponential growth that is doomed to inevitable collapse. 

“What has resonated with me is the need for a joined up world view. For the financial sector the biggest disconnect is seeing the environment as utterly divorced from finance, and of course this is profoundly wrong. The two are inseparably linked. Too many banks are busy seeking short term profits at the expense of the entire system that supports us, the economy, and all life on this planet and that cannot be sustainable.” 

Principles of harmony 

But what exactly are the ‘principles of harmony’ that we can use to re-establish finance and other sectors on a truly sustainable footing? Richard Dunne, headmaster of Ashley Primary School in Surrey and author of Harmony - a Teachers Guide, has developed a  set of criteria that he has applied to education, but he believes may find a much wider relevance. They include order and proportion, as reflected in sacred geometries; interdependence, relationship and connection; cyclicity, seasonality and limits; diversity, as a wholeness that includes differentiation; health and wellbeing; beauty, expressed in pattern, shape, symmetry, movement, colour, texture and flavour; oneness, and the realisation that we are Nature. 

Patrick Holden, founding director and CEO of Sustainable Food Trust

“Take the idea of cycles”, he says. “Natural systems are generally cyclical, but much of the industrial world relies on linear processes that consume energy and raw materials at one end, and churn out waste at the other. The idea is to close the loop, for example by re-using, recycling or composting waste. But it’s also important to time teaching with natural cycles, for example by teaching about pollination at a time when flowers are in bloom and bees are active, so we can take lessons outdoors and see nature at work, not just parrot out theories in a classroom. That way our children can reach a deep, creative understanding of how the world works - which is essential as the natural world is a model of sustainability that we should all seek to follow.”

Patrick Holden, director of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) and an organic dairy farmer based near Lampeter in Wales, is likewise dedicated to bringing the harmony concept to food and agriculture - a vital work given that the ever-expanding agricultural frontier is the world’s principal cause of wilderness destruction and biodiversity loss. Industrial agriculture is also responsible for animal cruelty, pollution, human exploitation and soil degradation.  The idea of harmony is “as old as human history”, he recently told an SFT conference on the subject, “but somehow there has been some sort of amnesia. We have forgotten that everything is connected, and these deep fundamental laws - mathematical, geometrical, cosmic - operate at all levels in all things and inform everything that happens in the Universe.” 

Restoring order, balance and proportion 

The Prince of Wales told delegates at the same conference, “it is more commonly the view that things like beauty and harmony, a reverence for the sacred and putting Nature at the heart of our thinking have no place at all in agricultural matters, in the design process, the way we do business, our approach to engineering and to the way we might gear our entire economy. I would say be very careful. It is worth taking a step back and considering what happens when we separate what we are from what we do.” 

Dame Ellen MacArthur was among spekers at a 2017 conference organised by the SFT (Credit: Steph French)

As for bringing harmony to the world of banking, the scale of the task ahead is daunting. But perhaps the best way of bringing about change is by setting a good example, and proving that harmonious banking - in tune with nature, environment and society - is not just better for the world but also more sustainable and profitable. The global financial crisis, from which the world’s economy has still not recovered, is an example of how bankers’ disdain for anything other than the short-term bottom line leads to systemic collapse - in this case of the economy itself.  But it can also lead to something considerably worse, as Tony Juniper warned. A recent Rainforest Action Network (RAN) report revealed that since the three years following the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement at the end of 2015, 33 global banks have provided financing worth $1.9 trillion to fossil fuel companies; and that financing to the sector has risen in each of the last two years.

As RAN’s Alison Kirsch observed, “it’s an insult to logic, to science and to humanity that since the groundbreaking Paris Climate Agreement, financing for fossil fuels continues to rise. If banks don’t rapidly phase out their support for dirty energy, planetary collapse from man-made climate change is not just probable - it’s imminent.” 

Fortunately, powerful figures in global finance do understand the reality of the risks we face, among them Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, who recently warned that the ‘stranding’ of fossil assets present a serious risk to global financial stability. “Take the IPCC’s estimate of a carbon budget that would likely limit global temperature rises to two degrees above pre-industrial levels”, he told Lloyds insurers in his ‘Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon’ speech. 

“That budget amounts to between one-fifth and one-third of the world’s proven reserves of oil, gas and coal. If that estimate is even approximately correct it would render the vast majority of reserves ‘stranded’ – oil, gas and coal that will be literally unburnable without expensive carbon capture technology, which itself alters fossil fuel economics. The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity. While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.” 

Working out how to apply principles of harmony to banking and finance will be neither simple nor easy. And it may prove even more challenging to persuade bankers and financiers to apply those principles to their operations. However, it is vital that we achieve both. 

Tony Juniper at the SFT conference (Credit: Steph French)

The Colour of Money

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2019 edition of the Colour of Money, Triodos Bank's inspirational magazine.

Our mission is to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change. The Colour of Money gives you stories, features, and interviews showing you how we do just that. 

Sign up here to recieve the latest stories, features and interviews from the Triodos community.