I Consume but I am not Burned

Monday 24th of February 2020

Yesterday our family settled down to watch a Doctor Who episode which was first broadcast some weeks ago. Its title was Orphan 55, of which more later. I didn’t find it the most enjoyable offering. I thought I would look today at what other viewers made of it and see whether they agreed with me or not.
Admittedly, I felt my reaction against the scariness of the monsters and the relentlessness of the tension and the chases might not be the same as for other people. I confess that I find the philosophy or psychology, which often provide themes underlying the action, the most engaging part of the programme.
It may be that I found a particular stream of thought in my “research” on this, but I was surprised by the strong reactions against the content. The strongest criticism seemed to be a feeling of being “preached at”. Without wanting to give away the whole plot, there is a strong environmental message. This is both the source of this reaction and the reason why I’m putting this into a blog.
It seems to me that one of the most significant problems preventing large-scale adoption of measures which could reduce climate change is the feeling that this would be the “moral” thing to do. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the wording which is used. People talk instead (in negative terms) about people “preaching” or being “politically correct” or “woke”. President Trump used a slightly different term when at the summit at Davos recently, but the effect when he talked about “prophets of doom” is much the same. Those making a case for environmental action are described or portrayed in largely negative terms. They are seen as being out of touch with the modern world and dismissive of its achievements; or, especially if they are younger, the implicit criticism is that they are naive and unrealistic; or the concerns that they have about climate change are ignored as manifestations of adolescent anxiety. More than that, in some quarters at least, those advocating changes are rapidly characterised as claiming moral authority to which they have no right. It is only one step further to present them as hypocrites. That is the flavour of the media coverage of celebrities (including certain members of the British royal family) who use their public profile to put forward views on climate change or other ecological issues (but who continue, for example, to fly around the world).
There are number of issues here which I want to flag up to return to in the future. One is the question of any such campaign being given a moral or spiritual context. Related to this is the resistance which seems to stem from some individuals objecting to anyone telling them what to do. To them environmental campaigns inevitably seem to take on this tone. I want to look at this more generally on another occasion, but for now I want to make something of a leap and look at a very specific aspect of this resistance.
In order to do so I am going to use the figure of Donald Trump again, but in what might be called a mythical context. In 2017, the folk musician, Karine Polwart, opened Celtic Connections, a yearly music festival hosted in Glasgow in late January, with a song which placed Donald Trump squarely amongst part of his origins, namely on the Isle of Lewis. She characterises him as a boy who wants “more and more and more”. The song is entitled I Burn but I am not Consumed, which is the clan motto of Trump’s ancestors, the MacLeods. I have reversed that title here for reasons that I want to go on to explain.
It strikes me that one of the many strands of resistance to a climate change message is due to its suggestion that as a race we need to make do with less and to limit our needs in order to reduce our use of the Earth’s resources. Obviously, this runs counter to a capitalist refrain and most especially in the branch which prizes conspicuous consumption. Generally speaking, we seem to have internalised this particular approach in such a way in the West that any sense of limitation arouses feelings of someone endeavouring to interfere with our lives and hence even with individual freedom. I don’t think we are normally conscious of this set of connections, so what is experienced by many people is that anyone talking about climate change or environmental degradation is someone who is setting out to restrict their own personal freedom. Although this is not then often put forward as an argument, I would suggest that it goes some way towards explaining this resistance, often in quite an extreme form.
Almost by definition, consumerism is seen as a sphere of activity which is not just value-free but is a combination of two positives: the exercise of individual freedom or an expression of individuality on the one hand and stimulating a (consumer) economy on the other. Consumerism is viewed positively, without a downside, hence “I consume but I am not burned”. It also becomes associated with ambition and aspiration, the wanting “more and more and more” of Karine Polwart’s “lonely boy”. Ambition and aspiration are generally welcomed in Western society, but we are perhaps starting to question how appropriate they are, especially in the context of ecological imperatives. It is perhaps no coincidence that the adjective “lonely” used by Karine Polwart mirrors the “orphan planet” in the title of the Doctor Who episode. This reference is to a planet which has suffered environmental and other catastrophe to such an extent that it can barely support life. It seems as if we need to apply a broad definition of “life-enhancing” and to begin to focus on what it is which supports that life in all its forms rather than just what commercial environments tell us.