On Culture Crisis and Ecocide
On the 27th of April, 2019, at the SNP Spring conference in Edinburgh the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a “climate emergency”. In her speech to the delegates she said she was inspired after meeting young climate campaigners who had gone on strike from school. Ms Sturgeon said “they are right”, and pledged to “live up to our responsibility” to halt climate change and pledged to speed up efforts to achieve zero carbon emissions. There was, the First Minister informed us, a climate crisis.
Next weekend there will be a conference in London about new forms of mental illness, climate anxieties and depression. Climate crisis, says the blurb, “presents psychotherapy with a complex but urgent challenge: how do we move from dread to resilience, from catastrophe to transformation, from helplessness to action, from fear to hope?”
How indeed? In his essay “Religion In Gaelic Society”, from his selected essays, Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, John MacInnes makes this important observation,
“Most of what has been written, it seems to me, about the history of the Highlands is governed, often quite subtly, by an ‘imperial’ idea. Nor is this confined to the period in which the Gaels served the British Empire. As we all know there has been some reaction to that kind of historiography. But the reaction is still largely against economic imperialism, much less against cultural imperialism and the erosion of our identity as a distinctive people.”
The First Minister, last Spring and now again in the Autumn, is concerned with the economic imperial, less so, or if at all, with the cultural imperial. In Scotland, if we do not address the cause and effect of the latter we will never come to terms with the former. It could be argued that terms like “climate change” and “climate crisis” themselves are disempowering and a distraction from the realities of 21st century capitalism, which is the actual polluter. By that I mean they divert us from what has been termed “an unfolding ecocide”; the process of environmental wreckage which is the inevitable result of unbridled systems of financialisaton in banking and monetarism in government, promoted by elites on behalf of elites and with a military to protect them.
We now know the names of the 20 fossil fuel companies whose relentless exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era. They are the usual dreary roll call of Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, BP and Shell and state-owned companies including Saudi Aramco and Gazprom. We also know the names of the gangster hedge funds who finance this: BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street, which together oversee assets worth more than China’s entire GDP and who have continued to grow mega-dollar stakes in all these carbon extractors to the tune of $300 billion. They have also routinely opposed motions at fossil fuel companies that would have forced directors to take more action on climate change. Thanks to The Guardian and others this much we know.
This is how the ecocide unfolds. This is how we reach a climate crisis.
The cultural crisis is much more nuanced and subliminal in its manifestations. Unlike the climate crisis, which has been scientifically predicted and charted, the development of the cultural crisis requires different approaches and tools. One of the words for “poet” in Gaelic is fili, or “filidh”. According to accepted opinion it is connected with the root of the verb “to see”: the fili was originally a seer.
To return to John MacInnes again, in his essay “The Seer in Gaelic Tradition”, he is ruminating on the origins and functions of the “second sight” in Gaelic tradition; he writes,
“If we allow that an element of creative imagination is an essential component of divination, we might suggest that certain of the functions of the seer in older, traditional society have been taken over by the creative writers of modern society. I am implying then, that the seer is an artist and that the products of his (or her) vision are art-forms (whatever else they may or may not be) shaped by the expectations of society and its aesthetic needs.”
How many contemporary creative writers would welcome the title of seer, or accept that what they produce is “shaped by the expectations of society and its aesthetic needs.”? Very few, I would suggest. The cultural imperial is at work, deeply embedded in the subconscious, subliminally worming its way into the creative process and celebrating the appropriateness of what is produced to its needs. That is its imperial expectation. The aesthetic needs of the Scottish people are a different matter. This is not to say that there are not brilliant writers currently at work in Scotland: there undoubtedly are. But do they recognise their role in the cultural crisis: can they see what is happening?
They may see the ecocide but what of this,
“Seers of the past had a duty to warn of approaching danger; evasive action was possible; fate was not fixed to that degree. A social anthropologist might see this as a reflection of the Gaelic sense of history. For many centuries Gaelic society has been subjected to a process of ethnocide. We once had some command over our destiny; now we have none.”
This passage is also from The Seer in Gaelic Tradition by John MacInnes. So we have a process of ecocide and a process of ethnocide. Again, how many Scottish writer’s would be comfortable discussing our society, its environment and culture in such terms? I would suggest, very few. It could be argued that the state of Scottish literature – poetry and prose – and of such art forms as film and theatre, which co-operate with writers, is in a healthy state and thriving. It could be argued, but it would be far less than the truth if it were. The amount of energy invested in the spin on promoting the disingenuous line of what a “wonderful place” our creative community is in by the government only goes to conceal their real attitude, which is not what they can actually do for the arts but what the arts can do for the government. Unfortunately the artistic community can never – or very rarely – articulate a coherent or a united statement about this “wonderful place”, so are subsequently very easy to spin.
Recently I attended a forum which was to inform and promote how a national broadcaster sought to engage with new writers and how it “developed” them once they were “engaged”. They were keen to show off their system.
When I was learning my trade as a playwright many years ago one of my mentors used to insist that “Content dictates form”. Now it would appear that form dictates content. This is the new “system”. It is a system which eats writers because the system does not care about anything other than the system. The system has no culture and if the writer has culture then that culture will be stripped off them in order to fit the system. And so it goes on, writer after writer, and the “product” gets blander and ever more similar to what preceded it, until it resembles nothing more than melted plastic on a cooker; its only discernible feature is the tag of genre: crime, fantasy or whatever is in this month. This is because there is so much noise in the world of the system no-one listens and this noise has gone on for so long and is so loud that people have forgotten how to listen to the noises of the real world. There is no speech in the system, only babble. The system thrives on babble, it consumes noise. What the system hates is rough shapes, unusual voices and different colours. The tragic flaw in the system is that it is highly insecure, very nervous and perpetually on the brink of collapse. What it depends upon is the unbridled hunger of those who are desperate to be part of the system. This is what makes the system so dangerous and is one of the reasons why we have a culture crisis.
What the system would say to that is, “Look, there is so much happening. Product is getting out there. Audiences lap it up. People are winning awards.” The reality is that people do watch but they do not see. Nothing new is happening because it is planned that way. New is too dangerous. Nothing is produced that has any value and nothing is being released that will last for more than five minutes. If it were not so there would be another system in place, and this is the most destructive thing: the present dominant system of media and cultural control cannot tolerate an alternative system. This is where the near psychotic hunger of those who long to be “produced” and to become part of the system sustains the system. People who long to be part of the system are consumed by the system, they become part of the babble, the white noise of control. They are consumed and disappear. The supply is depressingly endless. This is the nightmare of the imperial process worked out on Scottish culture. The imperial idea needs a system. This system is killing creativity. In such a way are Scottish writers’ managed away from their native, their first audience.
No writer who has gone through this system will be any position “to warn of approaching danger” as John MacInnes highlighted the role of the seer in traditional Highland society. Instead the ethnocide is on-going, eviscerating cultural tradition and any sense of the local. The recent manifestation of this cultural crisis is the much hyped Highway 66 around the north Highlands which is the North Coast 500. This public relations blessing is now being seen for the societal curse it truly is.
The Highland property consultancy Galbraith has signed an exclusive agreement with the franchise that is North Coast 500. The NC500 website attracts a huge global audience and will now show Galbraith properties for sale within the circumference of the route on its interactive map. Galbraith’s Phiddy Robertson said,
“Tourism is very important to this part of Scotland and the NC500 brand has been a fantastic marketing tool bringing the Highlands to a wider global audience. Many buyers have first visited the region on holiday and have subsequently decided to settle permanently in the area or perhaps buy a property which also has the potential to offer a holiday let on site.”
This translates as, “Tourism is a highly corrosive industry which destroys everything it touches, given time. By selling houses through Galbraith’s this means that local people, especially the young and economically active, will have even less chance of having somewhere to live in the place of their birth and will add significantly to the increasing depopulation of the north Highlands and put even more strain on already over-stretched local services such as health and education.”
Even the super-rich hotelier Ken McCulloch (valued as far back as 2006 as being worth £45 million), who delivered the Moffat Lecture at Glasgow Caledonian University last Tuesday, has highlighted the “Outlander effect” on the Highlands. Recently he said he visited a well known beauty spot which has gown extremely popular with visitors doe to the Outlander TV series. “It’s like kilts on ice,” he told the press, “it’s not my idea of why people would want to come to Scotland. It’s a bit like jumping on the bandwagon and doesn’t give a proper view of the country.”
Just what view of the country Mr McCulloch actually sees from his tax haven of Monaco is a moot point. Does his yacht contribute to the ecocide as much as Outlander does to the ethnocide? I wonder what he made of the Queens coach and horses driving a great big hole through the constitution on Monday? How often does the monarch get to deliver the Conservative Party’s election manifesto? Boris Johnson’s Queen’s Speech agenda displayed all the hallmarks of the politics of the lynch mob. This is modern English Conservative culture on display and it is a political crisis for the majority of the English people, never mind a cultural crisis for the Scots. Desperate and weak governments always try to curry favour by stirring up hate, highlighting criminality and increasing punishment and generally trawling the seabed of reaction. Mob orators of the Boris Johnson sort, (even though they get the Queen to ape their lines) do not speak reason, not even if he tries to wash his bile clean by rinsing it through the Queens marbles.
So how do we move from dread to resilience, from catastrophe to transformation, from helplessness to action, from fear to hope, as the London conference on mental health and climate anxieties has asked? For Scotland the move will be undertaken when we make the transition from colony to country, when we begin to seriously undo the ethnocide so that we can tackle in co-operation with others the ecocide. We have to dismantle the imperial idea and take our people from a cultural crisis to a cultural celebration.