2007 - 2021

Want and Need

WANT AND NEED: From The Province Of The Cat by George Gunn

One of the great linguistic tragedies of the English language is that want and need are not the same word. If they were I believe that many of the ecological disasters currently befalling our planet could have been avoided. Because they are not we, as a species, are running through the ashes of want towards the flames of need.

If language is a development system which acquires, maintains and develops, over time, complex systems by which we (humanity) communicate with one another and if that inherited codification is English – even if it is not your native language – then all English speakers are in a deep crisis of meaning and reality. English has become, through its relationship with power, a language of inversion rather than clarity. Nothing means what it is supposed to mean. English is the chosen language of the lying tongue. For example, if it is true that humanity cannot think in non-linguistic ways then English speaking Scots are in big cultural, political and environmental trouble. How can we believe what we think, know who we are or understand the world around us if we cannot tell the difference between want and need or recognise the damage this linguistic separation and denial (of our own native language) is doing to us by pulling us out of ourselves and into the Anglosphere and the damage that denial that is doing to our cultural world? As the Kenyan novelist Ngügȉ Wa Thiong’o once wrote, “The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture.”

In Scotland we cannot even wholeheartedly acknowledge our own indigenous languages of Gaelic and Scots. We are encouraged to view our own native languages as inferior, to process reality through the filter of the English linguistic majority which erodes our cultural instincts and alienates our identity. As a result we are pushed further way from political independence. Instead of feeling secure in our own languages we shiver in the Sun-less linguistic fields of the American-English of the internet and industrial capitalism. English has become the language of the on-going ecocide. It is the language of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The media is full of stories about COP26 and running thorough all of them like a message through a stick of rock is the incredible naivete that somehow the very creators of this 21st century environmental omnicide will be the ones who will, miraculously, act to undo it. Somehow we are expected to believe that trashing the planet and hiding the money is a perversion of capitalism. Well, here is the real news: it is capitalism. This is corroborated by what is revealed in “The Emissions Gap Report 2021”, published by the United Nations last week. According to the UN the world is squandering the opportunity to “build back better” – the thing Bojo blathered on about through the Covid-19 pandemic- and faces disastrous temperature rises of at least 2.7C if countries fail to strengthen their climate pledges. (Guardian, October 26th). Rishi Sunak in his recent budget, which failed to acknowledge either Brexit or the pandemic, pushes against a green agenda by cutting taxes on domestic flights which will lock the UK deeper into its fossil-fuel dependency and is an appalling signal to send out just a few days before COP26.

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, described the findings of their report as a “thundering wake-up call” to world leaders, while experts called for drastic action against fossil fuel companies. “The Emissions Gap Report 2021” warns that countries’ current pledges would reduce carbon by only about 7.5% by 2030, far less than the 45% cut scientists say is needed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, which is the aim of the COP26, a manifestation which lands on Glasgow like some alien invasion.

It should be some gathering on the South side of the Clyde. Throughout it the English language will pour like raw, untreated sewage into the Clyde. The Scots will have to suck up the fact that as far as Westminster is concerned – and by extension the rest of the world – our country doesn’t exist. Want and need can meet up with hunger and death somewhere around the back of the Scottish Exhibition Centre and watch the tide come in, then go out. Our language of inversion will drown along with meaning. Everyone within a targeted radius, whilst they sleep or sip their freedom lattes, will have their fingerprints scanned and their eyeballs weighed by Home Secretary Priti Patel’s secret surveillance squads of velvet slippered cyber-goons. No indigenous people, either from the Gorbals or the Amazonian rain forest, will get anywhere near COP26. Not a word of their language will be heard. The 5% of the world’s population that nurture 80% of the world’s natural bio-diversity can whistle. Or perhaps enjoy some of the delights of “Culture at COP”, Creative Scotland’s Climate Focus? Why not sing along to the lyrics delivered in American accents by Dundee Rep in their brand new show “This is a Love Story”, “a musical about the enduring yet strained relationship between the planet and humanity”? Or you can shed a tear at the well-meant words of Creative Scotland’s Chief Executive Iain Munro, who informs us through his blog, that

“As Scotland’s lead national body supporting art and creativity across Scotland, the creative response to this crisis is our core business. We all have a vital role to play and want to work together with partners across the creative sector and beyond to help bring about the changes required.”

There’s the want word again. Poor want. Still looking for need. But never fear. There are other uplifting messages to be had. According to the Scottish Government,

“We must all play a part in tackling climate change. By making changes to how we travel, what we buy, reducing our waste and changing how we use energy at home, we can help to reach net zero emissions by 2045. Find out what actions you can take now. Scotland, let’s do net zero.”

Indeed, lets. If only we knew what it was? But, hey, we can shake our environmental pom-pom’s. Personally, my heart grows sore and I grow weary. No matter how many poems, plays or novels I write each one, it seems to me, is no more or less than a quest to find some set of elusive definitions. The want and need to speak the truth as I see it, more often than not, dissolves though observation and revelation into irony. This may be because of my cultural conditioning and history or through the vagaries of the English language. Or of having to think in one language and write in another. Whatever it is the ultimate irony is that there is nothing more irritating than irony for it neither mocks nor attacks what is addressed, but rather it is annoying because irony (itself) denies certainty by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. COP26, as an event, is all ambiguity, even though the choices we face are quite stark. There is nothing certain other than the corruption which has brought the world to this crisis. Another “ultimate” irony – and this is a fantasy – would be if no-one turned up, either to lie through their teeth as delegates or to protest sincerely in the Glasgow streets. But that is not going to happen: neither side can resist the spectacle. Both sides want and need it.

What the British government want at this present moment is a diversion. This is how they view COP26. They need anything to divert attention away from the growing mess of Brexit, empty supermarket shelves, food rotting in the fields, growing pressure within the NHS, increasing poverty and the Scot’s bellowing on about independence. Usually how the UK achieves this diversion is by picking a fight with someone, more often than not the EU. This is how this current Tory cabal understands freedom. It is a freedom to renege on all past agreements. As Dominic Cummings put it earlier in the month, “Cheating foreigners is a core part of the job.” It is the freedom to use “sovereignty” as blackmail as they have done in Northern Ireland over the European Court of Justice. It is the freedom to do and act as they please whenever it suits the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their need and their want supersede everything else. Especially those of the people. The people’s collective need and want has been dissolved by the corrosive ego and vanity of a few individuals. Scotland and its Parliament doesn’t count either. £342m, courtesy of the Westminster government from the leveling-up fund, whatever that is, directly to local authorities marks the manifestation of a new form of direct rule as baw-bees from the budget. It is designed to exact maximum annoyance from the SNP government. The truth is nothing matters to this set of Tories other than their own survival. That persistence will be at the expense of everyone and everything else. Their continued wealth ensures more floods, fires, storms, droughts, hunger, conflict, grief and anxiety across the globe. They have no interest whatsoever in cutting carbon emissions by half by 2030, then half again by 2040 and again by 2050. There’s no profit in that. That is why they are in power, after all.

And so the dance macabre goes on and sometimes the music stops to allow the press to salve their liberal conscience. For example whenever there’s a leak of documents or an email trail to and from some remote islands or obscure parts of the British Empire where rich people hide their money, such as last month’s release of the Pandora Papers, ordinary people ask how such things could happen? How have we ended up with a global system that enables great wealth to be transferred offshore, untaxed and hidden from public view? Politicians, when the camera is on them, condemn it as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. But it is far from it. It is the true face of capitalism.

In Gaelic the word dìth means both want and need. Contained within the Gaelic language is the balancing dialectic the society that uses it depends upon. Historically, throughout the Highlands and Islands, wanting what you didn’t need was a foreign idea. Such accumulations were seen as destructive. Gaelic society could not tolerate or support such exploitation. And now it turns out neither can the planet. The Scottish people want independence because they need it. We require it now, not after this pandemic is over, but to protect ourselves against it. Scotland needs independence now to undo Tory austerity and to create an equitable country. England can only be contained within her own borders. She should have no influence within ours. We can achieve nothing forever shuffling up and down the cul-de-sac of devolution. COP26 has shown us that politically we do not exist. Nicola Sturgeon is not at the table. She is not even in the building. As James Kelman so memorable said, when accepting the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel “How Late It Was, How Late”, “My culture and my language have a right to exist.”

Comments (24)

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  1. Richard Easson says:

    Do you remember when it was illegal to even take more than 250 pounds out of the country? I think it was when James Callaghan was prime minister..
    Now you can do it invisibly at the touch of a button.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Richard, I think it was just £50.

  2. Robbie says:

    It took getting his grandsons ear del in a parcel before Multi- Millionaire J P Getty faced REALITY and part with some of his money to save him,don’t know what it will take for these bunch of greedy B******s to face the same reality and start to save the planet.

  3. Squigglypen says:

    A very interesting article Thank you.
    What the British/English government need is a kick in the ass and what we want is Independence..(and I am not bellowing)..just stating the obvious. Time to go ….the Sassenachs will be fine..they don’t need Scotland…….they think they are god’s chosen people anyway……but oh why such a panic in their breasties. ( sorry Rabbie)…… Feart tae stand alone dae ye think?

  4. Meg Macleod says:

    The elite are ruling the world….voted in!!
    The main problem people still believe the rhetoric…
    Truth is buried beneath the excrement of their machinations which at this moment is squeezing the life( literally) out of people too honest themselves to believe that the people in power don’t care a hoot for the ordinary people..whatever language is used…..

  5. Dougie Harrison says:

    Mony thanks for this George. Mibbe sometimes it takes a poet and writer to remind us all of the importance of language. When we cannie see each other’s faces and body-language, it’s all we have. And I for one wouldnie pick a fecht wi ye ower THAT.

    Lang may yer productive lum reek pal.


  6. Mons Meg says:

    Of course, the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’ is that ‘want’ derives from the Old Norse ‘vanta’ – ‘to be lacking’ – whereas ‘need’ derives from the Old English ‘neodian’ – ‘to be required (for some purpose)’. Thus, in English, we can want what is needed, but we can also want what is (merely) desired and not needed as such.

    But you’re right George: many English speakers use the language incompetently and often treat ‘want’ and ‘need’ erroneously, as synonyms, which they’re not. It’s not really the language’s fault.

  7. Alistair Taylor says:

    Great writing George! It is always such a pleasure to find one of your essays on Bella Caledonia. Thank you, most gratefully and sincerely. (An’ ah mean that…)

    Aye, it’s been grand being back in Scotland. Now that ah’m here, I may never leave. (Though one never knows when one may get dragged away to London against one’s will, and made an example of). Ha.

    Anyways, don’t mind me. I am prone to “stream of pish” writing style. Been kicking around the ideas of a “book” for the past 10 years, nearly. But now that ah’m 60 might have tae finally buckle down an’ write the darned thing. Everyone needs a hobby?

    And, surely, someone needs tae nod at the Rolling Stones. No? Naw?

    I don’t know.
    Ah dinnae ken. Ah’m offski.

  8. Niemand says:

    ‘ . . . all English speakers are in a deep crisis of meaning and reality . . . the English linguistic majority erodes our cultural instincts and alienates our identity . . . English has become the language of the on-going ecocide . . .English language will pour like raw, untreated sewage into the Clyde’

    ‘English is the chosen language of the lying tongue’. Oh, the irony.

  9. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    George, a fine piece. There is another word which you might have introduced – ‘greed’, which is, for the rentier class, the motive force behind ‘want’ and ‘need’, from their perspective. Although they have sufficient to look after themselves in a reasonable way, they ‘want’ even more, indeed, they would claim the ‘need’ even more and it is this need/greed that they assert that drives progress, and, they further argue produces more goods and benefits, which ‘trickle’ down to people who are in real ‘need’ (as you define it, George). But, to the rentiers those in such ‘need’ are in such a state because they did not have the motivation to acquire more and, by the rentiers’ inverted logic such people are ‘greedy’ and ‘want something for nothing’. Unlike Mr Gordon Gecko, poor people’s greed is not good. They WANT what they are too lazy to work for! Their WANT/NEED is ‘envy’, and their demands for redistribution of wealth and power is decried as the ‘politics of envy’.

  10. Time, the Deer says:

    The Gaelic phrase gu leòr means both ‘plenty’ and ‘enough’. Just sayin’…

    1. George Gunn says:

      Aye, that is right. Thanks. Many languages share the concept. English is resistant. Or at least how English is used.

      1. Time, the Deer says:

        As you say George, ‘English has become, through its relationship with power, a language of inversion rather than clarity […] English is the chosen language of the lying tongue.’ I have read the same sentiment in both Gaelic and Native American accounts from the 19th century. It is an easy language in which to obfuscate.

    2. Wul says:

      My Granny used to say: “Enough is as good as a feast”

      1. Mons Meg says:

        That’s the great thing about capitalism: it’s increased humanity’s productive capacity to ensure that there’s enough for everyone (it’s abolished scarcity, as Marx said).

        The problem with capitalism is that it requires scarcity to function, so that its plenitude becomes overproduction. Thus, to sustain itself, capitalism must create artificial scarcity. One of the ways it does this is through the cultivation of an economy of conspicuous consumption(‘waste’) and a desire for things we don’t need/are not required by us to live (‘luxuries’).

        1. Mons Meg says:

          It’s this inherent and irresolvable structural contradiction that impels capitalism immanently to its own deconstruction. As Lenin said, give it enough rope and capitalism will hang itself.

          1. Wul says:

            Having recognised the potential for self-destruction in capitalism, can we not regulate or govern it?

            In a nuclear power station’s core dampening rods are raised or lowered to control the internal chain reaction which would blow the station sky high if unregulated. Even my wee lawn-mower has a “governor” to stop it screaming into melt-down.

            Is capitalism incapable of having limiter put on it? (genuine question)

          2. Mons Meg says:

            The jury’s still out on that one, Wul. Pessimists maintain that capitalism might sustain itself indefinitely through economic management and cultural hegemony; optimists are more hopeful that its structures will crumble under the weight of deepening and increasingly unmanageable crises. All we can do is keep chipping away like hackers at its institutions and mindsets to aid the process of deconstruction.

  11. Wul says:

    We are constantly told that none of us is prepared to give up our capitalist/consumer luxuries in order to “save the planet” (i.e. us). Is this true?

    We’ve just had 18 months of giving up our most fundamental liberties in order to support public health. Are we really so inflexible as to be incapable of change in order to avert certain and grisly extinction of our species?

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Wul, walking through Glasgow and Edinburgh in the past 2 days, It occurred to me what absolute shite that we, the people, consume, on a daily basis.
      Time for the wee corner shop to make a comeback. Y’know, the sort of place where ye can get your needs.
      Like yer Granny did, 50 years ago.
      We had enough. We had plenty.
      We did not have too much. And no one needs too much.
      Live simply and be grateful.

      1. Meg Macleod says:

        Exactly so. But not so easy for big cities to make this happen.

      2. Mons Meg says:

        Last weekend, all the chill cabinets in the Co-op down in the village were f*ck*d. It took three days to get them sorted. The local Nisa couldn’t cope with the demand. There was gey near rioting in the street. Real life’s no’ like Brigadoon, ye know.

    2. Mons Meg says:

      I live pretty frugally, Wul. I don’t have a car, get most of my protein from eggs, chicken (when they stop laying), and the occasional rabbit or pheasant; I grow most of my own vegetables and generate most of my own electricity, which I use sparingly. Not because I’m a holier-than-thou ‘activist’, but because I don’t have any income other than my pension, which doesn’t extend to cover much in the way of conspicuous consumption. I even gave up smoking when I stopped working for wages.

      I’m not the problem. You’re not the problem. Nations and other corporations, developing their economic power in global competition with one another through the control and exploitation of land and labour, are the problem. All the wee changes we could make to our own elective lifestyles don’t amount to a hill of beans in the scale of things.

      1. Wullie says:

        Googlemaps George, Cop26 is on the north bank of the Clyde.


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