This is the unedited version of my essay in The Scotsman, 15 July 2011, titled "Difficult to buy into the good life". It's the core argument from my forthcoming book Radical Animal, put into a Scottish context. All comments more than welcome.
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We live in a strange news landscape in Scotland. At one level the story is cuts, austerity and threats to public services, at another an aspiration to a more empowered nation that can grasp new levers of growth and prosperity. And sitting between the two, always awkwardly, is Scotland's environmental agenda.
We are pulled one way by Greens who warn of our heedless approach to material consumption, another pulled another way by parties (not just the SNP) who see renewable energy as the great "reindustrialisation of Scotland". How can the same agenda both call for strict limits to personal lifestyle, and offer a new age of unlimited prosperity?
The great unanswered question is the degree to which we deal with the "demand" side of low-carbon living, as much as the "supply" side (the production of clean and renewable energy). How far can the Scottish lifestyle - in many realms, no less hyper-consumerist than any other part of the West - change to meet the challenge of climate crisis?
At the same time, how do we answer our deep human appetite for spectacle, sensuality and novelty, without our lust for stuff crisping the planet? How do we shift and change our psychic investment in lifestyle consumerism, in order that we can reduce the material throughputs that exacerbate global warming?
There is a growing realisation that we cannot adequately respond to the challenges of climate change without a new and better understanding of human nature. At the moment, many Western governments are trying to use the insights of behavioural economics to "nudge" and "steer" citizens towards sustainable living.
They make policy in the light of our inner "Homer Simpson" - an understand of humans as short-termist, reputation-obsessed naked apes. And as good "liberal paternalists", they gently take us in hand to lead us towards the environmental life, through stealth legislation and marketing aimed at making green lifestyle a status aspiration.
But such campaigns confront a general scepticism about politics and policy. Once the citizens have rumbled that they're being nudged or steered, the cry of "nanny state" or "climate conspiracy" can soon rise up - easily resulting in popular and irrational resistance to any kind of change. See the Tea Party movement in the US, or the legions of petrolheads in the UK that drive Jeremy Clarkson's reactionary productions to the top of the charts
In Scotland, there may not be quite the same depth of scepticism about political intentions as elsewhere. We have just resoundingly elected a Scottish Parliament for whom sustainability is a national ambition, allied to world-leading environmental targets for society and economy. The governmental cues for a green Scotland hardly need to be cautious, stealthy "nudges", when the popular vote for a direction of travel was so clear.
Scotland also has a rich history of environmental experiments in living - from Findhorn to the Fife Diet, from the crofting revival to wind-and-wave powered island communities like Islay. And despite the justifiable complaints from Greens about its fervour for road-building, the SNP government has enough environmental vision to seek to scale-up the best of such experiments to the level of national policy.
But let's not kid ourselves, or get too Caledonian-smug. At present, the broad middle of Scottish socio-economic life is locked into a high-consumption, trend-driven capitalism. Just look at the adverts that comprise a core revenue stream for much commercial media in this country. They fall into predictable categories - consumer electronics, holidays, financial services, furniture, cars.
What's the lifestyle that results from these seductive appeals? We keep buying essentially the same arrangements of metal, fabric and plastic - which deliver incremental improvements in performance and efficiency, but which hardly demand a whole new production cycle to be delivered.
We scout around for the financial credit needed to purchase and house this stuff, being urged back into the debt holes that we know nearly sunk our economy three years ago. And once the strain of working-to-consume gets too overwhelming, we briefly escape to foreign climes, in a boozy blur of intense, compensatory hedonism, usually completely heedless about the environmental externalities of our actions.
Many green thinkers would line up behind Professor Tim Jackson's attempt to nail this self-defeating (and globally-destructive) life-style loop in a one-liner: "We spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to make impressions that don't last, on people we don't care about." This is the negative case for how our current consumer lifestyles alienate us from our authentic, flourishing selves.
The positive case, one assumes, would be to spend money we had, on things we needed, to make impressions that lasted, on people we cared about. How attainable is this mentality and lifestyle? This is where an ingenuity gap opens up, sitting between all the major contenders for changing our behaviours in a green direction.
The green lifestyle experimentalists could justifiably claim they were largely already there. They emphasize community and locality, reinforced by much consultation and democratic process. This ensures that people's words and actions make the desired "impression" on those they "care" about, via a satisfying and active civic life.
The idea of resilience - where the skills and craft required to maintain the health of a community lie very much within that community - brings money, and needs, closer together. Repair - and repairable, durable design - becomes more important than gadget lust. Unique, idiosyncratic services and products, well and passionately made, become an occasion for necessary consumption, rather than a therapeutic splurge at the mega-mall. And never mind the rise of sheer barter and mutual exchange, represented by websites like Gumtree and Freecycle.
There's no need to fantasize that parts of Scotland are conducting an internal exodus to this kind of lifestyle - in pockets, it's already happening (well charted by Lesley Riddoch's reports and columns). But stand for a moment in the rush-hour of Glasgow, Edinburgh or any other busy conurbation in Scotland, as crisply-dressed and clearly-stressed men and women hurtle from office to shops to home, navigating their lives by smart-phone. Facing this melee, the arrival of a slower, more experiential, more self-determining and sustainable Scottish lifestyle is coming at a very slow creep indeed.
What bridge can be built between Green Scot and Consumerist Scot, given that government lecturing, and alternative lifestyles, can easily bounce off our plastic-coated lives of credit cards, designer brands and free upgrades? I think one answer might lie in getting away from the miserable reading of humanity that comes from the "nudge" thinkers and behavioural economists, and looking to other areas of our evolved nature that produce optimism, ingenuity and enthusiasm - namely, our playful selves.
Play is both natural and radical for humans. It's both our connection to the wider world of complex mammals, who also use play as experimentation to help them survive and thrive. But play is also that lifelong flexibility (what the biologists call "neoteny") which allows us to innovate - to "take reality lightly" and shape it according to our plans and dreams.
Can we disconnect our playful capacities - our natural imagination, experimentalism and lust for novelty - from the exploitations of hyper-consumerism? And then reconnect it to a whole range of engagements and activities that provide equal levels of psychic richness and satisfaction to that of status goods or fashionable consumption?
I don't think green lifestyle radicalism can do this on its own. And I do think there is an opportunity for businesses and policy-makers to innovate around answering those playful needs in a much more sustainable manner (from information platforms to festivals, fashion to food consumption). We may need less of an onslaught of trinkets, but we will need more of what the sixties radical Ivan Illich once called "tools for conviviality".
Prosperity for Scotland may well lie in the production of cleaner energy. But if it isn't matched by a shift towards a less consumerist, and more joyfully participative lifestyle, it'll only be half a revolution.
Pat Kane's forthcoming book is Radical Animal: innovation, sustainability and human nature (www.radicalanimal.net).