Entering the new age of personal guilt

The Canadian author Margaret Atwood, as brilliant a self-promoter in her way as Jeffrey Archer, has hit on a bright new idea. Her latest series of performed readings have been presented as a showcase of caring environmental concern. The musicians who appear are hired locally to minimise their carbon footprint. Programmes are printed on re-useable paper. Props are made out of plastic bags. Only organic, shade-grown coffee is permitted.

The star herself has announced that she will be vegetarian throughout the tour, allowing herself one “non-avian and non-mammalian bioform” – fish, presumably – every week. The clothes that she has brought are black to minimise washing. It is, she says, the greenest book tour ever.

Atwood’s more devoted fans will have seen this high-profile environmentalism as evidence of her wisdom and saintliness. The rest of us might be forgiven for sensing another whiff beyond the smell of shade-grown coffee and minimally-washed clothes – that of greener-than-thou sanctimoniousness. The eminent Canadian may have made sacrifices by bravely going temporarily vegetarian and wearing dark clothes, but there is something faintly absurd about her boastful eco-exhibitionism.

Yet there are signs that Atwood is indeed ahead of the game. Belatedly, the politics of global warming have become personal. Consumerism is now distinctly old-hat; we are entering the great age of guilt. A serious spasm of soul-searching is under way, prompted by a double-whammy of bad news – the recession, caused by greed, and global warming, caused by excessive consumption.

For a while, it was enough that governments were making concerned noises. Now, more and more people are beginning to think like Margaret Atwood. Saving the planet, they believe, will involve changing the way we do things. Franny Armstrong, the director of The Age of Stupid, has come up with a catchy and well-focused campaign called 10:10, the idea behind which is to get individual and organisations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. It is difficult to take seriously targets for 2020 or 2050, Armstrong has argued, and she is right: even as Ed Miliband talks about the challenges of the next 50 years, something about his demeanour suggests what he is really thinking about is the next nine months.

Government is naturally enthusiastic about shifting the onus of environmental responsibility on to the individual. The idea of a “personal carbon allowance”, now being quite seriously discussed, has a controlling, nannyish ring to it that is sure to appeal to Whitehall. Every citizen and organisation would be given a certain number of carbon credits which would cover any energy use. Low consumers would be able to sell their credits to the guzzlers and high emitters. A whole new area of snobbery and civic virtue will be opened up.

In the short-term, it will be the effect of personal guilt which will be most likely to change behaviour. That is not the grim prospect that it may seem. Guilt has had a bad press over the past few decades but can be a force for good. A recent experiment involving children in America has suggested that it is the two-year-olds who experience guilty feelings when something goes wrong who are least likely to have behavioural difficulties as they grow up. They are beginning to think socially as well as personally.

Right now, we could all use a bit of environmental guilt – starting with the Government and the small matter of its encouragement of aviation through the expansion of airports.

Raise your glass to a bygone era

A Newcastle drinking establishment has come up with a brutally simple promotional idea. Drinkers at The Attic have been invited to an event called “Trashed” at which customers would be invited to drink as many cut-price drinks as they were able. At the end of the evening, there would be a prize for the person who, according to a breathalyser, was “most nailed, battered, done-in” and generally “trashed”. After representations from the local police, the competition was cancelled.

It was probably events of this kind which prompted the British Medical Association to suggest that Britain should be the first country in the world to ban any kind of advertising of alcohol. It is truly strange how drunkenness can now cheerfully be promoted to the young in a way that would be unthinkable in the context of, say, drugs, promiscuous sex or fatty foods.

All the same, it will be sad to see the disappearance of booze commercials on TV, some of which – Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins promoting Cinzano, the Guinness white horses ad, the Foster’s XXXX campaign – were among the funniest and most sophisticated advertisements to have appeared on our screens. They seem a long way from The Attic and its Trashed contest.

Our esteemed leader stands tall

There are times when our politicians can seem surprisingly dignified beside their European counterparts. In France, a furious row has just broken out over allegations that, when President Sarkozy visited a factory in Normandy, his aides insisted that the employees standing behind him during his speech should be selected according their lack of stature. The President, it seems, is particularly sensitive about his height.

Yet he is not the tiniest leader in Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev stands at 5ft 4ins while, like Sarkozy himself, Italy’s pocket Romeo, Silvio Berlusconi, is said to be around 5ft 5ins. Our own great leader is a towering 5ft 11ins.