There is some good news at last this week for Planet Earth. The writer Iain Banks has announced to the press that he has undergone a major change of conviction about the environment, and is changing his lifestyle accordingly. He will vote for the Green Party. He has bought a wind turbine to put on his roof. All the light-bulbs in his home have been replaced by high-energy ones.
“Anyone in the public eye has a duty to behave responsibly,” he says. “I’ve had my fun and now I’m trying to be better behaved.”
The author’s supreme sacrifice has been to sell all his cars, which include two top-of-the-range Porsches, a 3.8-litre Jag, a five-litre BMW and a souped-up Land Rover Defender. From now on, he is to economise with a £40,000 Lexus RX400h, whose sophisticated design reduces emissions and fuel consumption.
Heart-warming as it is, this public display of moral virtue may, for the determinedly cynical, leave one or two small, niggling doubts. Replacing a fleet of expensive motors with one expensive motor is perhaps not the ultimate in self-deprivation. If a person is to go green (after a fashion), is it entirely necessary to announce it to the world? There is a line, so thin as to be virtually invisible, between setting an example and moral exhibitionism.
Gestures which proclaim a person’s support of a good cause, whether it be the fight against breast cancer or concern about global warming, carry a useful, secondary benefit: a good conscience is being flashed for all to see. That wind turbine on the roof is environmentalism’s equivalent of a pink ribbon on the lapel.
It may well be that the celebrity hair-shirt donned by Iain Banks was a personal decision or was designed to encourage others to vote Green like him, but the fact is that the story reads less like a parable of contemporary humility than a celebration of wealth. A luxurious car which produces fewer fumes is, like the roof turbine, a product, as much a status symbol in its way as a Porsche. It is only the nature of the boast that has changed.
Yet, away from the headlines about celebrities and their concern for the environment, another story, less exciting but more significant, is being told. To get a true picture of our society’s attitude to the environment, one would need to go to the other end of the consumer chain – leave the forecourt of a Lexus garage, for example, and visit a municipal dump.
It is here that the hundreds of tons of surplus goods, bought and then chucked away, are brought for landfill. Unwanted electrical goods, often still in working order or with a minor fault, go straight into the skip. It is not simply that we have become used to throwing things away; health and safety regulations forbid the supply of unchecked electrical equipment through charity shops or auctions.
Furniture, carpets, curtains, kitchen equipment – endless stuff which in needier countries would be fixed up, adapted and re-used – will be crushed into rubbish. A suggestion to council workers on these sites that an article might be worth putting aside for someone who could use it is greeted with amused incredulity.
In fact, it is only things which really are rather useless – old paint, worn-out tyres – which are rejected at the dump. Those things require a call to the council, and another journey to a specified site. From supermarket packaging to waste disposal, ours is a society of decadent consumerism. The public gestures of celebrity environmentalists are part of the same picture.
Sacha gets scorched by an old flame
It was a propitious moment when, 20 years ago, a young woman called Heddi Cundle became friends with an English boy called Sacha Baron Cohen. When Cohen became a comedian and developed the character Ali G, he thought (and who could blame him?) that Heddi’s name was too good to waste.
Discussing the US constitution with Gore Vidal, Ali G suggested, “Ain’t it better sometimes to get rid of the whole thing rather than amend it cos like me used to go out with this bitch called Heddi Cundle and she used to always trying to amend herself. Y’know, get her hair done in highlights, get like a tattoo done on her batty crease… Very nice but it didn’t make any more no difference. She was still a minger.”
Cohen became a Hollywood star and Heddi ended up in California, land of the media lawyer. An expensive and potentially profitable lawsuit is now in progress. And they say there are no happy endings in showbusiness.
* For those who like to be appropriate at all times, the new craze for pole-dancing among middle-aged women poses something of a problem. On the one hand, pole parties – all the rage in America and soon to be in a living-room near you – seem a harmless enough way of taking exercise and keeping the obesity epidemic under control. On the other hand, can any activity which involves women getting into their underwear and writhing up against a pole in front of each other be entirely decorous? It is claimed that husbands will benefit, but one does not have to have seen Desperate Housewives to have doubts about that. The clincher is that pole parties are taking the place of book clubs. Anything which replaces dinner-party conversation about the latest dreary novel with some impromptu pole-work by the hostess is probably to be welcomed.