JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 26.8.11
AS I WRITE, it’s Thursday afternoon, and I’ve just returned from one of my favourite events of the whole Edinburgh Festival season. The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is given every year to the Fringe show – or shows – that make the greatest contribution to our understanding of human rights, and freedom of speech; this year’s joint winners were Sold, a terrific agitprop piece about modern forms of slavery playing at the Pleasance, and, at the Traverse, Zinnie Harris’s beautiful, disturbing drama The Wheel, about children in war.
As most people know, Amnesty is an organisation dedicated to “protecting the human” – our freedom, our right to a voice, our right to life itself. And as the Edinburgh Fringe roars towards its final weekend – with the city streets full of thousands of people engaging in all those activities that define and distinguish our species, from cracking jokes and juggling fire to reflecting deeply and obsessively on our own experience – it seems ever more important to ask whether this annual celebration of play and creativity always has to be once-a-year phenomenon, a brief celebration before things return to “normal”; or whether the time may not have come to take this explosion of creativity more seriously, as one of the major keys to a more sustainable future.
We in the west seem to be living, after all, through some kind of slow-burning crisis of our civilisation, in terms of where it goes next. For reasons economic, geopolitical and environmental, the long period of rapid post-war material growth in the west seems to be coming to an end; the age that took us from a world where most people owned little, to one in which even those classed as poor are surrounded by mountains of manufactured goods. During all of that period, with occasional pauses and downturns, we have used the fact of material growth as the main driver and raison d’etre of our society; the goal and reward that provided most people with a purpose in life, that kept them at work and on the right side of the law, and that – in our great shopping culture – always provided them with something to do in their leisure time.
For us in the west, though, there’s now a growing feeling that that time is over. As the recent riots demonstrated, we in the UK now have millions living on the kind of poverty pay or unemployment benefit that forbids any carefree participation in the consumer society; many of our young people are facing a future in which it seems they may never earn the kind of steady middle-class incomes their parents once took for granted. And we will inevitably face ever-higher levels of rage, disruption and unrest from those permanently excluded from participation in the only activity the culture around them seems to value, unless we can find a way of reorientating our whole society away from the crudely material goals that are slipping beyond our reach, and towards definitions of happines and satisfaction that reflect a more complex understanding of human needs.
Which is where cultural creativity, exchange, self-expression and challenge enters the argument, as one of the most dynamic and compelling of those needs; when the Rolling Stones asked, back in 1968, “what can a poor boy do, except sing in a rock and roll band?” it was the best kind of rhetorical question, a long finger pointing forward to an age when for many poor boys, the choice between a life of meaningless, jobless street violence, and a life of creative effort and self-reinvention, has become a stark one. Equally vital, though, is our need for close and joyful personal relationships, of the kind often disrupted by our recent high-stress, long-hours work-culture; for a sense of ourselves as a part of a wider community that is not under constant threat of destruction by economic change; and for time to savour the sheer beauty of the earth, to dig our gardens, look at sunsets, enjoy the view.
And the difficulty about all this is that although some of these changes can be reflected and picked up in market processes, markets cannot do the job by themselves; in the short term, they cannot help promoting superficial material remedies for deep forms of human unhappiness, or inciting the breakdown of convivial social structures, the better to sell us commodified protection against isolation and hardship.
If our society is to be refounded on a more creative and sustainable pattern, in other words, then our battered political systems will have to make the supreme effort involved in imagining, co-ordinating and supporting that change. Here in Scotland, we have at least the vague outlines of an economy that could, one day, move successfully towards a different kind of future; an economy both convivial and creative, that finds sustainable solutions to practical problems almost as a by-product of its dedication to human inventiveness in all its forms, artistic, scientific, and personal; a society that balances security and freedom by insisting on creative liberation, while guaranteeing to meet basic needs. And we wait, of course, for that new generation of mainstream politicians who will have the nerve to turn away decisively from the old gods of ceaseless material growth, to value the planet as a home we need to sustain, and to begin the serious work of shifting our measures of success away from the simple sledgehammer of gross domestic product, towards subtler measures of quality of life.
Yet in the end, it should not be impossible to imagine a world where the search for a rich, creative and connected life begins to replace the dreary grind of earning enough cash to pay down the mortgage, and to buy the next must-have consumer good. If the planet has had enough of this kind of empty, joyless consumerism, then so, at a deep level, have we. And this could – just possibly – be the moment when we begin to say goodbye to the age of consumption; and to move on into the age of invention, creation and reflection that we in Edinburgh are privileged to glimpse in embryo, for a few noisy, crazy and exhilarating weeks, in the summer of every year.