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How Clean Is Clean? Spud, Renton, Sick Boy, Trump And Us

02/02/2017 13:20 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 13:20 GMT
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I've not yet seen Trainspotting 2, but a scene from the first movie has been replaying in my mind over the last week or so. Hoping to break free from the squalor of their dismal lives, Tommy takes his three drug-addled pals for a Highland hike. After a short distance he looks back over his shoulder only to find that Renton, Spud and Sick Boy have drawn to a halt. Renton, against a backdrop of majestic mountain moorland, has his head down swigging from a vodka bottle, while the other two stand disconsolately sipping from cans of Special Brew. When Tommy asks what's keeping them, Spud whines, "this is not natural, man." Tommy retorts, "It's the great outdoors!" and demands, "Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?" It's all too much for Renton, who explodes:

"It's shite being Scottish; we are the lowest of the low. The scum of the f**king earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat on civilization. Some people hate the English. I don't, they're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can't even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We're ruled by a fleet of arseholes. It's a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air the world won't make any f**king difference."

The speech, a moment of high comedy, neatly dramatises the kind of frustration and vulnerability upon which demagogues such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen and Petry feast. Renton's self-loathing, seamlessly elided here with his national identity, is both a product and a cause of his circumstances; his ostensible contempt for Scotland is in fact a plea for Scotland to reassert its rightful place, and in so doing, to vicariously bestow on him the self-respect he craves. But there's another irony at work. Spud's detachment from and Renton's rejection of nature, are both plain wrong, for in turning and heading back to their foetid urban drug dens, all four men condemn themselves to addiction, despair and, in Tommy's case, death. Both figuratively and literally, fresh air could have made a critical difference.

Alarmingly the 45th President of America seems to share this hapless gang's distorted view of nature. Trump's appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hands the role to a man who is both a climate change denier and a serial suer of the EPA over air regulations. Myron Ebell, the man charged by the President with steering his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, leads on energy and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In 2008 his organisation published a short paper entitled "Clean Air Act Overview," which lamented:

"the EPA continues to tighten existing requirements and to add new ones, always claiming that much more needs to be done. Generally, these new initiatives provide fewer benefits but impose higher costs than previous ones. Unfortunately, the statute never answers this question: "How clean is clean?"

One can almost see Trump making that thumb and forefinger pinch while proclaiming, "all the clean air in the world won't make any fxxking difference."

Hearing Ebell speak of the President's intention to renege on the Paris climate deal, and then describe the green movement as, "the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world," it's tempting to diagnose this disdain for environment as symptomatic of a straightforward addiction to economic growth. But while undoubtedly obsessed by wealth, perhaps for Trump the key word is not so much "prosperity" as "freedom." Freedom, that is, to dominate, oppress and suppress.

A good deal has been written over the past few weeks which seeks to pathologize the President's behaviour, much of it focused on his relationship with truth and his allegedly narcissistic personality. However, another and ultimately more disturbing possibility is raised by Joseph Dodds' splendid book Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos [2011], in which Dodds summarises an argument published by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno in the aftermath of the Second World War. This argued that in a natural state, humans, in common with many other creatures, work hard to blend into nature for purposes of defence, but that this tendency,

"becomes perverted in the development of civilization into a fear of becoming like nature that is expressed as an urge to dominate and control initially 'external' nature, and later our psychological and social selves .. this problem lies at the heart of civilization, leading to the terrible 'symptoms' of fascism."

What makes this so terrifying is that it lends weight to George Monbiot's fear that, rather than being comfortingly other from our own wholesome selves, 'the worst thing about Donald Trump is that he's the man in the mirror." In our pervasive addiction to material (and increasingly dematerialised) gewgaws, we are all pathologically striving to disavow, dominate and control nature, while suppressing the truth of this by camouflaging it from ourselves. To that degree we are all in the same hopeless gang. Frances Bigda-Peyton, who Dodds also references, ponders whether our hostility to nature might not stem from its insistence on reminding us of the inevitability of death:

"Symbolically, to accept nature's limits represents accepting personal limits. If individuals treat natural resources as limitless, then they can maintain the illusion of their own limitlessness. Destroying nature is preferable to becoming aware of death and the wish for it."

In the closing moments of the first Trainspotting movie Renton renounces his junkie life, declaring:

"I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life. I'm looking forward to it already. I'm gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fxxking big television. The washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electrical tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die."

That litany of goods and services looks anything but a choice for life, as Renton finally acknowledges. I'm looking forward to seeing Trainspotting 2 and wondering if it invites us to ask a little more insistently, "how clean is clean?"