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Opinion

Elvis set the world on fire – now we need to turn the heat down and address the climate crisis

Consumerism is the big dog we will have to force into the kennel for the sake of our future, says John Bird, even if it did give us Elvis.

What is the relationship between the career of Elvis Presley and the 40C heat we hit recently

What? Is that a serious question, or some kind of ridiculous riddle that should not be posed? How could you compare a pop star to a few days of heat never experienced in our climes before? 

It reminds me of the delicious madness that Monty Python posed in the 1970s when they asked if Magna Carta was the charter that began the slow development of parliamentary democracy, or was it a piece of chewing gum on a bed in Dorset? 

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On the night of the Great Heat I went to a chilly cinema to see the new Elvis Presley biopic Elvis. It jumped about a bit and even I, who knows Elvis’s musical and family evolution pretty well, occasionally got lost. But overall it did a pretty good job of showing his evolution from poor Mississippi-born boy to international music and movie star. The beguiling beauty of the man, his ability to bring rhythm and sensuality into music through his keen observations of the black music and fashion culture he was surrounded by; all of this was captured. And then, once at the apex, the steady decline into drug use to keep him awake and able to take the punishing regime his manager drove him into. 

Colonel Parker, no more a colonel than Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, was relentless both in driving Elvis’s career towards greater wealth and in his profligate gambling away of the proceeds. A dishonesty a mile wide drives the perfectly enunciated Colonel – Tom Hanks – towards ever greater exploitation of his charge. Austin Butler is at times so Elvis-like that it feels almost like a documentary. Only the odd bits of contemporary film footage allow you to see the difference between the real and the reimagined. The brashness of the tragedy of Elvis Presley is caught well by the Australian director Baz Luhrmann. 

Yes, Elvis’s cruel life was a tragedy waiting to be played out. Crushed by money and fame, unable to fathom his way because of his poor nurturing and the poverty his parents came through. Dead at 42, rudderless and riddled with pharmacological poisons, it was a Shakespearean act to watch. The rise and fall of a hero who was finally killed by the greed of others. But the new film does not bathe you only in pathos and pain, for it is dazzling in a way that many tragedies are not. 

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Now back to the riddle: the link between Elvis and the recent Great Heat is not simply that I went to see the film on that hot night. It’s because the whole of Elvis’s career could be seen as a massive explosion of consumerism, the door which western society passed through that had been hinted at a generation earlier with Frank Sinatra. A door that sparked in a young generation the desire to hitch their future to a mass expansion of goods and services. 

Elvis comes in almost at the moment when business, and the desire of mainly working-class people to ‘be themselves’, turns into a consumerism where any balance there may have been between us and nature was ripped away. Was steamrollered over. 

The Americanisation of the world comes in at that moment. A world of indulgences never seen before among working people. And a growth in industries that fed the massive increase in appetites needing to be sated. 

Wages and disposable income increased markedly. And with them a plethora of things to buy. 

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The London of 1956, when I was 10 and Elvis exploded into our consciousness, also saw the arrival of commercial TV. There we soaked up US crime and comedy programmes – Highway Patrol and I Love Lucy – and begged for more. 

Everything seemed to change when Elvis shone his consumerist light on us. And with it came the deluge of goods and services that expanded industries and wealth as the power of the consumer took over, and changed the subsequent health of the planet. 

Consumerism is the big dog we are going to have to struggle to get back into the kennel. Three billion people were on the planet in 1956; 66 years later we have nearly eight billion. Most of those are poor and not living the consumer revolution of the west. But still there are huge decisions to be made. And huge contradictions to be faced. 

The biggest is, how do we stop the fires and the fuels – literal and metaphorical – that feed them. 

It’s time to ease off on the consumer tap. And end the pollution of mind, body and environment that consumerism has brought us. However well-intended it might have been. 

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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