It was one of the stock responses in the long-running BBC comedy Dad’s Army. Whenever there was the slightest possibility of something going wrong, and Captain Mainwaring appealed for calm, Corporal Jones shouted ‘don’t panic’. He shouted it in a way that communicated the exact opposite of his words. Perhaps this is an ingrained reaction of the British people: when we were told that fuel supplies would be fine ‘so long as we shopped normally’, car keys across the Kingdom flew into people’s hands. The instruction to keep calm and carry on seems to be heard as a clarion call to action. The perception exacerbating the problem.
Listening to Anil Seth speaking on a recent edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week I was reminded just how much of our experience we take for granted. What we tend to notice is the unusual and we therefore focus on ‘exception reporting’ to add to our understanding of the world. Without doubt, especially for people in the West, the last couple of years have been full of exception reporting. The things we took to be routine and reliable have become irregular and doubtful. It began with toilet rolls, moved through domestic flour supplies, and now rests with petrol. Rather than just a tiny part of our experience reporting the exceptional, it feels like the balance has shifted dramatically. From seeing family members, to taking holidays, a once predictable world has become fragmented and startling. The new normal is a somewhat moth-eaten version of our former reality.
This is without doubt a Western phenomenon and even within advanced industrialised nations it is far from everyone’s experience. Many citizens have lived with serious uncertainties as a part of daily life. Much of the world experiences the unreliability of supply as the norm. When I lived in Argentina for a year it was not uncommon for public employees to be paid several months after it was due. This degree of coping with uncertainty is something alien to the West. A few years ago, when there was a hiccup at the Santander Bank, it meant that account holders didn’t get their salaries on the day they were due. In the NHS the switchboards went into meltdown. Operators had never known a day so busy. Even the slightest change in a culture with very high confidence in the delivery of services causes a major wobble.
In many respects this experience is changing a form of expectation that is novel for humanity. Across history this degree of reliability and its associated expectation has been both recent and rare. It is arguably the case that this confidence is paid for by the poorest communities on the planet. Post-colonial powers continue to leverage their advantages over other nations, ensuring that our certainty of supply is extracted at the price of unreasonable flexibility for the poorest people in the world. Added to which the emissions of the wealthy nations are accelerating changes to our climate where, once again, the most marginal communities will bear the heaviest toll.
The key question we ought to consider is whether we are panicking about the right things? Minor disruptions to rice and petrol are generally an inconvenience rather than a threat to life. The gradual shift in climate and its consequences for people living on the edge will end lives and devastate communities. However, it appears we are incapable of collective action until the consequences of disaster arrive on the doorsteps of the powerful.
In some respects it feels as though I have gone full circle in my own attitude towards waste. My grandfather would often berate me in the 1970s when, as a child, I’d put enough butter on my toast ‘to sink a battleship’. I’m not quite sure where the phrase originated, but I always took it to mean that excess use of anything during wartime would require more ships to cross the Atlantic – with the risk of sinking due to enemy action. That was my grandparents’ experience. People’s use of materials during WWII was therefore directly connected to the amount of danger involved with resupply. Maybe we need to reinvent that phrase today, not as a call for unregulated panic, but as a reminder of the small deeds connected to great consequences. Only when we understand the implications of every action and inaction are we likely to see the changes in behaviour needed to avoid a catastrophe.
‘Enough butter to incinerate a planet’?