On being overwhelmed

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

This is where we are: we have a wide range of urgent problems which all need to be solved, and the resources to address only some of them. If we look at any one of these in isolation, it may seem soluble, but if we look at the whole picture the difficulties soon become obvious.

We’re in the position of someone – let’s call him Clarence – with £100 who has ten £50 bills to pay. He can easily pay any one of them; at a pinch he can cover two. But the reality is that Clarence is insolvent, and a soon as he looks at those bills all at once there’s no denying it.

Except that it’s worse than that, because some of our problems may not actually be soluble problems at all. I’m just going to pick a few examples more at less random:

  • Climate change is happening now and would continue to happen even it we were to stop polluting today (like that’s going to happen) because so much damage has already been done; the CO2 is already up there doing its thing. Nobody really knows how bad it will get or how quickly it will get that bad, but even the official don’t-scare-the-horses version is bad enough.
  • Topsoil erosion is a serious issue we don’t hear too much about, and it’s not something you can reverse overnight. There are techniques for building soils up relatively quickly, but very few people are applying them. Without topsoil, obviously, there won’t be any hope for agriculture. And if you’re thinking hydroponics, well:
  • Fresh water is increasingly in short supply, which isn’t great news for agriculture either, and it isn’t helped by fracking. And we’re only doing that because:
  • Easily accessible petroleum is declining – I’ll say more on this in my post on energy, but this article is a good introduction. There’s a vast literature on this topic, none of which has made it go away.

And so on. I could go on, and doubtless so could you. There’s a section in the 2007 documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire where the film-makers show a scrolling list of the relevant topics they’re not going to discuss. It seems endless.

Once you start looking into these issues, and you start to realise that they all feed into one another, and that even the ones we might be able to fix aren’t getting fixed, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. These are all huge problems, after all. What can one person do?

Well, there are several possible responses. The most overwhelmingly popular one is denial: pretend none of this is happening, usually by distracting yourself with some safer activity like watching reality TV or taking heroin. Since you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you aren’t going for that.

A more dangerous response is to try something desperate in the hope that it fixes the problem. The person with all the bills might buy a lottery ticket, for instance. That’s a reasonably benign example; the worst case scenario = admittedly the most likely one – is that they’ve wasted the price of a ticket. A scarier example would be trying to fix climate change by geoengineering. This is scary because the only way to know if the flavour you’re trying actually works, is safe, and can be sustained is to do it. If it doesn’t work, isn’t safe, or can’t be sustained, then you’ve made things worse. I don’t like those odds.

In the case of Clarence and his ten £50 bills, he might be able to work something out with his creditors. But as Dick Cheney rightly said, “our way of life is not negotiable.” (Although he may not have meant it in that sense.) You can’t arrange an easy payment plan with the laws of physics.

So being overwhelmed is an issue both for us as individuals and for industrial society as a whole. What can we do about it?

The answer is to prioritise. What can we live without? This question will need to be addressed at both an individual and a national level. Clarence can only cover two of his bills; that’s eight things that are going to have to go by the board. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic proportion for a lot of us, if not today then soon.

Going without things is not considered an attractive option in our culture. There are many, many people in the marketing and advertising industries who work tirelessly to ensure that this remains so; on the contrary, we are supposed to want more and more things, newer and shinier things, all the time, and if we can’t afford them we should just borrow the money.

But you don’t actually have to live like this. Even within the bounds of industrial civilisation, nobody actually has a gun to your head insisting that you get the latest iPhone. I don’t have a smartphone. I never have, except for a few weeks when I borrowed one because the screen went on my old phone. I don’t need one. I have no problems that I need a smartphone to solve. If I could get away with it, I’d happily live without a phone of any kind. When I was a student, all I had was a payphone down the corridor, and it was absolutely fine. If someone wanted to interrupt me, they had to go to the effort of physically coming to the door. Nowadays there are robots to interrupt me. I don’t see that as an improvement.

Similarly with cars. By a happy combination of sloth and physical ineptitude, I have never learned to drive a car. (This may shock my US readers; as the Mongols are said to have learned to ride before they could walk, Americans seem to learn to drive as if by osmosis.) If you are what you drive, I don’t exist. I have therefore always depended on lifts from other people or public transport, which in the UK is pretty patchy, especially in rural areas. I am still here. I did not starve to death because I couldn’t get to the shops.

Now I could be accused of cheating here because my wife does have a car. It is not, however, a car that could accused of being new or shiny. It’s a somewhat battered Citroën Berlingo that is old enough to vote. We bought it used – we’ve never owned a new vehicle, and wouldn’t if we could afford to – based on entirely practical criteria. (The key question being “Can you get a pig in the back?” which apparently was part of the design brief for the original Citroën 2CV.)

Choosing to do without things is not without its benefits. On a practical level, if the thing becomes unavailable – if, for example, the Internet went away, or became too expensive for you to afford – you will be less drastically affected than someone who shelled out for a fridge that requires Internet access in order to work. If you have learned to manage without owning a fridge at all, as everyone used to for most of human history, then you will be that much more relaxed about the possibility of power cuts.

Of course living without a fridge involves some thought and inconvenience, and people often joke that the simple life is surprisingly complicated. I would argue that it is less complicated but that the complications are more obvious. There is an awful lot of complexity hidden from view in many of the things we take for granted. If you had to make your own 1,1,1,2-Tetrafluoroethane to keep your milk chilled, the advantages of a naturally cool larder would be clear.

Psychologically, feeling overwhelmed is the realisation that you are not in control. People like to think they are in control, even when – especially when – they manifestly aren’t. It is much easier to control a relatively simple thing than a complex thing. These days, few things have user-serviceable parts, if they’re even designed to be fixable at all. When something breaks – and it will break sooner rather than later, because they want to sell you another one – you are at someone else’s mercy. There are plenty of things that can go wrong even with something so comparatively straightforward as a fridge. With a larder, well, I guess the worst thing that can happen is that a shelf falls down.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should immediately start living like Mark Boyle. As with most issues, there are plenty of shades of grey that are more interesting and useful than pure black or white. Start small. Think of some of the things in your life that consume money, time or attention which could be better used elsewhere. Try doing without some of them, or cutting back, or replacing them with something simpler. You might surprise yourself.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

4 thoughts on “On being overwhelmed

  1. The “voluntary simplicity” micro-philosophy has never gotten anywhere despite being around for decades. The social universe is incredibly unimpressed by what the few hardy souls in opposition to the mainstream way of burning fossil fuels are doing at any given point.
    Large-scale issues such as the economy, climate catastrophe, mass education, popular culture, and others are measured by collective metrics, and there’s not one piece of good news on any of those fronts. Humanity is a social animal, driven by social impulses to destroy its bases for living.


    1. It’s been around for longer than decades 🙂 But of course I’m not expecting everyone to magically follow it; I doubt there’s any piece of advice that everyone would follow, apart maybe from “breathe air”, and there’s probably someone who would have an issue with that as well. On the other hand, it’s something we can try individually; if nothing else it will be good practice for the involuntary simplicity that we have to look forward to.


      1. That’s pretty funny – yes, it has been around a little longer than I mentioned -probably back in the cave days there were a few who said, “Nah, we’re not goin’ for this new-fangled club thing.”


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