On denial

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows”

There is rarely much point in telling a person that they are in denial. Such a person will, after all, probably deny it. What may sometimes be more useful to observe what is being denied and think about the consequences of its being true. After all, just because those in power are ignoring something won’t make that thing go away.

Denial is one way in which people respond to something which is the case but which they really, really wish were not the case. For example, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of people in the industrialised world are in denial about their own mortality. They know they’re going to die, they just don’t want to think about it. Governments and other institutions can behave in the same way, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

As ever, I’m going to speak here about the UK because that’s the example I know best, but I strongly suspect the UK is not unique in this regard. I’m sure my non-UK readers will be able to find parallels in their own countries – comments are more than welcome. We certainly have no monopoly on stupidity.

Something that is becoming painfully apparent, even amongst people who haven’t previously been paying much attention, is that the current arrangements by which most people in the UK get most of the food are – well, let’s just say fragile. There is at present a shortage of diesel fuel across Western Europe. This makes it expensive to fuel fleets of lorries to haul goods across the country, including food, as well as to operate tractors and other farm machinery. Freezers and refrigerators are also getting more expensive to run, as the price of electricity goes up. Private cars likewise, both fossil-fuel and electric.

None of this is good news either for industrial agriculture or for the supermarket model which we presently rely on to feed the bulk of the population. The artificial fertilisers on which our agriculture depends rely on natural gas to feed the Haber–Bosch process by which it is manufactured. Even the plastic packaging beloved of supermarkets will be getting more expensive, where these rely on a petroleum-based feedstock, as most plastics do.

So, in plain terms, the majority of people who are used to being able to drive cheaply to a supermarket to obtain their cheap industrially-grown food will no longer be able to do so. This is an issue today, but it has been coming for a long time. Plenty of people have been trying to draw the government’s attention to it since at least the 1973 oil crisis.

And what has been the response of successive UK governments? Sweet Fanny Adams.

You might have thought that someone might have imagined what the consequences of this might be. In the 1970s, after all, we still had recent memories of the Second World War, when the country was largely thrown back on its own resources due to the U-Boat blockade. In those days, titanic efforts were made to avoid starvation, and those efforts were pretty successful. The threat was immediate and obvious, and there had moreover been a similar effort by Germany in the previous war, so there was no difficulty in noticing that there was a problem.

There is likewise a problem now and in the medium-term future. Yet nothing is being done to try and wean us off the current model, to encourage localised food production by methods less dependent on oil, or to break up the effective monopoly on food supplies held by the supermarkets. Almost nobody in the UK knows how to work with heavy horses, for example, and even if the skilled workers were available the horses aren’t. Neither is the machinery, outside of a few museums.

Again, organic agriculture exists merely as a niche. Likewise farmer’s markets (once upon a time, that was what all markets basically were). Most people can’t afford to obtain their food this way, for a number of reasons, partly to do with the ludicrous cost of accommodation in most parts of the UK and also with the relentless driving down of wages which has been going on for the last thirty-odd years. Those things could be addressed by governments prepared to do so. But of course there is some political pain associated with doing that, and the food riots will happen in some future government’s term of office, so they do nothing.

I think a good deal of denial works in a similar way. The pain of accepting the facts, and especially the consequences of the facts, is immediate and clear. The rewards for actually facing up to the facts are nebulous and uncertain. Nobody in politics gets kudos for preventing food riots. You can get kudos for making food riots stop, but of course that’s much easier to do when the mechanics of actually feeding people are in place.

The trouble is that there are no quick fixes for this stuff. It takes time to change over your entire food infrastructure. 1940s Britain was a far more agrarian society than 2020s Britain is, and they barely managed it on an emergency basis. The supermarkets were so successful in the 1960s and ’70s just because they promised that we would never have to go through all that again. Alas, like so many of the promises of industrialism, it was only good for so long, and so long may not be that much longer.

There are plenty of other areas where people are in denial, of course. The whole renewable energy/electric vehicle fantasy realm is a case in point. We need to face the fact that electricity is largely going away. You can still get a lot of useful work out of water, wind and solar – water-mills, windmills and solar water heaters have immense potential – but wasting so much energy by generating electricity instead of using it directly is nuts, purely from a thermodynamic point of view. You really don’t want to be using solar PV to power your immersion heater.

Here I think the mental block is to do with the myth of Progress and the associated idea that the past has nothing to teach us. After all, the ancient Greeks had water-mills. The again, the ancient Greeks were pretty smart. If you can get over the fact that you can’t control it from your iPhone, you might well decide that a water-mill is a pretty neat idea if you have heavy work to do (like grinding grain) and you don’t want to use muscle power.

No doubt we all of us have our blind-spots. The trick is to find them and eliminate them as far as we can. Conventional wisdom is never quite as wise as people think it is. That’s especially the case now, as established certainties become less certain right across industrial culture. Not all well-known facts are actually true. If we want to cope with reality, we need to start by seeing what it is. You can pretend otherwise, of course. It’s your choice.

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

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