On taking the first step

Houston, we have a problem.

Jim Lovell (attr.)

It is a truism, although nonetheless true, that the first step towards dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. We know this because a very large fraction of adults in the industrialised world are either in an addiction programme of some sort, have been in one, or know someone who is. This in itself is suggestive; nobody starts sniffing glue because their life is going spectacularly well.

One of the problems faced by industrial civilisation at the moment is a meta-problem: our collective inability to recognise more than one problem at a time. This is a weird one, because there seems to be no good reason why this should be so. On a personal level, I have no difficulty grasping simultaneously that I have high blood pressure and the roof of the house needs to be fixed and all the other things that are going on (an extensive list, I can tell you). I’m sure you could do the same for whatever issues you may be facing. At a societal level, though, it seems to be restricted to one thing at a time.

When I finally get round to reviewing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on this blog, one of the things I will be pointing out that he got right about the future is the sudden and arbitrary reversals of collective opinion in his future society. “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” But the point here is that there always seems to be exactly one thing dominating the agenda.

No doubt this is largely a psychological defence mechanism. By concentrating on one issue, you can ignore all the others. This is especially effective if you focus on something tangential to the really serious stuff, of course. And it gets you off the hook of taking serious collective action as a society, with all of the political and economic inconveniences that would entail.

On an individual level, however, it may not be so easy. We all have practical problems to solve, like getting enough to eat, keeping a roof over our heads (even a leaky one), and finding the money to pay for it all. This stuff is getting harder and harder for more and more people to pull off, even in supposedly wealthy countries. Assuming you don’t go down the glue-sniffing route, how do you deal with this?

The first step, it seems to me, is not actually anything practical. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to need to find and take plenty of practical measures, but the first step is something else.

It’s a fundamental change in approach.

There are many beliefs commonly held amongst the denizens of industrial civilisation about what the world is like and how it works. Some of those beliefs might have been appropriate in the past, but they many of them are no longer helpful and in fact are going to be major obstacles in the future. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it includes a few of what I reckon are the real doozies.

  • Technology makes things better, and will save us. Well, it’s true that some technology, applied sensibly, can help a lot. If you want to dig a hole, there’s a lot to be said for a spade. If you want to dig a really big hole, you could consider a mechanical digger, but if you can’t afford (or get) the diesel to run it, you’re better off with a spade. And reliance on this kind of technology can become a trap.
  • I can expect things to get better over time. I suppose this depends on your definition of “better,” but the evidence for this view has not been especially convincing over the last fifty years or so. Let go of the mystical view that the passage of time in and of itself makes things better. Apart from anything else, this allows you to see things from the past that may be of value in the future: ploughing with heavy horses, say, or spinning and weaving wool by hand.
  • The Government should/will/can fix things. I’m not sure how prevalent this view is in the US, where many people seem to wish that their government would basically go away, but again there’s been very little evidence of governments anywhere doing anything very constructive for the benefit of society as a whole, at least in my lifetime. Nor should this be surprising. Governments could help more than they do, but they can’t really fix things. Many of the problems we have are essentially unfixable anyway.
  • The free market should/will/can fix things. Even if they existed, which they don’t, free markets have very little scope to help us, and plenty of scope to do harm. I sometimes wonder whether people who think along these lines have confused profit with utility.
  • Somebody else should/will/can fix things. Seriously, the cavalry is not coming. You are not going to be rescued. This is because rescue is not ultimately available. That doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily on your own, but you’re going to have to do a lot for yourself.
  • Nobody really needs to make uncomfortable changes to their lifestyle. This is the shtick of companies like Tesla. You can still have a nice car, even if the batteries die in a few years and will cost almost as much as the car to replace, and there isn’t physically enough of the raw materials to make enough to replace the existing car fleet, and we have no way of generating or distributing the electricity to power them. But it’ll be great. And who needs tractors or lorries anyway? No. The private car is going away for most of us. That’s an issue if you live in a way that depends on it. Same goes for the Internet, of course.
  • I will always be able to buy whatever I want. Of course money is getting tight for a lot of people nowadays, and inflation seems likely to become rampant across the industrialised world in the near future, but even if that weren’t the case, this is not true even in principle. It will cease to be feasible to fly green beans from Kenya to the UK, for instance. At some point it will cease to be feasible to fly much of anything anywhere, I should think. And there’s also the point that the currency may cease to have value if we get into hyperinflation. The UK got pretty close to that point back in the 1970s, and I’m old enough to remember those days.
  • The only alternative to business as usual is sudden and total catastrophe. There’s a lot of this in popular culture these days; post-apocalyptic books and movies constitute an actual genre. The Western Roman Empire took a hundred years to collapse, and the Eastern Roman Empire lasted another millennium after that. There were disasters along the way, of course: a famine here, a city sacked there. To those who lived through these events, it was just one damned thing after another, much like what we’re seeing today. People had to adapt. On the whole, they did so successfully.
  • I can’t cope with all this. See above. Of course, you’re going to have to adapt, and it may be harder for you than it was for the average Roman, because none of them were dependent on GPS or freezers or mains sewage.

If you ever visit the Reddit forum r/collapse you will find many people wigging out because they haven’t taken the first step. As a voice of sanity, I can heartily recommend the work of Sid Smith, who has some useful talks on YouTube. Start with this one. You’ll be glad you did.

Get your head straight, as best you can. It’s not going be easy, but once you can start to make better decisions, that’s the time to get practical. Good luck.

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

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