On being disconnected from reality

Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

One of the things that makes human beings as adaptable as they are – and therefore so numerous and widespread – is our ability to ignore inconvenient facts. When I was at school, I remember doing an experiment to demonstrate that woodlice are light-averse: put some woodlice under a petri dish, half of which is blacked out, and lo! they go to the blacked-out side. I never saw a single woodlouse don a tiny pair of sunglasses or put a knotted hanky on its head. They all made for the safety of the darkness.

Human beings are not like this. Human beings will fake it until they make it (or don’t make it, like the Vikings in Greenland). Consider how the British settled Australia. They paid no heed to they way the people who already lived there carried on their lives; instead, they decided to treat the place as if it were Surrey, importing sheep and cattle (and rabbits) as well as wheat and other crops that were familiar to them. The result has been a system of agriculture that is almost comically unsuited to its environment. It’s not a coincidence that Australia was the birthplace of the permaculture movement, due to the obvious need to devise a system of food production that might actually work.

Well. I say obvious. but very few things are so obvious that someone who is determined to ignore them will not be able to do so. I’ve spoken before about the film Don’t Look Up, but it is starting to look like a documentary. This is an actual clip from a UK daily news programme, à propos of the expected record-breaking temperatures. As I write this it hasn’t actually happened, but the UK Met Office is not known for its scaremongering tendencies, and they are forecasting maximum temperatures of 40°C (104°F) in London and the south-east of England.

40°C would be considered hot in many places. In England, it will cause mayhem. Nobody has air-conditioning in their home, for one thing. There are already warnings from the rail companies that there will be speed restrictions due to the risk of buckling tracks, and roads have been known to melt in lower temperatures than that. The meteorologist in in that clip is quite right to predict that people will die. There’s been precious little in the way of government advice as to how people should cope.

London in particular is going to be horrible, thanks to the heat island effect. I used to live there – no longer, thank goodness – and it was bad enough in a normal summer. The Underground will be unusable. And yet everyone expects business as usual to carry on regardless.

And this is because, like the news anchor in the clip, we want to feel happy about the weather. In the UK we are conditioned from a young age to equate sunshine with “good weather.” When the sun shines, you go to the seaside. We have very little experience of sunshine killing people, but this is what is going to happen.

It’s a very human thing, this ability to disregard the inconvenient. Without it, a balding subspecies of chimpanzee would never have managed to colonise the world from Siberia to Indonesia to Patagonia. But it’s a two-edged sword.

When your hands are full just getting through the day – which describes most of us – you really don’t want to have to deal with this reality stuff. If you’re living from the supermarket and/or the food bank – and you will be, given that you don’t have the time or energy to cook from scratch, let alone the time or energy (or land) to grow your own food – you really, really want to feel good about battery-farmed chicken. After all, that’s what you’re probably going to be eating.

As I write this, Tesco (a leading British supermarket) is offering what they describe as a “British Whole Medium Chicken” for the princely sum of £3.75, or £2.78/kg. I have raised my own meat chickens – and yes, that included killing and processing them. It is not possible to raise a decent chicken for £3.75. But apparently you can put a specimen of Gallus domesticus in a shed, feed it rubbish, slaughter it with methods that would have embarrassed the staff at Auschwitz, wrap it in plastic and truck it to a supermarket for £3.75 and still show a profit. Knowing what I know, it is very difficult to be happy about that.

It’s not so long ago that chicken and pork were luxury meats, compared to beef and mutton. (When the valuable output of a sheep was its wool, it would be foolish to eat lamb. Hence the prevalence of castrated male sheep (wethers) back then.) When I was growing up, we might have a roast chicken for Sunday lunch as a treat, but that wouldn’t be the last we saw of that chicken, even in a family of five. Today, people apparently buy whole chickens, cut off the breasts and bin the rest, a practice that would make my mother spin in her grave if she were dead.

The title of the film Don’t Look Up is brilliantly chosen. Who can spare the time to look up from what is right in front of them? Who is doing more than getting by, if indeed they are getting by, even if they are working two or three jobs? You already have enough to deal with, right?

You do. Of course you do. I completely get that. This is an incredibly inconvenient moment for the Titanic to strike the iceberg (not that there could be a convenient moment, exactly). The fact remains that in such a moment there are people who find themselves a lifeboat and people who drown. I don’t feel happy about that, and I don’t expect you to feel happy about it either. But in the immortal words of Boris Johnson, them’s the breaks.

There will be people who feel happy about 40°C in London, although I doubt that many of those people will be using the Underground. There will be many more people who prefer not to think about it. I can’t find it in my heart to blame those people. But then…

The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.

Arundhati Roy

I’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, by all means keep your eyes closed if you can’t handle the truth. I’m not judging you. Sometimes I wish I could unsee it myself.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt – not someone I normally look to for inspiration: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Nobody can ask more of you than that. And at least you’ll be able to sleep at night.

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

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