The UK is traversing a tough time. Some of it yet to come — such as a possible turkey and toy shortage at Christmas — yet plenty is already going wrong as I write: gas prices rocketing up as companies go under; petrol stations having to shut temporarily for a lack of fuel in the pumps; supermarket shelves as barren as the 601 dance floor.
The media is getting in a big tizzy about these hardships — as perhaps it must — and reminding the nation ad infinitum that they’re due to Brexit, due to the HGV driver crisis, due to Bob up the street who definitely stockpiled bog roll during COVID-19’s infancy, and is now probably hoarding your town’s allocation of engine juice. The government is promising that there is no fuel shortage, which is odd, given that this is exactly the sort of thing a government presiding over a fuel shortage would say. And what are the economists doing? Good question. I don’t know either.
The real question, of course, is what I’m doing about the matter. And the answer is writing an opinion piece on why these present scarcities could have a genuinely positive impact on British society. Much in the same way that flicking a fatigued lightbulb or charging thunderously into a sluggish vending machine can bring about healthy rejuvenation therein. Because Britain has become decadent. The nation of the infamous stiff upper-lip and renowned self-restraint, has not just softened on such traits — which indeed could have been a beneficial shift — but has swung well toward their opposites: a wish for everything in excess and a paralysing laziness.
I realised this when the first COVID lockdown began to ease in my hometown. Restaurants reopened, travelling was legalised, miniscule garden parties could be held! And yet alas. Dozens of cars at a time spent their newfound freedom queueing at a McDonald’s drive through. That so many people simultaneously had the same idea — for I certainly hope it wasn’t planned — that the most optimal thing they could do with some of their usual liberty back, was to head to a fast-food restaurant with a willingness to wait up to an hour for a product that is neither fulfilling nor particularly cheap, stunned me.
But then again, why should it have? We have seen previously the toxic attitude so many people in this country have toward consumer goods. Do you think that those who stockpiled packets of pasta in the first lockdown even got through a bag of the stuff? I should think not — and once McDonald’s had reopened, certainly not. And the toilet roll? Unless the egotists who then cleared the shop shelves managed hugely to increase bodily production (and I’d rather not go there), then I imagine they may still have hundreds of luxuriously soft rolls sitting in the hot press!
This matter remains just as embarrassing today. At least one English county council is considering whether particular fuel pumps should be restricted for emergency services and NHS use only. Of course they should! If ever there was the perfect application of the principle “to each according to their need,” this is it. After all, would you rather see paramedics vitally arriving on the scene of a stroke, or Gillian journey, chippy in hand, to the beach at the weekend? Firefighters showing up to kick your door in and extinguish the flames, or Keith being taxied to the pub on Friday night for an impressive 17 pints and innumerable fights out front?
We are one of the richest yet most unfit countries on planet Earth. We drive when we could walk, eat when we need not, and put an immense strain on our own finances by virtue of our awful lifestyles. I say “our” because I, too, am amongst the fallen. It is systemic, and I blame no individual for it. This is the effect of a culture and society in which supply of everything outstrips demand, except perhaps the supply of compassion and common decency.
In such a society, if supply is not to diminish, the only logical conclusion is that demand must rise. And irrevocably, demand does rise: The rich seek to build themselves rockets, be it for either financial or egotistical benefit; the middle-class fret over buying themselves holiday homes, small-scale investments, and places in private schools so as to cement their economic position; the working-poor toil all week to enjoy the weekend, in an awful, forced, trade-off between making small savings or actually enjoying the life with which we’ve all been blessed.
Idealistically, I confess, I like to imagine a world in which such excesses would just stop. Instantly. What if we moderated private enterprises’ rocket construction? Moderated private schooling? Moderated our drinking culture? If all we easily had access to was ample food and clothing — nutrients and warmth — what would we do? Essentially, if we moderated ourselves of our surpluses and overreaches, would things be better? I think so.
Moderation cleanses our pallets. Post-indulgence, it does genuine good to reset, to refuse ourselves some of life’s luxuries, such that we can recalibrate to a place of normality. In this way, a treat remains a treat, rather than becoming an exuberant habit. When we face shortages, this can also bring us together as people — something we need so desperately nowadays. Months ago, I wallowed in an A&E waiting room for an astonishing 12 hours. I had the wrong phone charger with me, and as nightfall approached my phone was hovering around 2% or 3%. Fortunately, I was not alone. Around me were other waiting “patients” — evidently to be understood here as both ill people and individuals of great patience — who shared in the torrid situation. One was so kind as to offer freely their phone charger, which began the usual chit-chat and soon the room was in full conversation. I was naturally grateful and uncomfortably aware that were it not for my battery deficiency, the interaction mightn’t have materialised.
So as the world is finally telling modern Britain “No,” such that we are forcibly moderated, I don’t bewail it. For what a joyous moment that is, when the world makes things difficult. No, you can’t have the grade you wanted. No, you can’t have the perfect day you hoped for. No, you cannot have what you desire. Too often nowadays does life feel like an easy ride; our technological advances have made it so. “How can nature, which is so last millennia, even try still to compete with us?” you may ask. Well, very easily. Truthfully, I often root for nature, against myself, and against others, too. I love to see it win. Because when nature beats you, when life beats you, therein lies the opportunity to learn.
So let’s retry. Let’s commit to the process of renewal, and of improvement, and of discovering how we can do things better. If it’s possible we may run out of gas, why not prepare our houses now so that we need less gas in future? If filling station hiccups can have such a paralysing effect, then why not change how we move? On foot, by electric car, public transport, bike — these are all valid alternatives. If shelves are empty, why not eat less — there remains plenty to go around — or buy something new? Like an unfortunate scholar who has just received a 6.9 in their module and must now face their resit, it is time to sit ourselves down and evaluate off the back of these recent scarcities.
Where the student asks if they have misunderstood the crux of the essay title, may we seek to understand what is our fair share. As the student rallies against their inherent biases which have weakened their work, we may too recognise our inherent limits of consumption. As happens from time to time, our struggling student may have an epiphany: suddenly their professor’s feedback, which previously had so infuriated them, makes sense; instantaneously, before the student’s eyes forms the perfect plan — what to fix, what to change, how to improve. The student uses this epiphany to progress positively and subsequently nails their resit. May we too have such an epiphany, but in which nature is the professor. By listening to the feedback of the world, we too can make beneficial changes that solve the problems we face. For if we don’t solve them, then nature will — and its current solution is only the beginning.
Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva