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Rationing Brains

Dave Trott on the coronavirus, toilet rolls and Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The Coronavirus has already had some strange effects.

I’ve seen a lot of pictures of people panic-buying toilet paper in Australia.

Men with two trollies each, filled to overflowing with multi-packs of toilet tissue.

The shelves are now empty and supermarkets are rationing purchases.

What I don’t get is, of all the things to panic buy, why toilet paper, and why so much?

We now have a generation of people with very strange priorities.

Assuming the reasoning is, if you get the virus, you may be quarantined for 2 weeks.

By all means stock up on food, medicine, water, these things will keep you alive, toilet paper won’t.

But these people obviously can’t imagine living without toilet paper.

Yet in Britain, before the mid 1950s, no one even used toilet paper.

The working class didn’t have indoor toilets, or baths, or hot water, or fridges, or toothpaste.

In fact, most things had been rationed for 15 years (from 1940 until 1954).

That meant – per person, per week: 2 ounces of butter, 2 ounces of tea, 1 ounce of cheese, 4 ounces of bacon, 4 ounces of margarine, 4 ounces of soap, etc.

For those too young to know what an ounce is: it’s 25 grams.

The average block of butter is 250 grams, so each person was allowed one fifth of that per week (or one tenth in the case of cheese).

If you wanted anything else you had to grow it, or make it, yourself.

70% of Britain’s food had to be imported, and half the merchant ships were sunk by U-boats.

All the ships that were left had to carry mainly oil, weapons, and ammunition.

So, of course, only absolute essentials were available.

Clothing was rationed too, you repaired what you wore and, if you wanted something new, you had to make it.

You bought some cloth, cut it up and sewed it on the sewing machine.

Rationing didn’t end until 1954, the creative explosion of the 1960s was the first generation that could actually buy whatever they wanted, for once they didn’t have to just survive.

Gradually luxuries began to appear: indoor baths and toilets, hot water, fridges, toothpaste, toilet paper, telephones, record players, cars, TV sets, new clothes.

This is why people say 1963 was the year Britain changed from black & white to colour.

But of course, the things that were seen as luxuries, were only seen as basics by the next generation.

They took for granted: quality food, restaurants, wine, satellite TV, mobile phones, taxis, GPS, credit-cards, international-travel.

On the underground, I like to count how many people are on mobile devices (playing games, listening to podcasts or music) it’s never less than half the carriage.

No wonder people’s idea of what’s basic is confused.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (for human survival) is a diagram: a very simple pyramid.

The bottom row is food and drink, the next row up is shelter, the next row up is safety.

Somewhere near the top we begin to get to satisfaction and fulfilment.

The thing is, no one considers the whole pyramid, they only live in the level they’re on.

Only concerned with getting to the next level up, forgetting about the level below.

But, as Buddha said, all suffering comes from desire, and desire comes from wanting things to be different than they are.

So, by comparing ourselves with people who have more than us we can only make ourselves unhappy.

But by comparing ourselves with people who have less than us, we make ourselves grateful.

We would all have happier lives by relearning what the basics really are.

How we do that is by relearning Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


This piece first appeared on Dave Trott's blog site here.