The complex ethics of stockpiling

As a blog with a slant towards preparedness, and a definite interest in how individuals can cope with crises and disasters both individual and societal, it’s… interesting to see ourselves in the middle of a truly worldwide crisis and observe how people and organisations respond.

One of the most tricky things has been this whole issue of stockpiling or, as some would have it, ‘panic buying’, with stockpilers originally being laughed at as they bought mountains of toilet roll and now being roundly criticised as they leave shelves so bare that vulnerable people and emergency service workers are struggling to buy essentials. Where does that leave those of us who wish to be prepared for any eventuality? Is stockpiling sensible or selfish?

I can’t necessarily claim to have all the answers, and goodness knows this isn’t a blog on moral philosophy so perhaps trying to tackle a question of right and wrong is a non-starter anyway. But here’s my opinion, if nothing else.

Is it necessary?

I think the first question is simply, all other considerations aside, is stockpiling even needed? The prevailing view among the surprising number of people I follow on Twitter who appear to be experts in food security and supply chain management is that stockpiling (or ‘panic-buying’ as they obviously prefer to call it) is an entirely illogical and knee-jerk response. The government and supermarkets likewise join them in assuring us that there is no food supply issue and it is only stockpiling that is causing empty shelves. Police twitter accounts post condescending tweets containing a ‘list of items you need to panic buy’ which turns out to be a blank sheet of paper. Ok. So no need to stockpile?

Well, maybe. On the other side of the equation we have the fact that many people, especially people living in cities in small apartments, essentially buy food meal-to-meal and have almost no buffer if they miss even a day of shopping. The US government’s ready.gov website recommends that before a pandemic you “store additional supplies of food and water”1 while FEMA explicitly recommends building a food stockpile on the basis that “if an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm, or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks.”2

Here in the UK we’re perhaps less used to serious natural disasters, or more trusting in our government and supermarket supply chains. Nevertheless, the last government food stockpile was disposed of almost thirty years ago, in 1991, and at that time the government explicitly recommended that all households store 7-14 days worth of foods.3 Since that time, the amount of our food that we produce domestically has only dropped, from 74% to more like 60%. Twitter experts assure us that, given the amount of bread and milk we throw away each day, we can be pretty sure that there is more than enough food available should we need it – a logical leap that ignores the fact that almost half of that food is coming from overseas. There is no particular reason to believe that coronavirus should necessarily affect imports in the way that either the war did or Brexit might have. On the other hand, how confident are we that as people get sick and businesses close, all of the farms, factories, ships, lorries and other elements of the supply chain that we rely on will continue to function exactly as they do during normal times?

But even if you don’t believe there is any chance of the UK experiencing food supply issues, perhaps the most compelling argument that some level of stockpiling might be worthwhile is simply the fact that the government keeps telling us that we need to be ready to self-isolate for up to 14 days. They are avoiding the obvious contradiction in giving us this message while also telling us to avoid any stockpiling, but no one can possibly think that self-isolation involves daily trips to the shops, so buying at least a couple of weeks worth of food seems only sensible if you don’t already have that in your house.

How much is too much?

Ok, but are people going too far? Well, even I am pretty baffled by the people buying hundreds of rolls of toilet paper. Two week’s worth of toilet paper for most normal people is, what, a roll or two at most? While of course getting stuck in the house without TP probably isn’t much fun, it’s also not fatal, and of all the things we’re likely to run out of, it’s hard to see why toilet paper should be one of them. This does feel like a case of herd mentality, and I have little time for people who’re making everyone else’s lives difficult by filling shopping carts full of hundreds of rolls of toilet paper.

What about food though? Well, I guess there’s a balance. At the moment, the longest period of total isolation called for is 14 days, and if food supplies fail it also seems likely that the government would restore them (albeit in something of a rationed form) within two weeks, so it seems to me reasonable that having two weeks of food in the house is a decent idea. Buying significantly more than that, at least in the UK, is probably less clearly justified. And, to be clear, having two weeks of food around probably a decent idea in general not just during this crisis. The problem is that so few people have that sort of larder anymore that we’re all simultaneously trying to take what I think is a perfectly reasonable action in principle, but the end result is empty shelves and disadvantaged elderly people. And that is a problem, no matter how reasonable our action is, we should be concerned about its impact on the vulnerable or front-line workers.

So what’s the right thing to do?

This is where it gets tricky. If you believe, as I do, that stockpiling of roughly two weeks (not too much more) of genuine essentials (i.e. not toilet paper, or wine, or paracetamol) is a reasonable action to take, then how do you balance that with the fact that it is clearly having an adverse impact now and is viewed as selfish and unreasonable? Here’s what I think:

Firstly – know when to stop. Figure out what you want to have in your stockpile, and don’t just grab the last pack of eggs even though you don’t especially need them simply because their scarcity makes the appear desirable.

Secondly – build a stockpile gradually. I don’t think that doing a big shop at Costco a few weeks ago was necessary an unreasonable or immoral thing to do, but now that the shelves are empty and it’s clear there’s a problem, that’s no longer the case. Sweeping a supermarket clean and loading tonnes of food into the back of your car is, in my opinion, no longer ethical. Instead, you can fill your cupboards more gradually by simply buying a little more than you need on every shop.

Thirdly – if you are building up your larder, think about the vulnerable as well: buy something for a foodbank, volunteer to take food to local people who are isolated, or help someone else out with their shopping if they’re vulnerable and struggling.

And finally – maybe accept that you’re not going to be able to have quite the stockpile you wanted. Honestly, as I look at the empty shelves and supermarket queues I kind of wish I had a bit more food in the apartment but the reality is that I’m fit, healthy, have a car, and have a decent box full of cans and dried pasta that can certainly last me a while. So, I probably won’t starve. I can set my own concerns to one side now and shop sensibly in the collective interest.

Probably there are no easy answers. In a crisis that is affecting almost everybody in the world, it can feel challenging to take care of yourself and those you care about and also do right by society as a whole. I wish that commentators would be more ready to acknowledge this, and not write off ‘panic-buying’ as knee-jerk idiocy by selfish masses. Equally, I wish that some people would pause a bit and think about what they really need to buy, and what they can do without.

1https://www.ready.gov/pandemic
2https://www.fema.gov/pdf/library/f&web.pdf
3https://www.wired.co.uk/article/brexit-food-shortages-stockpiling

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