Could Rationing Be Made Palatable?

The realities of climate change and energy depletion mean that at some point, we will encounter situations where there is not enough of an energy resource or one of the things it enables - whether food or transport or whatever, to go around. In fact, eventually we will enounter many of these shortages. Whether they arise initially from a situation in which there are actual shortages or whether the shortages are structural problems of transport or caused by inequity and dishonesty almost doesn't matter - we are going to run bang up against problems of access to resources.

When that happens, and assuming a functioning state, we are going to have to deal with questions of how to ration access to energy, food and other resources. This isn't really up for debate - whether we manage to put the problem of rationing off for a while or not, we know that climate change and peak oil mean we will have to confront limits of access - indeed, we confront them now, when we ration things like food and access to housing by price.

Whether regionally or nationally, rationing is one way, probably the best way, to ensure reasonably equitable distribution - so while presently people see rationing as unimaginable, I would argue that we need to be laying the groundwork for just rationing strategies, administered equitably now - and that this isn't actually as hard as we might think. No, it isn't politically possible right yet - but it could become possible very rapidly. So I present a lightly revised version of a piece I wrote more than three years ago - suggesting that we need to consider strategies for the eventual implementation of resource rationing, whether at the national, state or local levels.

Could a system of energy rationing, or even rationing of high energy goods and foods work in the US? The conventional answer is that it is politically impossible to even consider it, and that the public would never go along with it. But a closer look at the history of rationing during the second World War suggests that it might not be so unthinkable, and that in fact, rationing has historically been viewed as highly positive, pro-democratic and good public policy by the general populace. Now there are obvious historical differences between now and the past, but the framing of rationing may be more important than the exact historical context - in World War II, for example, where few real risks of famine or severe shortage existed, rationing was quite popular. Now, facing actual shortages and potential crisis, rationing is probably not as hard to sell as many people believe.

This is important because there are a number of public policy initiatives that include rationing plans. Among the most important are Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell's Oil Depletion Protocol, discussed in Heinberg's book of the same title and George Monbiot's proposal for carbon credit cards described in _Heat_. These are excellent and highly rational programs that create just responses to difficult issues, and they deserve to be given more attention than they have. I believe that in part, they have been underestimated because of the assumption that rationing is politically infeasible.

Formal rationing, whether voluntary or mandatory, is preferable to traditional capitalist rationing by price or taxation models. For genuinely scarce items for which everyone has a basic need, rationing is really the only just system. Energy, food, water and many basic consumer goods (shoes, energy lowering infrastructure adaptations, basic clothing) fall in the category of things that should not be rationed by price if they come up short. Otherwise, we risk doing irrevocable harm to the poor and those who are disproportionately unable to handle service disruptions - the elderly, the disabled and children.

Rationing by price also penalizes those who already use the least energy, by falling hardest on the poor, rather than those who use the most, and thus is less effective than formal rationing at reducing usage. It also creates strong social unrest and internal conflict, including violent conflict, at times when unity and engagement are most necessary. In short, rationing just plain makes sense.

It is also worth noting that rationing is not a distant hypothetical. State and local government imposed rationing of water has already occurred in the present and recent past in Australia and in some parts of the American southwest, in response to extended, devastating droughts. The language of rationing has begun to entering parlance in many countries again.

Understanding how rationing works within the culture is an important first step to making rational and wise rationing policy choices. If we make errors in initiating rationing, we risk turning the public against the whole procedure, and cutting rationing out of our options. On the other hand, careful public education about rationing, and framing of its implications can make rationing a political success in the face of both local energy and environmental crises and world wide ones.

One of the assumptions people make about rationing is that it was always resisted and resented. In fact, that's not the case - generally speaking, rationing, if instituted fairly, has been viewed fairly positively, as patriotic and necessary, a chance for everyone to contribute in whatever national crisis is being averted. As Amy Bentley documents in her excellent book _Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity_, in February 1942, rationing had a two to one approval rating. More than 60 percent of those responding to a poll asking what the government ought to have done differently during the first year of World War II responded that they felt that rationing should have been instituted sooner, and the OPA, which regulated prices and rationing had extremely high approval ratings (Bentley, 23)

Women especially liked rationing. Throughout this essay, I will be talking about the history of rationing, mostly in World War II America (I will focus on applicability to the US here). Generally speaking, before rationing women were angry about shortages, frightened about nutritional deficiencies and often anxious about their own participation in the war effort, and how they would balance family needs with larger societal ones.

Rationing, with the strong message that food and domestic resource usage was a battlefield we could win, was a way of engaging women, and to a lesser extent, older men and those unable to fight (men were the largest percentage of victory gardeners). Knowing that things would be fairly distributed not only relieved women's private fears of shortage, but enabled them to participate more in war and community work - for example, for women who took over factory work from men, knowing that they could expect to find food in the shops even at the end of the work day meant they were free to participate without fear of their children going hungry.

It is presently even more urgent that we engage women on the subject of rationing - American women make or strongly influence 90% of all purchases, cook 77% of all meals, and spend much more time with children than men do, thus influencing the not-inconsiderable purchasing and energy impact of children. In general, women schedule, organize and plan household activities more than men - that is, they are responsible for finding time for sustainable practices (this is not how it should be, merely how it is).

In the growing organic movement, according to Michael Pollan, women make 80% of all purchases (Pollan, 89). Another study estimates that women make 80% of all decisions to voluntarily cut energy usage in the household. All of these things mean that rationing will not succeed if it is positioned without regard to gender. Thus far, programs like the ODP and Carbon Credit Card model haven't sought to use women's communities or women as spokespeople and advocates, and that may have something to do with their lack of popular support.

Historically speaking, because most rationing has involved food and clothing, it has been focused on women, and often led by them. In fact, ration systems have often been empowering for some women - the best example being women in India during Gandhi's revolution, but this is also true for women in the US during every major war and crisis. Even implicit discussions of energy and carbon rationing have largely focused on corporations and nations (mostly led by men) or have been presented by men, with a heavy emphasis on technical details, and, in the case of Monbiot, with a strong dismissal of the power of the personal.

But like it or not, the personal is often the currency of the daily realities of energy usage and purchasing, and much of the energy consumption, along with consumption of energy intensive items like food and goods is driven by women - they need to hear this message, and because they are not being addressed, they are tuning out.

It isn't that people preferred rationing to no rationing, but they vastly preferred it shortages, lines and fears of inadequate nutrition. For example, in the 1970s, it was not rationing that came in for the greatest criticisms, but the long gas lines that people were forced to endure. Americans generally speaking were willing to go along with rationing during World War II and in the 1970s, and in other wars and difficult times were willing to voluntarily boycott, embargo and self ration goods. What they don't like is to have some people get things and others not - this is widely perceived as anti-democratic. This notion was reinforced by much US and British advertising - it was patriotic and democratic to use only your fair share, fascist and anti-democratic to buy on black markets, price gouge or hoard. The most important thing was that we all be in it together.

Writing about the American Revolution, the historian Timothy Breen coined the term "Rituals of non-consumption" to describe the ways that in a culture of constraint, people derive satisfaction, power and pleasure from not buying things, or living within strictures. He argues in "Consumer Virtues in Revolutionary America" that in fact, the American Revolution was in part a revolution of buying habits.

Extending Breen's idea to the present, this idea of ritualized non-consumption and consumer revolution becomes a powerful way of drawing connections between the radical change required for a low carbon, low fossil fuels society, and between the founding political event of America (at least for Americans . In fact, most wars have involved radical changes in consumer culture and behavior, including new communal cultures dedicated to enabling change and encouraging compliance.

For example, during the American revolution, British woolen products, cloth and other materials were embargoed by American patriots. Despite the fact that Americans had been discouraged from sheep farming and wood industry, almost overnight a homespun culture grew up, with thousands of women now producing their own fabrics and wool. In the northern states during the civil war, a similar embargo on cotton led to women making homespun again out of wool.

Not buying things is one of the most radical acts a community can engage in, and a powerful one. During times of war and crisis, leaders have always asked their constituents to refrain from using or buying something, or to replace it with homemade goods. And the results of these acts can be deeply powerful - the enormously power East India Company, for example, was driven into a crisis from which it never recovered economically by American boycotts during the Revolution.

During World War I, there was no formal rationing in the US (although there was all over Europe), but average citizens instituted voluntary rationing - in _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ Laura Schenone records that Herbert Hoover believed formal rationing unnecessary, that in fact, the public would do it for him out of patriotism without the expense of a formal program, and he was quite correct.

"...Hoover urged, begged and shamed American women into voluntarily conserving food. 'Food will win the war,' he proclaimed. His sacred mantra was repeated over and over again on billboards, posters, and pamphlets, and disseminated by state and local governments, libraries, schools, colleges, businesses, women's clubs of every stripe and even chain stores. A master of the media, Hoover also got newspapers and magazines to scold women on a daily basis to save more food for the sake of liberty and democracy...Wouldn't American women conserve for the sake of their starving sisters across the Atlantic?"

And, in fact, American women responded enthusiastically. They cut food waste by 20%, reduced consumption of dairy products and meat dramatically, even formed "vigilance committees" to keep an eye on communal garbage cans for waste. 14 million "liberty gardens" were planted, and American women initiated "meatless days" and "wheatless days" that would, during World War II, be made mandatory. Millions of women participated, with no more incentive than that it was patriotic.

That said, the end net results in food saved were not as substantial as non-voluntary programs, but the active participation of households in WWI served as a model for the more-effective WWII mandate.

Herbert Hoover was a political conservative who believed very strongly that conservation of resources for the war effort should be voluntary. I'm not a political conservative, but it should be noted that it isn't merely conservatives who worry about handing the power to ration over to governments. In fact, the moderate success of Hoover's model might be an important lesson for those of us engaged in voluntary reduction models - a way of resisting government beaurocracy and interference is to ration voluntarily sufficiently that external controls need not be extended.

And I must note here that despite the fact that Schenone clearly disapproves of Hoover's paternalism, Hoover's success should point out the possibilities of grassroots self-rationing. The fact that less than 100 years ago, an entire nation voluntarily went on rationing without any more government support than advertising should give us a vision of what is possible from a purely voluntary movement. It is well within the realm of possibility that a self-imposed model rationing program that grew popular enough (think the Compact, Craggers, or, dare I say, even our own Riot for Austerity ) might become the blueprint for a national program, with national support. At a minimum, such programs represent not just models, but existing social structures through which to transmit education material and support for those engaged, programs that might be put to use by governments in times of rationing. This is something to think about.

It is also essential to recognize that movements towards self-rationing indicate that rationing itself is not automatically viewed as an evil. In fact, often it is perceived as a meaningful way to make change. This also gives further evidence that the oft asserted claim that voluntary conservation can't lead anywhere is wrong - what was once done can be done again. Instead, this provides a powerful contrary model of privately led, voluntary programs. That said, however, even privately led programs were made much easier by government *assistance* and to make meaningful reductions on a large scale, government must either lead or follow, it cannot ignore the problem.

In 1942, the Roosevelt administration instituted mandatory rationing in the US. Some items, like meat, shoes and coffee, were rationed because of genuine shortages of the item - increased demand, reduced transport availability, or producers gone to war were among the reasons that these items were not often unavailable in shops, and rationing ensured that spot shortages would stop, that those who were not free to stand in line would still get their fair share. Others, like gas were rationed not because there was any gas shortage, but because a study panel determined that gas rationing was the best way to save tires, and rubber sources were being held by the Japanese. Some proposed rationing programs were dismissed, including rubber rationing for girdles. Women overwhelmingly protested this call for the end of the girdle, arguing that the back support provided by foundation garments was essential to their productivity. They won.

Other items were de facto rationed - factories were prohibited from making refrigerators, new cars and other luxury items, and there were simply none in stores. Again, American consumers were told it was their patriotic duty to invest their money in war bonds and other patriotic activities, rather than luxury goods. There was surprisingly little controversy on these points.

In 1941, there were real fears of shortages, inadequate nutrition, and hunger to match that experienced by much of Europe during the war. By 1942, Russians and Scandinavians really were starving to death, and the British were experiencing desperate food shortages. Americans were shipping food abroad, and being asked to share what they had with millions of other hungry people - to consume less so that others could have more.

A famous poster of the period showed a middle class white man, his wife and two children at a table, joined by two American soldiers, and a stereotypical Russian, Englishman and Mexican in serape. The American family is reassured that they will get the majority of American food, but are told that we must make room at our table for our allies. "Don't begrudge it - but produce and conserve, share and play square with food." We have a strong precedent, then, from both World War I and II for a rationing that isn't simply based upon local shortages, but upon a world-wide mutual interest and concern.

Americans, for example, have in the past been willing to make do with less so that others will be less hungry. Again, this is a powerful iconography, one that argues strongly against the notion that only personal suffering would make the case for rationing. This is a strategy that might well be deployed by advocates of the ODP and Carbon rationing programs - the notion that Americans have to do with less to preserve the lives of their allies is not merely rhetoric any more - with global warming and the tragic consequences of fuel crises and the food crisis for poor nations, this might, in many ways be a more compelling argument than peak oil itself for a national rationing program.

In fact, in 1946, shortly after rationing was finally lifted, when it became obvious that 800 million people world wide were in danger of starvation because of disrupted food supplies and war related crop failures, more than 70% of Americans, in three separate polls, indicated that they would prefer to have rationing reinstated. Historians make a great deal of the orgy of consumerism of the 1950s, perceived as a response to war rationing. But it is perhaps even more significant that at the end of the war, most Americans were not only willing but enthusiastic about cutting back on their own new supplies of meats and sweets so that others would not go hungry.

Bentley quotes a Mrs. E.H. Gembel as writing to Truman, "Sir, we support any measure necessary to provide for the starving people of the world. Get tough." (Bentley, 146). In fact, it was the US government, led by Herbert Hoover again, that resisted citizen calls for rationing. Women especially expressed their willingness to go back to rationing and eat less in order to serve the hungry. Again, addressing discussion of rationing to women may bear more fruit than discussing it before congress.

This flies in the face of the oft assumed notion that Americans would not be subject to arguments that are mostly about other people's needs. Now it is true that we live in a different era - but that works in more ways than one. We are, of course, less accustomed to privation. But we also have much more leeway to give things up. Again, what has been done can often be done again.

The iconographic World War II poster was Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom from Want" poster, reproduced since in a thousand places. Rockwell created a series of posters to illustrate Roosevelt's four freedoms that should apply world wide. The Office of War Information, in charge of propaganda posters initially rejected Rockwell's images, which are among the most famous American paintings in the world now. Rockwell's images of "Freedom of Speech" "Freedom of Worship" and "Freedom from Fear" are among his best work.

The "Freedom from Want" poster was more troubling and controversial in many ways - American allies criticized it because the image of the festival meal with giant roast turkey on it seemed a slap in the face to those going hungry, to say that, as Bentley puts it, "The scene illuminated the 'inalienable right' of Americans to eat their familiar and abundant foods in their traditional ways, and not just at Thanksgiving. (60)." But the image can be read another way - that what was powerful about Rockwell's illustration was his capacity to invoke the stability of the festival in times of restriction. That is, the image of Thanksgiving and the unified family (everyone, including the young men are home to eat here) is the reminder that restriction and the festival can exist simultaneously, indeed, that one can be made possible by the other. This too is an important message - instead of offering absolute restrictions, the notion that one conserves to celebrate, that careful husbandry enables generosity and abundance is important here was well. The advantage of tradable rationing systems is that they allow people to make conscious and free choices to use a fair share as they prefer.

Despite the disproportionate emphasis given to the famous "Freedom from Want" poster, it is important to remember that Rockwell's dinner image appeared in context with the other three posters both in its initial publication in the _Saturday Evening Post_ and later in many reproductions. Thus, Thanksgiving, that in many households begins with a prayer is juxtaposed with images of people praying in the "Freedom to Worship" image, with the blue collar man who speaks up at the town meeting in "Freedom of Speech", and with the mother and father tucking their children safely into bed together in "Freedom from Fear." That is, these things are associated with each other - food rationing, not explicitly mentioned but in the psychological background, and its commitment to fairness and thus abundance for everyone is linked to democratic participation, to religious freedom and its connections to community life, and also to security. Add to this posters such as the little girl canning at her mother's side, saying "We'll have lots to eat this winter, Mommy, won't we?"

Thus we see the context that rationing must derive from - it isn't merely about scarcity, it is about enabling the creation of a moral context for us to eat and live within. Rationing advocates have the chance, if they are wise enough to take it, to frame rationing as a moral response to insufficiency, and to link it to other justice movements, and to imbue the act of conservation with a larger, collectivized meaning.

In fact, the whole notion that rationing is about democracy, equality, and sharing - not just with your literal neighbors but with your neighbors around the world is what made rationing acceptable, even preferable to other systems, such as price based rationing. Millions of American homemakers signed a pledge abjuring black markets, promising not to buy from shopkeepers who price gouged, and swearing to turn in ration coupons for their goods. The message, both promulgated by the state and argued by women themselves was that their willingness to play fair meant a shorter war, a more democratic system and a greater degree of justice. Women were justifiably proud of their willingness to ration.

There was anger over rationing - some shortages were greeted with frustration, particularly coffee. And there was a great deal of resentment over unequal treatment. For example, gas rationing was a particular point of contention, both in the US and Britain, where often political figures and people of local influence were able to get larger rations. Anyone who doesn't grasp the anger directed at Al Gore or Tony Blair for their failure to conserve when ordinary people, particularly blue collar people, are being pressured to do by economic reality ought to take a serious look at this phenomenon. Rationing can be perceived as just, fair and reasonable, but only if the exceptions are minimized, and limited to the truly needy.

World War II was remarkable because of the widespread, egalitarian participation. Everyone's sons went to war, not just the poor. Male Hollywood celebrities enlisted. All four Roosevelt sons went to war and the White House table went without sugar and coffee. While hardly perfect, even racial segregation was to some degree reduced and the stage set for greater change by the desegregation (fiercely resisted) of the armed forces. Women of all classes participated, if not perfectly equally, then in a way that marked radical change, in war work and endured largely the same restrictions. Famous women like Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall ran Stage Door Canteens, not only performing for soldiers, but making them sandwiches, washing the dishes themselves and dancing with the soldiers.

It wasn't that all hierarchy or inequality broke down - far from it. In fact, some labor gains were lost, and the Japanese internment camps represented a remarkable instance of simply hideous repression. But most people were bound by similar restrictions, and to an astounding degree, the restrictions were obeyed. Rich families as well as poor went without meat, or ate offal. Rich people as well as poor bought their shoes with ration coupons. In 1942, when a poll asked whether the government should ration items that *might* be in short supply in the future, 73 percent voted for immediate rationing to avert shortages and to increase the fairness of distribution. More than communal culture, the abiding concern was *fairness* - restrictions were acceptable, but they had to be applied across the board.

All of this should show that any rationing program must emphasize fairness and democratic equality - there need to be few exceptions, and the more people who share in deprivation, the more unifying the overall effect. Celebrities should be enlisted, and application must be regardless of class, race, gender and political affiliation. Environmental activists right now often make the case that their flying or traveling "enables others to use less energy" - but for every person we influence directly, another person is alienated because our message doesn't match our personal habits. Those who wish to advocate for these kinds of programs must lead the way personally - that means getting off the planes, and finding other ways to lead, except in the most urgent exceptions.

We know how deeply important fairness is to this discussion, as China, Russia and India have all announced they won't do anything about global warming until the rich nations do. The rule about fairness being an absolute policy applies across national borders, it seems - and justifiably so. Anyone who proposes to argue for rationing must argue for as just a system as possible - and must model that rationing. Hypocrisy gets us nowhere.

Along with egalitarian applications, education was absolutely essential to rationing in every era. Recipes for meatless, wheatless and sugarless dishes flew down from national administrations, out of women's magazines and from neighbor to neighbor. Suggestions for how to build looms and make substitutes for tea and sugar were exchanged by women during the American revolution, and ways of preserving food without salt were passed through women's teas in the South during the civil war.

Patterns for socks for soldiers, new card games that could substitute for going out driving or taking vacations - all of this was absolutely essential, for several reasons. First of all, because it helped people find ways to conserve and make do. But also because exchange is a central way we interact with one another - in a conserving society, where gifts and luxury foods are restricted, the exchange of suggestions, advice, kindness and mutual support substitute for goods and luxuries. When those things are taken away, the loss is felt more acutely.

Generally speaking, programs with the greatest success used *existing* social and community structures to transmit not just the requirement to conserve, but also classes and suggestions as to how to do it better. Such material was best absorbed within one's community - during World War II, attempts were made to offer nutrition classes to working class women, but the economic gap between them and the nutritionists was too great to engender good results. Eventually, a highly successful program of paying "block captains" to take classes and transmit knowledge within their neighborhoods and communities was undertaken, and immigrants, African Americans and working class people learned from their neighbors.

One of the important emphases of rationing was freedom of choice - the point system, applied to most foods, enabled people to choose how to use their rations. The US government, according to Bentley, made heavy emphasis of the link between the freedom to choose how to use your limited assets and democratic freedom.

Both the ODP and Carbon Credit Cards are tradable rationing systems - politically speaking, this is likely to appeal to capitalist cultural assumptions, and can be linked to freedom, and also to justice for ordinary working people. The fact that ordinary people already use less energy than the rich is potentially a political selling point for those interested in appealing to those "squeezed" by things like lack of health insurance and increased food costs. The dual emphasis - that tradable rationing can improve the economic stability of lower middle and lower class households and that people are still free to choose how to use their energy should be strongly emphasized, and linked to democracy.

We need to make clear that the question is not "will we ration" but "will we ration by price, or will we ensure everyone gets some?" Any system of rationing needs to draw very clearly a picture of the alternative - of shortages, lines, hunger, poverty, abandoned cars. These are real consequences, and rationing should be portrayed as the collective, fair, and above-all, anti-elitist option.

For example, Victory Garden movement reiterated that what we do not buy, the ritual of non-consumption is even more important than what we do buy, and it did it while valuing anti-elitist skills such is agriculture and physical strength. The movement cut across racial and class lines. In parts of the south more than 90% of African Americans, often angry at their government in other respects, grew Victory gardens. The call for national victory gardeners was phrased as a form of participation in the war effort as essential as military itself. In a poem engraved on a statue dedicated to Victory Gardeners, we learn,

"Not he alone, nor the family that gathers at his table -
But all men everywhere, fighting for Freedom's cause,
Are richer for his work.
For the food he does not buy is theirs to have...
In camps, in ships on every bloody sea,
On battle fronts where food is life itself....
And in those dark and hungry lands now being freed -
Where food is more than life...
Where food means tyranny's long hoped for end.
The seeds of Victory are planted in his garden...."

The poem is heavy handed, of course, but it links ordinary acts, like daily gardening, placed in the context of rationing, to resistance to tyranny, and makes them available to ordinary people. These kinds of links are tremendously powerful rhetorically - more powerful, I would suggest, than the simple statement of necessity or any fear mongering. People are willing to endure remarkable things in order to feel powerful and valued. A rationing movement must make it clear that the consequence of participation is that you are doing something important. Fortunately, that's true.

Many people can be persuaded to view their ordinary actions, including their ordinary actions of conservation, and acceptance of rationing as acts of resistance and power. Ultimately, selling rationing will be about de-emphasizing what you don't have and about emphasizing the returns - particularly the returns in terms of social goods. Particularly emphasizing that individuals are acting in powerful ways by resisting is important - for example, in discussing Carbon Rationing, George Monbiot is somewhat dismissive of personal solutions. But to make rationing politically palatable, it must be represented as an independent way of resisting, shared by everyone. There is, of course, an inherent contradiction between these two things, and yet it is possible for them to function towards both ends in truth and in representation.

It is important to note that the recognition that acts of non-consumption are important and powerful is one that is extremely scary to corporate powers. All through World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin documents that the rights of consumers and the rights of corporations were in constant tension. In fact, members of the OPA were appointed specifically to represent consumers against corporate authority. In some cases, consumers found that they were newly empowered to resist corporate authority. For example, a group of activist women in Syracuse, NY challenged the dairy industry on rising milk prices. When one of the leaders was derisively asked "Have you ever produced milk?" The woman in question stood up and announced in public that yes, indeed she had, that she had several children and had produced quite a quantity of milk, and moreover, that as a mother of soldiers and a war worker, she had a right to resist price gouging.

In this case, a movement towards non-consumption had the undesirable (to corporations and many government figures) effect of empowering consumers, and encouraging them to resist corporatism. While this is by no means a certain result, a growing movement towards better, safer, local food has the potential to reduce corporate power in all spheres, simply by the fact that rationin brings acts of consumption explicitly into the political sphere. Once people begin to see that, this extends into other areas of their lives. Framing energy rationing as a logical continuation of consumer movements like the slow food movement is likely to help bring public opinion around to accepting rationing as a structure.

All of this was predicated upon, of course, a reasonable threat of shortage and crisis. But such things hardly need manufacturing - events are heading us steadily in that direction. Experiences of shortage and rationing by price will become more and more normal. And as we have seen, rationing has its virtues, particularly over shortages and unequal distribution, or traditional rationing-by-price. We have reasons to ration already. What we lack is a full articulation of the benefits of rationing.

It does not seem unlikely to me that a case for rationing energy (a la the ODP) and carbon emissions could be made compellingly within the next few years, in response to emerging shortages and inequities. Existing self rationing programs could be expanded, and should think carefully about how they might be adapted into regional, state or even national programs.

Models will be needed, and existing community structures will be required. Getting outside the internet and outside of the current political parameters of peak oil and climate change will be important - there are large numbers of people who simply won't be involved with something they perceive as elitist or leftist in origin, but who would be willing to ration for reasons of patriotism, and because their neighbors are doing it. So one of the most important things voluntary rationers can do is bring rationing into their churches, to their local republican party, to their neighbors - not in a threatening way, but in a celebratory one. Support groups to help people cut emissions, reduction picnics and parties, recipe exchanges, techniques and cool tricks, sermons and library talks, movies and parties - these are the exchange medium of change. More importantly, these communal activities become a substitute for what is given up.

Rationing is both possible and potentially quite palatable, as long as it occurs in the context of public education and strong connections to current events. Rationing will probably eventuall emerge as democratic - much more so than price rationing, and making a good case for rationing is essential to good public policy.



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Unfortunately, these days I envision a lot of screaming about rationing = socialism. At least until things get really, really bad.

Rationing in WW II wasn't a catchall to handle the short supply of every good that became scarce then, but for items that were necessary to the war effort. It was an alternative to increased taxation, had prices been allowed to rise requiring the government to purchase goods at the higher price, and to outright requisition. And it was a considerable burden. It made management of one's personal household quite difficult. Many people were driven to the black market out of practical necessity, and put up with the system generally only because of the war.

You don't suggest what problem comparable to "winning the war" that energy rationing would solve, that would justify the burden of such a system. Just what is it supposed to do better than market pricing? (The gas lines in both the early and late 70s were a result of price regulation begun under Nixon. Carter ended those, and with the exception of natural catastrophes causing regional shortages, Americans haven't seen such lines since. Even when prices spiked to the same constant-dollar levels.)

..a growing movement towards better, safer, local food has the potential to reduce corporate power in all spheres..

Which is precisely why all the regulations have been imposed on the farmer's markets, making participation in them as a seller so onerous that my son & I decided not to participate. The corporations control the state which imposes regulations at the corporations' bidding, to the detriment of public well being. That's Fascism for you.

The rich will always be able to obtain more, rationing or no.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

During the 1979 oil crisis the county where I lived was one of several areas that had an even/odd system for allowing gas purchases. There was no limit to how much you could buy, but if your license plate ended with an odd digit, you would have had to wait until tomorrow instead of being able to buy it today (24 August) as holders of even numbered plates could, and similarly the even numbered plates would have to buy today or wait until the day after tomorrow. Since the alternative was long lines to buy gas (and burning a significant amount of it while waiting your turn), this system was tolerated as being better for almost everybody.

These days, though, I fear Adrienne is right. The usual suspects have been screaming about health care reform, as if we aren't already rationing health care by price. They stand opposed to any form of subsidy for public transportation, when forcing people to rely on cars to get around is de facto rationing transportation by price. I fully expect these same suspects to continue screaming "socialism" at any attempt to ration anything else other than by price.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

Thanks for this great, thought-provoking post. I'm especially interested in your thoughts on the "culture of non-consumption." What do you think about the possibility of localized, voluntary, community-based rationing systems? Do you think a more user-friendly name than "rationing" might make the concept more widely acceptable?

Great post!

Though the ad on the side bar for the Dodge Ram pickup truck added a nice touch of irony.

By Fred Magyar (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

I agree. In the current political climate, only a Republican administration could impose rationing without provoking mob violence. Trouble is, the philosophy of much of the GOP's "base" says that those who starve deserve it, so it would take a brave leader to stand up to that.

Another point is that the rationing in World Wars I and II was pitched as a way of helping to support "our side" in an Us vs. Them struggle. Would Americans back then have been nearly as willing to limit their own consumption for the sake of Russians and Mexicans had their nations not been part of the Allied movement against the Nazis? If the public rhetoric calls for sacrifice as a way of assisting in the persecution of some less deserving Them, the effect could well be to encourage a bloodthirsty and chaotic path of decline.

rationing by price (carbon tax on fossil fuel at the wellhead, mine, or port of entry) has the advantage of being much easier to implement and much more difficult to corrupt. To increase its fairness, people could be given tax credits based on how much energy a person in their location "needs", and industries that turn oil based feedstocks into non-disposable goods could get tax credits as well. With the rationing built in from the beginning, there's much less room for corruption and gaming.

Rationing by price also has the advantage of raising money to pay for the program. When it comes to personal energy consumption, the lion's share goes to transportation and HVAC; the amount of energy used to transport your food from around the world to your grocery store is relatively small. The carbon tax could be used to subsidize home and apartment insulation and efficiency projects - as well as renewable energy programs and public transportation. A program that consists of simply preventing consumption wouldn't replace any of the revenue that it destroyed, and would always be (even more) vulnerable to political destruction.

Hibob, I would argue -- with the possible exception of heat -- that energy simply isn't a consumer good for which any kind of special fairness is needed. Most energy is consumed as a means of producing other goods and services: food, housing, clothing, transportation, etc. Or to put it another way, energy is so entangled in production that it is silly (with the possible exception noted) to separate "energy fairness" from general issues of economic fairness. The economic world will change as oil becomes more scarce. But that doesn't mean the poor will have special need for "energy compensation," rather than policies that make society more fair generally. And I've yet to hear a reason in this thread why that increasing scarcity calls for rationing. is a central way we interact with one another - in a conserving society, where gifts and luxury foods are restricted, the exchange of suggestions, advice, kindness and mutual support substitute for goods and luxuries.

I found this to be a very powerful and explanatory concept. I had never thought of interpersonal interaction being based on exchange, but in retrospect it's obvious. What corporations have done is convinced us that instead of exchanging with each other directly, we should exchange with the corporation (of which they keep a cut). Our current government thinks we cannot be trusted to safely exchange amongst ourselves, thus the regulations and restrictions on exchange (plus we would be cheating the corporations of their cut) e.g raw milk regulations.

As parents spend more time in the workforce, their exchanges with their children shift from time and attention to purchased goods (and even services such as daycare). People are encouraged to be independent, not rely on their neighbors for exchange, but rather work to pay for their own private goods. Rather than exchange personal knowledge along with durable goods with a craftsman, we are supposed to enjoy the anonymity of purchasing goods from an impersonal retailer.

I'm sure you've covered this concept in half-a-dozen other posts, but for some reason, this one sparked clarity in my mind. Which I find somewhat amusing, since that wasn't even the central subject of the essay. And this is why I enjoy reading your writing, even that which I likely read three years ago - I so often learn/realize something new. (Other times you are able to put words to concepts I haven't been able to verbalize. I'm not sure which is more important.)

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

In WWII, rationing was a way for the common man to fight Hitler. Even today Hitler is the universal symbol of evil, and due to its secular nature, even more popular to invoke than Satan (Hence Godwin's Law).

I don't think you'd get anywhere near the buy-in to rationing as a way to deal with diffuse and hard-to-grasp problems such as peak oil, climate change, or (God forbid) overpopulation. These problems position individual consumption as the evil to fight. People don't like fighting their own addictions. Look at how much trouble people have with their weight (yours truly included).

The only form of rationing most americans endorse is the rate of immigration.

Ed, rationing per se doesn't imply anything about aggregate oil consumption. It could, in fact, increase that over what it otherwise would be. Rationing is about allocation. It was used in WW II not to solve the problem that there were resource shortages, but to solve the problem of making sure critical resources went to the war effort despite those shortages.

A carbon tax is the simplest and least painful way to decrease fossil fuel consumption.


Hibob, I would argue -- with the possible exception of heat -- that energy simply isn't a consumer good for which any kind of special fairness is needed.

AC is literally lifesaving for the elderly in a lot of the country, so I think it should also receive some consideration. And in rural areas, public transportation simply isn't an option. A program that could end up depopulating rural areas (and, just as important politically, erasing congressional districts) just isn't going to fly.

A very important word that this essay seems to have missed is 'temporary'.

The (relatively) popular and successful rationing programs that you look at have two hugely important traits that you don't seem to have paid enough attention to. One, they were justified by a specific, immediate need or crisis (war, oil embargo, etc). Two (and even more important) that need or crisis was temporary. Until the war is over, or the embargo is lifted, or whatever: participants looked forward to a return to normalcy, to a point when rationing would end. Hope, to put it in a word.

It does not seem unlikely to me that a case for rationing energy (a la the ODP) and carbon emissions could be made compellingly within the next few years, in response to emerging shortages and inequities. Existing self rationing programs could be expanded, and should think carefully about how they might be adapted into regional, state or even national programs.

Yes, perhaps, but your examples of temporary rationing are of strictly limited utility in gauging public response to what would be a program with a duration measured in centuries.

For my part, I much prefer market-based/price-based 'rationing' programs aimed at lowering energy consumption (ie, carbon taxes, as Russell said). Telling someone 'you can have food/gas/housing of your choice, if you can afford it' is far less likely to spark a revolution (via ballot or bullet) than 'you may have the food/gas/housing we give you, and nothing else'. The 'invisible hand', even guided by taxation, provides a buffer between the angry citizen and the government.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

mad the swine - I wouldn't bet on that. If you are hungry and homeless, you will be disgruntled to begin with. If you live in a nation with gigantic inequality, so that you can watch others gobble caviar while your children become malnourished, and you are homeless because the well-to-do have prohibited every type of housing you can afford ... well, why should you not take out your anger on the haves? The New Deal was in large part an effort to prevent a Communist revolution in the U.S.

Dewey, rationing energy is a poor way to decrease inequality. For that, you want more general purpose policies: progressive taxation, strong social safety net, better public education, including college, etc. A coupon to buy gasoline doesn't do much good if you don't have a car, and a car might not be the next most important thing someone needs in improving their lot. If you compare the US to some of the European nations with lower GINI, they don't achieve that by rationing energy. And indeed, FDR introduced rationing for the war effort, not as part of the New Deal. Which is good, since otherwise we would have had Wendell Wilkie leading the war effort.

I think you could find a large organized group willing to actively lobby for this proposal.

Who do you know in Chicago? There hasn't been as big a potential for skim since Wayne Newton signed at the Stardust.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

energy is already rationed thanks to this nifty concept called price, an open market can process far more information in a much fairer and democratic manner than any bureaucracy

Knew this one would get some good debate going ;-).

I certainly agree that right now, a narrative doesn't exist that would justify rationing, and that right now peak oil and climate change are diffuse problems that aren't nearly as much fun as Hitler (at least one analyst has pointed out that in many ways we'd be better off with an alien invasion than climate change, since there would be a clear response), but I also don't think that's an inevitable long term reality. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, energy constraints and climate change *WILL* be problems that engage attention - it just can't be otherwise. The framing of the problem will matter enormously - it is certainly possible that a la the BNP, one could frame the problem as somethinge else, but it is also possible that good narrative could make an acute response like rationing more possible - this is why it needs to be discusssed now. I think you will certainly be able, at some point, to make a compelling case for climate change and resource depletion being as big a threat as Hitler - in fact, I think that's a given.

MadtheSwine, I'm not sure I would place the emphasis that you do on the temporary, simply because in WWII, for example, it wasn't at all clear how temporary it would be -sure, in a very broad sense people looked towards a time when someday it wouldn't be necessary anymore. But at the point that the US entered the war, they most likely scenario was that Britain would fall and possibly Russia as well - it was not a case that it was at all obvious that the US would then emerge within 4-5 years to comparative prosperity - that is, people didn't take on rationing with the idea that it was temporary, they took it on with the idea that it was necessary - period, and for an indefinite length of time. So I don't see that as the critical factor.

Russell, I think that the reason for rationing is pretty simple - most people can't live without energy resources. They can't get to work, they can't keep warm or cool, they can't buy food, etc... So when sufficiently large numbers of people inevitably have difficulty accessing these, those people will get very upset - we saw this during the acute phase of the food crisis, when upset people have a tendency to overthrow their governments. And people get particularly upset at the perception, real or imagined, of unfairness.

Rationing operates as a system to make needed goods - and ones constrained for some compelling reason, either absolute shortage or as Russell points out, resources needed elsewhere - available. I think you will have a very difficult time convincing the poor that they have no absolute need for access to energy resources. Yes, it is a complicating system, but so is taxation and redistribution. Moreover, redistribution often leaves out a good chunk of the poor - for example, most of the poor don't get most tax breaks because they don't pay any taxes. So for those in that substantial and rapidly growing gap between people who don't get social welfare programs but also don't pay enough in taxes to actually benefit from most tax credit programs, that's not helpful. And socially, we have a really tough time selling things that work to the advantage of the actual poor - ie, social welfare programs.

Taxation based strategies often fail the people need them most - moreover, they take power out of the hands of the people who need them most. Tradable rationing eliminates the need for black markets, and it allows people who already do good stuff and use dramatically lower energy - poor folk who ride the buses and keep their heat down - to profit directly. It also results in actual caps on energy usage, which no more complex economic strategy has ever actually achieved at this point.

I'm just not seeing the case for the status quo here.


Sooner or later, and probably sooner, energy constraints and climate change *WILL* be problems that engage attention - it just can't be otherwise.


The framing of the problem will matter enormously -

Here I disagree. The biophysical consequences of energy constraints and climate change, among other environmental insults, will be largely the same regardless of how people "frame" these issues. Cultural or socio-political responses, whatever these may be, will simply be swamped by the sheer overwhelming magnitude of biotic and abiotic change.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

Russell - Although I think (based on social science research and common sense) that extraordinary inequality is harmful enough to a society that policy should discourage it, I was not suggesting rationing any commodity as a means of reducing inequality. Rather, I, and I think Sharon, see it as a means of cushioning the impact of inequality, which may be to the benefit of both the poor and the rich. If there should be serious grain shortages in the future, and the wealthy refused to reduce their consumption of factory beef and SUV fuel, some poor people would find themselves with two basic choices: starve to death, or kill a rich man and butcher him out. In such circumstances, the government's stepping in to ensure that the poor can collect a weekly sack of cornmeal will be to the rich guy's advantage even if he is cranky about the increased cost of steak.

Is the Goodwin book you refer to _No Ordinary Time_?

By Christina (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think Sharon misunderstands how important markets are to figuring out where production resources are needed. Consider something else we all need: wire. Wire is necessary to just about everything for which energy also is needed. Without wire, people "can't get to work, can't keep warm or cool, can't buy food." Even a gas heater typically has a thermocouple. But how much wire do you need for your car? How much does your farmer need to raise his crops? How much for your laptop? How much for your cell phone? How much to make the clothes you wear? And if wire becomes more scarce, where is the most effective places to cut its use? And how much good would it do you if, because of that increased scarcity, you were to get a coupon for a certain amount of wire? Some, because you do use some directly. But how much would such rationing hurt the entire economy, by making everything from farming to energy production more difficult?

Too many progressives, discussing economics, act like they've never read the first thing about it. Rationing works very poorly to make "needed goods... available." In fact, the one thing rationing does well is the opposite: making scarce goods less available. Which served a purpose during WW II, allowing the government to divert much of the supply. It wasn't pretty and no one liked it. The last president to try it was Nixon. (Carter unfairly got blamed for the lines at gas stations, which were caused by the rationing and price system that Nixon put in place.)

Sharon is right, that tradable rationing would eliminate black markets. But it's also not rationing: it's the creation of an alternate currency, combined with a welfare payment. The conservatives would approve a "hard" currency, commodity backed. They would hate the welfare. What's not clear is why Sharon wants to make everyone participate in the commodities markets. I guarantee that those of us who are savvy and reasonably well positioned will trade our coupons for a better deal than those who are less capable of keeping up with the market and less well positioned. And most all of us would be better off just getting dollars directly, and leaving the energy trading to those involved in that business.

So here's the rational end-point of "tradable rationing": give everyone below a certain income threshold a $200/month energy stipend. Instead of having to keep up with the fluctuations of a commodity market, they can just spend it directly. You could pay with it by a carbon tax to limit fossil fuel use. And in between the taxed natural resource and the subsidized consumers, let the market do what it does well, figuring out how to price all the intermediate and end goods and services that depend on fossil fuels.

"State and local government imposed rationing of water has already occurred in the present and recent past in Australia"

To be clear: we did not have rationing here. We could use as much water as we liked. What they did was to impose regulations about how water could be used domestically in people's gardens - since in our hot climate, garden water use is a large part of the total. Thus, no watering of lawns at all, and watering of gardens only between 10pm and 8am on Wednesdays and Sundays for odd-numbered houses, no automatic watering systems, etc.

They combined this was advertising promoting short showers, use of greywater on gardens, and so on. Utilities offered a showerhead swap - bring in your old one, get a new one with a lower flow, for free - and get an egg timer to keep your showers to four minutes with it.

The target was to get water use under 155lt/day per person in each household. This is not a difficult target, we managed recently a total of 153lt/day for three of us, and one makes no attempt to conserve water at all. This 155lt/day per person target domestically has been met in my state, so the efforts were effective.

In other states, they had progressive pricing, so that for example the first 100lt/day would cost 10c, the second 100lt 20c, and so on. This is also very effective.

Advertising conservation and regulations seems to drop domestic water consumption about 25%, progressive pricing drops it another 25%. So without rationing we can halve our water use. I don't see why we couldn't do it for other resources.

Short of rationing, there are many things we can do which encourage conservation of resources, and these things have been shown to be effective in the past and around the world. Roughly-speaking, looking at our households, around half our water, electricity, natural gas and petrol use are purely wasteful and can be got rid of simply by making the effort.

I'm sure the same's true in agriculture and manufacturing, as well as the service industry.

Kiashu, I always tell people that -- to a rough approximation -- they can live greener by living cheaper. A smaller abode costs less money, and also has less embedded energy and is generally cheaper to light, heat, and cool. Keeping that old clunker running is generally both cheaper and less consuming of resources than buying a new car, even if the new car gets better gas mileage. Using less water keeps your water bill down. Walking or biking instead of driving lowers your gas and maintenance bills.

Of course, they don't always go hand-in-hand. There are plenty of exceptions. But it's very difficult to know the embedded energy and environmental impact of most consumer choices. Price is in your face. Frugality is easier to measure. And has its own advantages.

Good comments all.

One thing I'd speak to is the idea that Americans (US Americans) thought that the war would be relatively quick and that the Allies would be victorious is at best, very questionable.

Sure, the propaganda and cheer leading talked endlessly about victory, but from what I see, America was *deeply* scared that the war was going to go on for a LONG time and that Hitler was a real force to be dealt with, especially in the first three years of the conflict. Just looking at Rockwell's Freedom From Fear, you see the partial headline on the newspaper in the father's hand, you get the tremendous sense of doubt in both parents as to whether their precious kids are going to ever have a free and prosperous world to live in. America didn't yet know that it more than any other nation, was a powerhouse, capable of producing huge amounts of iron ore, gasoline, coal, and other natural resources needed for a victorious war effort. America didn't yet know that it eventually would win over the most capable and amazing nuclear physicists of the time and that it would triumph in developing doomsday nuclear weapons. America, up until the War finally started going better for the Allies in the later stages of the conflict, had many reasons to be scared, scared, scared that this war was going to be very long with a possibly very ugly outcome at the end (worse and uglier than WWII really was...which was pretty ugly and bad of course.)

By no means am I a World War historian, but even I can see that victory, despite all the rhetoric, was far from assured.

That said, I do think the war effort provided a far more tangible reason to engage US citizens' effort and involvement in rationing. We might eventually get there, but we're not there yet and I suspect the path going that way will be a road to hell.

I'm still on the fence as to rationing quite frankly as our government is even more corrupt and inept than it was 70 years ago and that, of course, applies to both sides of the isle as they say. Maybe that will change, but for now, I doubt it. I simply cannot see any of the present day politicians successfully implementing any kind of rationing system. A whole lot of personal and societal growth is going to have to happen and fast, before we get to where we need to be on something like this. It might happen as a way to deal with energy scarcity, but as for rationing carbon in any way, I think that's going to take 100 degree days in New York City in December before a significant number of Americans buy into that.

I do agree with Russell on Nixon's failed price controls on crude oil. Said controls on prices were the singular reason that we had long lines back then. Without those price controls, we did much better regarding gas lines during the more recent run ups in gas prices over the past few years, though of course, that is rationing that basically left poor people, especially rural poor people, out of jobs as they could no longer do the long commutes to their workplaces. Kudos to Russell for not pinning the blame on Carter as so many do regarding gas lines.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

"I think you will certainly be able, at some point, to make a compelling case for climate change and resource depletion being as big a threat as Hitler - in fact, I think that's a given."

I don't, because people like to PERSONALIZE conflict in order to get onto a "war footing" (a term so often used with climate change and peak oil). Black hats and white hats. How do you personalize what is (when all is said and done) Limits to Growth and tragedy of the commons? Tell people to look in the mirror? Should we offically sanction the "when you ride alone, you're riding with Bin Laden" poster that Bill Maher made?

This is how people think. This is how their fight or flight response works. This is what the right-wing understands. That's why people will scramble for scapegoats as their first impulse, just as they are doing with climate change (blaming the libs and the scientists for being in on some carbon tax cabal).

(BTW, funny thing about the persecution of scientists now going on by the right-wing. That was the plot of the original V miniseries, which analogized the march to fascism of WWII. Today the new V miniseries is nothing but anti-Obama propaganda. Sign of the times.)

When things get so bad that scapegoats won't work anymore, I doubt rationing will make any difference to people's quality of life because it will be, for all intents and purposes, game over. Many argue that it's already futile to mitigate climate change. I don't, but it's getting increasingly hard to stay optimistic about what we can still do to stop the runaway train enough to save enough lives to matter.

I know you spent a long time writing such a thorough essay, but it seems to be intended to see human nature in a more positive light than current evidence demonstrates. I hope to be proven wrong, but I'm not counting on it.

I know you spent a long time writing such a thorough essay, but it seems to be intended to see human nature in a more positive light than current evidence demonstrates. I hope to be proven wrong, but I'm not counting on it.

I too have been struggling lately to see humans in the positive light that I held to not too long ago. Sharon, and long time readers of her blog as well as readers I know from other forums such as the RunningOnEmpty2 newsgroup over at Yahoo will be perhaps surprised to hear me say this, but it's true. I'm very aware of the negative implications for "giving up and giving in" to such a negative worldview, but I have to say, surrounded as I am by so many people that still do not want to listen at all to any talk of scarcity, of making do with less, or of other, positive solutions for the tough times we face, it's very disturbing (and by no means am I even "pushing" much of the talk anymore. Rather, I am getting a fair amount of push back and abuse for merely walking the talk, so to speak.) Once I set foot out of the blogosphere, the world seems to be just trying to go on as it always has (and is starting to get burned pretty badly for it) and it's disheartening.

I'm still there trying, but damn, the iceberg's done been hit, the Titanic is sinking, the air and water is dark and cold, and the nearest land is many, many miles away.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think there are several problems with focusing heavily on the experience of WWII rationing... as others have pointed out, the war had both a clear enemy and (even if the end and duration was uncertain) the hope that it would be temporary. The other problem is that the society has to be ready for the sort of quasi-socialism that equitable rationing requires, and in the US the word 'socialist' has become synonymous with 'evil' and 'traitor' in many people minds.

I can't really speak for the US situation during the last war, but in the UK in the 40's there were tighter social bonds among communities, a stronger sense of nationalism, and a greater sense of common purpose than exists today in either the UK and the US. These days, the philosophy of libertarianism and individualism is (right or wrong) very prevalent in one form or another, accompanied by deep social divisions of the "us vs. them" nature. As the last comment thread highlighted, there are many Americans who will be quick to point out that some other group of Americans are not "American-enough", and I think that would quickly erode any sense of common purpose and make people suspicious that others are getting more than them.

Just to highlight this, here in the UK we have a great social safety net the covers welfare, housing, unemployment, and health. All of this came out of the sense of common purpose and community that existed after the war... many of the programs (such as the national health service) are extensions of programs that existed during the war to deal with civilian casualties and were expanded after. However, over the last 30 years successive governments have broken up the communities, increased the differences between rich and poor, and subjected us to a constant stream of messages telling us that hordes of scroungers and foreigners are milking the system to bleed us dry. The result is that the benefits system is being slowly dismantled - with popular approval! - after only 70 years, within the lifespan of the generation that founded it, for the benefit of the elite who do not need the system and who can profit by offering substitutes to those wealthy enough to afford it.

Considering that the UK is still even more community and neighbor oriented than the US, I can't see any hope of a system of rationing being established in the US given the current political climate and social viewpoint.

I think you have fallen into the classic left-right thinking trap here. You pit capitalist, nasty-brutish-and-short, price "rationing" against fair communal rationing. Thus you fail to see that you can have fair price rationing which provides for a more practical distribution.

Price rationing is rational and necessary and that is why black markets develop in command and control economies. For example if you are alloted 20 bars of soap but don't need them because you don't have smelly sweat requiring daily baths but instead need more socks because you have an odd gait and wear socks out more but are not alloted enough, then you go on the black market sell your surplus soap and buy the socks. Thus there is pricing. To try to suppress the pricing mechanism is pure folly and a repressive state act and hurtful to people trying to solve daily problems of living best they can.

The appropriate policy would be to allot rights to scarce commodities, but allow people to trade those rights. I you are less adamant about using that resource then by trading the rights to consume that portion of resource you could do without, you get a just compensation. Thus the pricing mechanism is intact and you get a fair distribution mechanism.

This price rationing works best with good and commodities that have embedded unearned wealth. And example of commodity with unearned wealth embedded is oil-- a big part of the wealth being derived not from the effort of combining resources, manpower and skill into producing but derived by extremely high demand relative to cost of production.
If you ration products with earned wealth then you have disincentive for people to apply their smarts to solve problems and thus end up with a distorted under achieving economy.

By Edward Ing (not verified) on 25 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think your title/question contains its own answer, in a sideways fashion.

If you look at current mainstream culture- you'll find "rationing" is simply unacceptable; period.

It will become acceptable, and palatable, when it is unavoidable; and not before.

Very sad, indeed, but I fear true, also. The forces struggling to maintain the illusion that "Beaver World" (as in leave it to) is genuine reality are simply the noisiest at the moment; and our "Journalists" have descended to being simply the reporters of the most noise.

So. Settle in for more Vapid Vampire Virgins on the tube, and wait. It'll all get bad enough, soon enough.


Edward Ing writes: "The appropriate policy would be to allot rights to scarce commodities, but allow people to trade those rights... This price rationing works best with good and commodities that have embedded unearned wealth."

If I understand correctly, you mean that instead of getting a pound of lentils per week, say, you'd get a coupon entitling you to purchase one pound, at whatever price your available merchant chose, and if you didn't like lentils, you would be free to swap it for someone's gas coupon. That seems like the best approach, and I think it has similarities to World War II rationing (though I'm not entirely sure their coupons were tradeable).

I can't think of a basic necessity that doesn't have embodied unearned wealth. JMG would say that they all do, because the production of all is dependent on the natural resources that in his terms constitute the "primary economy." The lentils are produced using topsoil, water (sometimes from aquifers), and usually mineral deposits and oil, all of which the BAU model uses extractively, reducing the remaining value of the soil, aquifers, etc.

Russell, I think part of the difficulty I have is that we're working from somewhat different premises. The first is one in which basically everyone can mostly get what they want and need, where growth can be counted upon, and where there's a reasonably ethical desire to reduce inequity. I don't necessarily believe we live in that society now, but we're a lot closer to it than we are likely to be in the coming decades. The second is one where a significant portion of the society simply isn't able to get what it needs - and that is an emerging reality right now, as food stamp usage and real hunger rise rapidly in the US.

Yes, rationing sucks compared to being able to get everything you want. It doesn't suck compared to not - and when enough people face that problem, rationing looks pretty good. If you don't like the example of the US, which indeed, never did actually face the food and good shortages (for the most part) that it implemented rationing to prevent, take a look at the history of British food and goods rationing which was vastly more stringent, went on a lot longer, and responded to real shortages - and was met by the British public by precisely the same responses that the American public had - they really liked rationing (not compared to no rationing, compared to the other possible realities).

It isn't that I've not read anything about economics, but I do tend to reject the basic underlying assumptions of economics, one of which tends to be that material limits don't matter deeply, that one can always finesse these by progressive (or non-progressive, depending on the kind of economist) incentives within a general free market economy. I think, for example, that you really have to rewrite history to imagine that America could have entered and succeeded in WWII by simply providing adequate incentives for market changes that converted the girdle manufacturers into uniform manufacturers and the car companies into bomber builders. In fact, almost all the assumptions of modern neoliberal economics rested heavily on a base of deeply state controlled economies during periods of crisis. And realistically, if we have a national level response to our ecological crisis, it will probably involve a degree of state control that troubles me too - but less than the death and destruction of the alternative.

Edward Ing, I think there's also a misunderstanding of how rationing worked in WWII - rationing didn't substitute for pricing in WWII, either - you still paid your butcher for your meat. There were price controls on the meat, but pricing was still involved. What rationing did was set absolute limits on how much actual meat could be bought. So far, our attempts to set limits wholly by price have failed pretty miserably, and resulted in dramatically increased inequity. So yes, price is absolutely involved in rationing, and can't be left entirely out of the equation - they are connected, but they aren't the same thing.


Oikoman, I think that there was plenty of scapegoating and us vs. them mentality during the years leading up to WWII and during WWII, and I don't buy the idea that we were more noble and better people then. It is true that extant community ties were stronger. It is also true that we were less critical of our own racism and propensity for nasty scapegoating in both countries. The two are different - but I'm not sure that the difference is as easily quantified as you claim. Again, my claim is not "we should implement rationing on Thursday" - that's silly. But what I do claim is that sooner or later, and probably sooner, we're going to face critical transitional moments that change our worldview - the US has had several of them in just the last decade - 9/11 and Katrina being the most significant ones. And in the aftermath of those transitional moments, a narrative will emerge - whether it be the "everyone go shopping, that's patriotism" narrative or "those people were just raping and killing anyway so it is probably good they drowned" crap, or if it is a more accurate and useful story about what's happening to our planet depends on how much work we do. Until the point that it does matter, what we do will seem, well, not to matter. But that's normal, and it shouldn't lead to despair.

But that's why you have these conversations now - because the maps for where we're going when the world changes need to be written.



I see several challenges today that rationing during WWII didn't face.

Where you discuss the role of women in WWII, the role was less about gender, back then, than having a non-industrial cultural background. Prior to WWII, most women were raised to know and understand primarily domestic roles - husbandry of resources, image management, discipline and courtesy in a patriarchal overall culture. What I consider to be an "industrial" mindset, on the other hand, manages time and resources in terms of effect on productivity. Thus the environmental activist boarding the plane is falling for the industrial-strength mantra "time is money". For the industrialist, money - production - is the yardstick that is used to measure every decision. Since WWII, marketing has imposed this definition of "value" on American consumers.

Rationing by any means reduces consumer demand. In WWII this wasn't an issue - almost all industry was involved in producing war material, so their market wasn't challenged, and so many men were enlisted for the war that job loss to reduced consumer demand was not an issue, either.

That isn't true today. Reducing demand today will reduce the number of jobs available, putting people - and, more publicly, labor union members - out of work.

Rationing today would not have the unified government, labor, and industry support that existed during those war years.

The Hoover reduction in consumption took place at a time when the media acted in concert, mostly, and were a fairly scarce resource. That isn't true today. The Hoover campaign faced little opportunity for dissent or discourse. Today bloggers, cable channels, and the plethora of radio stations provide channels for a number of interests, not all likely to admire the government line.

Because another cultural change since the 1960s is the loss of the iconic paternal nature of American culture. Whether accepting single motherhood or gay marriage, women's rights or racial equality, the image of the majestic father figure has been tempered. Just because the government says so, much of America will automatically doubt.

The other pillar your argument of rationing leans on that I question, is the one about fairness. Fairness depends on discipline and image management. Whether an infraction is noticed by the next door neighbor or a US Marshal, fairness means that infractions are dealt with quickly and effectively, and with due regard for circumstances. The highly reported double-dealings in Congress with the connivance of the President to get ObamaCare "passed" have besmirched any claim the "government" might have to being correct, or fair, or truthful, or honest. This administration, like others since the 1960s, isn't alone in that regard, but the publication of inept, manipulative, and self-serving dealings have changed the way Americans see their government - or believe that what the government does is necessarily right, necessary, or prudent.

And your rationing leans heavily on the government being able to accomplish, fairly, what previous administrations did.

As for rationing not being done today, look to the West. California has experienced "rolling blackouts" and "rolling brown outs" for years now. This is a deliberate pattern of turning off electricity to neighborhoods and communities for a few hours each day, to reduce the total state load. And this is precisely what "smart power", the proposed new line of "enabled" appliances and electrical systems, is intended to implement, industry or government chosen blackouts for you so that someone else isn't. "Smart Power" is being worked by Congress and the President now.

Most regions hear the radio public service announcements to "conserve electricty" at peak hours. Usually this is during the day when business and industry use peaks, and into the evening hours when people return from work and turn up the A/C to cook the house. This is a form of voluntary reduction in consumption, and introduces little cost or real inconvenience - and doesn't threaten union dues or jobs. Smart power is entirely about reducing electric shortages - without threatening any (union) jobs.

Smart Power, like the Hybrid car, is entirely about creating a perceived need - for consumers to go out and buy another new car, to keep union workers on the rolls. The energy that a hybrid car requires to make and transport to the dealer will take years to exceed the reduction in gasoline over the car it (supposedly) replaces. Plug in electric cars use electricity - requiring the continued construction of coal and oil fired power plants. I have a friend working on construction on a new coal plant today. What would really save energy would be to refit existing vehicles and engines, but that doesn't enrich labor unions, car companies, or political campaign funds.

And I agree with Prometheus - rationing does provide unlimited opportunity for corruption. Unlike previous generations, I think the perception of our government being self-serving and corrupt will outweigh any trust of fairness in any rationing plan. Barry Goldwater commented once that "you cannot legislate morality", and I question the moral integrity of our government. I think rationing would face serious ethical and legal challenges if imposed by our current government.

It's virtually certain that there would -- and will -- be plenty of loud protesting and demagogoguery, but there are also plenty of examples of quiet changes that are happening now. This argument, for one; we're discussing the subject. The Riot for Austerity. The buy nothing days that various organizations have been arguing for for years, the popularity of Al Gore ... etc. Canning and gardening have seen a massive increase in the last year, and you can find articles about that in newspapers and television news reports across the country.
I have a good friend who has told me numerous times that A. corporations are too big and powerful for ordinary people to win against them with small everyday acts and B. She's going to make radical changes in her life when she is forced to and not before. Oh, and C, while I may choose to spend my free time cooking, preserving, grinding wheat, etc., that is not what she wants to do with her own time.
In the last 10 years, this same woman has moved within walking distance of her work, learned to garden and now grows a gorgeous annual summer vegetable garden that produces most of their summer food, begun trading excess produce with her neighbors, planted strawberries and raspberries that produce a huge crop every year, learned to cook and taken up cooking most of their meals, started packing her lunch every day, joined a CSA and this summer, she's learning to can. She is one of three friends who all decided this summer to learn to can. A fourth friend took it up last year. None of these actions have changed any of her opinions; she's just doing what makes sense to her. I doubt she's the sole example of a person performing this type of quiet, effective action.

"Free markets make for a better rationing device than any political solution.
Posted by: Craig | August 25, 2010 11:05 AM"

Best humor today! Fabulous laugh; many thanks.

I can be virtuous like NM's (#38) friend, and I do try to be, but legislation providing economic incentives are much more important than volunteer saints. In my backward country (U.S.) we cannot even manage to tax gas to make the price reflect the true total costs of burning it and using the roads, which I had predicted we would see the wisdom of by about 1977. No such thing has happened. We instead try to legislate what fleet gas efficiency should be. It has lead to tragic infrastructure and land-use patterns. Lets get the simple stuff right first.

I was not trying to say my friend is a saint. I was pointing out that actions and rhetoric do not always match, in support of Sharon's argument that rationing could very easily become considered acceptable and normal, given the right set of circumstances and support. Somehow we tend to forget that circumstances are constantly changing; we seem to think that what is happening now, or has been happening consistently for a decade or two, represent how things will always be. But circumstances change radically all the time, and our attitudes with them.

rationing for a war, where everyone in the country has a shared interest in defeating a common enemy and the time period is at most a few years, is a far cry from what is being proposed here. One can try to stretch the analogy to environmental preservation, but a) the time scale is essentially infinite, spanning multiple generations, b) the common interest is less clearly defined and c) the consumption of resources necessarily involves conflicting interests. While it may not seem "fair" that a market rations resources based upon economic power, any other alternative will by definition ration resources based upon political power. Economic power is fragmented and dispersed, while political power concentrated in those few who can actually influence policy outcomes. Even the lowest income person in a rich country like the US can exercise a degree of economic power, while the political power of individuals is essentially nil. Only those who act on behalf of interest groups are able to exercise any significant degree of political power. So this scheme will fail as unavoidable result of any political scheme to allocate resources will involve a rush by special interests to make sure they get more than their fair share of the pie (just look at the corn-ethanol boondoggle for an example of this). I would suggest the authors read up on Public Choice to understand the underlying fallacy behind these proposals which is that we can find these selfless and farsighted policy makers to make impartial decisions based solely on science for the common good. Real politics does not operate this way, it never has and likely never will.

Dewey wrote:

If I understand correctly, you [Edward Ing] mean that instead of getting a pound of lentils per week, say, you'd get a coupon entitling you to purchase one pound, at whatever price your available merchant chose, and if you didn't like lentils, you would be free to swap it for someone's gas coupon. That seems like the best approach, and I think it has similarities to World War II rationing (though I'm not entirely sure their coupons were tradeable).

Well I don't think it is practical to have coupons for lentils and trade them. I was thinking more about fossil fuels. And the scheme I am thinking about has a little less thinking involved. It is this one cap-and-dividend ( Embbeded in the price of the lentils would be the scarcity value which would be rationed. It is simple to understand if I had the graphs for you.

By Edward Ing (not verified) on 25 Aug 2010 #permalink

I'm in on this late, and have enjoyed reading the original essay and the comments. Generally I think in line with Sharon and those who think it's a good time to discuss the possibility of and pros for rationing. But there is another problem no one touched on that seems to be more intractable than during WWII: consumer cheating. Given that identity theft is such a serious problem today, given that I've heard that copying currency and credit cards isn't beyond the reach of someone with the ability to get hold of certain technology, how can we set up a rationing system that opportunists won't be able to jimmy for their benefit? They will certainly have the motive to do so if things get that bad. I'm not saying this issue is enough to justify not considering rationing, but it is enough to think deeply on how to do it, or if it is in fact possible.


What you mention, cheating, did happen during WWII. One of the legacies of that era is the "nosy neighbor", often found in some families and neighborhoods but missing in others.

If we could assume a uniform level of trust and civil courtesy, then ration cheating would be obvious to neighbors, and dealt with quietly but firmly - or reported. This presumes, of course, there is no organized crime, gangs, corrupt officials, etc. to tilt a playing field to someone else's advantage.

@ Sharon,

When you rely on a beneficent and honorable government to implement rationing, it seems that the first and most pressing action needed is to replace the current government with one that is respectful, honest, and honorable - and will preserve our national security.

Edward Ing - Fossil fuel rationing does sound like it would be a good way to implement an Oil Depletion Protocol. At least in the other thread, we seem to have been talking more about rationing directly necessary commodities (i.e., food) to prevent or respond to shortages. Russell makes a case that in that situation, it would be wiser just to re-establish a welfare system and give grocery money to poor folks. But if the goal is to force the whole population to reduce their fuel consumption methodically (rather than catastrophically down the road), that will not do at all.

Notice that we fought in Korea, and Viet Nam, and have two current wars going, but no sign of rationing. There is no comparison of the country's mood during WWII and the mood during any of the later wars. We lived on a ranch with a smokehouse full of meat, no noisy neighbors, and still did Meatless Tuesdays for the war effort. I can't picture anything like that happening today.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Aug 2010 #permalink

There's another side of rationing, especially for the current rich; it can make social competition less onerous. That is, if it's part of your job to be as well-dressed as all your competitors, you currently have to spend a lot of time and money shopping, because you all have two closets of clothes each. If you are all on the same ration, you can sort yourselves just as well by taste and tidiness, but you all spend less time and money on the clothes; the baseline has shifted.

It's also true that if you get promoted on your clothes, it's a big incentive to cheat, and an incentive for others to claim you cheated.

We don't have an energy crisis: we have a consumption crisis.
Overconsumption is obvious in everything, including food, and the overconsumption is what is causing the overhead costs of wars and government debt.
The solution is to moderate the consumption with a sales tax and get rid of all of the other programs which simply shuffle budgets around.
Http:// and double it and double the prebate to make it even more progressive. The failure mode would be for people to stop buying retail, the government would go bankrupt, and local systems would prevail (whether black market or not).
A sales tax is a lot less regressive than a dead planet full of sick people.

By Auntiegrav (not verified) on 28 Aug 2010 #permalink

I've got to wholeheartedly agree with Steve above. Public choice theory applies the principles of economics to politics and governing. It basically come up with the notion that the politically powerful (people who are "connected" and special interests) will always game the system to their advantage (or the advantage of the groups they represent). Just look at the recent government bailouts.

Most schemes, such as rationing, implicitly assume that some benevolent dictator sets up the scheme and runs it. Doesn't happen that way. Look at how Congress operates. Almost all of the people elected to represent "our" interests get bought out and wind up representing the interests of the people who provide them with money.

Schemes like rationing and self-restraint (use less water--we're running out) will operate over the short run depending on how strong and well-perceived the emergency is: for example in a fierce war, or when a community doesn't even have the water in its system to fight house fires (I've seen that one!). But even then you will have "free riders" - people gaming the system to their advantage. As the time drags on, more and more people will revert to their normal levels of behavior.

Only when strong economic incentives are in place - higher prices - will we see permanent changes in behavior.