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Rationing Is Not the Enemy

Scarcity thinker Stan Cox on the inevitability of everyone having to make do with less everything.

by Michael Arria
Apr 14 2013, 8:00pm

Stan Cox is not a gentleman who selects the easy way out. He had his work cut out for him when he wrote a book criticizing air-conditioning, perceived as a God-given right by most Americans. Last year, I interviewed him about that book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding Ways to Get Through the Summer), and he told me, “There are many other adjustments that need to be made in our overall consumption patterns, and indoor climate will have to be part of that larger transition. Eventually, we will have to set firm overall limits on total, society-wide resource consumption and ecological damage, and then decide collectively how to ensure that we all have access to our fair share, given those limits. That’s why the book I’m working on now will be about the past, present, and future of rationing.”

And here we are. Cox’s aforementioned title, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, is about to hit bookstores and, once again, I got in touch with him to talk about poking at, yet another, third-rail of American environmental discourse.

Motherboard: We were emailing prior to this and you said the interview, "Will not be the usual stuff you see on Earth Day." What has Earth Day become, in your estimation, and what should it be about instead?

Stan Cox: There's the corporate Earth Day—an occasion for greenwashing and conspicuous green consumption. There's the anticorporate Earth Day, when we blame all of the planet's ills on greedy companies and the politicians who serve them. And there's what might be called our personal Earth Day—a day for recycling, bicycling, and celebrating individual practices and lifestyles that are supposed to 'save the Earth.'

Nothing good comes out of the corporate Earth Day. The other two are fine as far as they go, but they take us on a detour away from the growth-dependent economic system that's at the root of the global ecological crisis. Nothing of substance is being done about climate disruption, mass extinction, landscape destruction, ecosystem breakdown, or our grossly distorted distribution of material resources. That's because effective action would mean a wholesale economic transformation, one that would be wholly unacceptable to today's business leaders, politicians, and economists.  

The new book is on rationing. People hear that word and they tend to think horrible things; the Khmer Rouge measuring out rice or whatever. You provide an alternative history, what are some alternative, positive examples of rationing?

It's interesting to look at those times in the twentieth-century when America had to decide whether or not to ration. The U.S. government's response to serious scarcities of fuels and food during World War I was to rely solely on campaigns for voluntary restraint. The results were shortages, inflation, and social unrest. An increasingly worried Wilson administration had finally started leaning toward rationing in 1918 when the war ended sooner than they'd expected.

Similar problems arose in the first year of U.S. involvement in World War II, as the government eased very slowly into rationing mode. There was broad popular demand for stricter, more comprehensive price controls and rationing, and in 1943-45, the Roosevelt administration responded accordingly. The results were almost immediate, as prices held firm and shortages eased. The British people lived with rationing much longer, from 1939 into the mid-fifties. Studies showed an impressive improvement in their overall nutrition during those years.

During the 1973-74 oil embargo and after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States faced a severe petroleum shortage. There were long lines, and frequent chaos, at gas stations across the country. The media worried about "civilizational breakdown." In response, there was a clamor within and outside government, on the left and the right, for rationing. Even conservative columnist George F. Will wrote that “there are, as yet, no gas lines nationwide. If there ever are, the nation may reasonably prefer rationing by coupon, with all its untidiness and irrationality, to the wear and tear involved in rationing by inconvenience.”

Indeed, the Nixon administration had gas ration coupons printed in 1974, and in 1980, at the Carter administration's urging, Congress passed a standby gas rationing plan that would have put those stamps to use. But the flow of oil from the Middle East and Alaska picked up, and rationing never went into effect.

Finally, note that water rationing, by either time restrictions or quantity, happens around the United States and the world wherever there are shortages, and that consumers buy subsidized food rations in many countries every day. People much prefer such arrangements to an all-against-all resource scramble.

So, let's talk logistics. If the topic is so controversial, what are some strategies regarding how to inject it into the national conversation?

Before talking about rationing, there is, I believe, a much tougher conversation that has to happen, the one about the necessity of cutting back deeply on our exploitation of fossil fuels and other resources. That will be the hardest idea to accept. If that cutback is achieved, though, prices of many basic necessities will jump beyond the reach of most families, creating the need for price controls.

I'll go so far as to predict that the ration card will be tolerated, even welcomed

But with prices excused from their demand-dampening duties, there would not be enough goods to meet the demand. As in the 1970s, we would see shortages, long lines, and social conflict. At that point, fair-shares rationing would be widely seen as necessary. In the past, it was the shortages themselves that were seen as the problem, while rationing was regarded as simply an equitable way to deal with them.

But when shortages are created by an intentional policy of leaving available resources in the earth, it will soon become apparent that we cannot maintain this hypercharged way of life without them, and there will be constant pressure to give in, reverse the policy, and consume them. Hard experience, in peacetime as well as wartime, shows that efficiency, alternative energy, and technical innovation can't fill the resource gap, while campaigns for voluntary restraint are unfair and eventually fizzle in the face of the economy's urge to expand.

So there will be the strong temptation to ditch our green aspirations. But if we resist that temptation, rationing will serve as a positive adaptation to a new reality. Clearly defined resource limits backed up by rationing tend to inspire a sense of common purpose.

Let's talk about something specific: water. How do you see the struggle for it playing out within the context of a global environmental crisis?

World water expert Maude Barlow has written, "The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will." Of the commodities I write about in my book—energy, water, food, and medical care—the least complicated one to share equitably in times of scarcity is water. If we can't manage water, we'll probably never agree on how to handle the others.

But it's still not easy. Human freshwater use is heavily dominated by agriculture, and that use will continue to be necessary to keep food production adequate. Industry uses a lot too. That leaves a finite quantity to be divided up for residential use. To economists, the most efficient allocation of water is accomplished through so-called marginal cost pricing, in which the highest price is charged for the first gallon consumed and lower prices are charged as consumption rises. That of course hurts poorer households and encourages overconsumption by more affluent ones.

The better systems recognize a universal right to water, providing a free monthly allowance to all households and charging steeply rising prices as consumption increases above that amount. High-end consumers subsidize the universal free water allowance.   

The European Declaration for a new Water Culture, signed in Madrid in 2005 by more than one hundred European experts, put different classes of water resources into order of priority: (1) “water for life,” not just for drinking but for sustaining healthy ecosystems; (2) “water for general interest purposes,” such as preserving public health, social cohesion, and equity; and “water for economic growth.” The first two categories are included in most conceptions of the “right to water,” so they have to be protected from markets. In other words, they must be rationed. 

Your last book was about the dangers of air-conditioning, which most Americans pump without thinking twice. This book is about rationing, and it often seems an embrace of overabundance is woven into our culture. I generally hate when people ask this question, but I have to ask: what keeps you optimistic in the face of such a daunting reality?

Although I've gotten my share of hate mail over my position on air-conditioning—including, inevitably, messages that declare "you can have my AC when you pry it from my cold, dead hands"—I've been pleasantly surprised at the large numbers of people who agree with me that many technologies, not only air-conditioning, send us into downward spirals with regard to the health of both our species and our planet.

As for rationing, it has a long history of being accepted by the general population while remaining anathema to the economically powerful. Today, politicians, pundits, and think-tanks who oppose climate legislation, fear universal health care, and in fact oppose any restraints at all on big business, are constantly raising the specter of rationing. If, they argue, we try to create a fairer, more ecologically sound society, then rationing will be our dismal fate.

If you ask those folks what's the worst that could happen to us in coming decades, many would say rationing. I wrote this book in part to test that idea, to ask, if that's really our worst possible fate, how bad might it really be? It certainly wouldn't be as bad as they imply, and not nearly as bad as the actual worst things that could happen if we don't restrain ourselves—things like a global climate gone haywire, continent-wide famines, or wholesale extinctions, or deadly pandemics.

I'll go so far as to predict that the ration card will be tolerated, even welcomed, in the future if we can manage to achieve economic democracy while averting ecological crisis. As for how to become such a society … that's going to be the hard part.