Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rationing ... to save the planet?

In case you missed it, there's a lively, yet respectful, debate going on between George Monbiot and Sharon Astyk. Basically, they agree on most of the facts regarding climate change, yet disagree on the solution. Mr. Monbiot argues that a massive, immediate, renewable energy buildout is the only way to save us, although he seems a little doubtful that it's possible and/or will result in the proper outcome. Sharon advocates a radical, immediate 50% reduction in energy usage and consumption, while also investing in aspects of the economy vital to our well-being, such as health care and education.

Sharon highlights rationing as an example of ways that people can be convinced to immediately reduce climate emissions. (Interestingly, Matt Simmons has also suggested gasoline rationing as a sensible solution, at least in case of emergencies.) Since American society has not experienced widespread rationing since World War II, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what rationing is actually like.

In 1942, the United States Food Rationing Program began. The Office of Price Administration froze prices on a wide set of goods, and each family was issued a "War Ration Book" to regulate items made scarce by the war. Items such as sugar, meat, butter, processed foods, fats, and oils were rationed, as well as clothing, shoes, gasoline, coffee, and tires, and other items.

Different items were rationed in different ways. Some items were distributed equally (sugar), some were distributed according to need (gasoline), others were sold only after demonstrated need (tires, cars).

Stickers were issued which regulated how much fuel you could purchase in any week. Half of all cars (designated "A") were only allowed 4 gallons of fuel per week and could not be driven for pleasure at all. "Essential" workers could be given up to 8 gallons, and truckers had an unlimited fuel supply. The speed limit - the Victory Speed - was set at 35 mph. Carpooling was encouraged.

The government encouraged compliance without complaint, and an effective propaganda program was launched that promoted patriotism, sacrifice for the greater good, and helping the men and women overseas. Propaganda, which included ads, radio programs and pamphlets, and educational programs which taught housewives how to plan meals within the rationing limits, were very effective. My favorite propaganda posters emphasize the importance of the homefront war effort. Victory Gardens eventually (reportedly) grew almost 40% of the nation's produce, and housewives preserved much of the harvest. Still, a black market evolved over time which supplied rationed items illegally, at a higher price.

In the United Kingdom, rationing during the two World Wars appears to have been stricter, as most of their food was imported, and one of Germany's main strategies was to starve Britain into submission. So food was limited - for example, a person in the UK could receive one egg, one ounce of cheese, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of ham, and two ounces of butter, per WEEK, along with other, non-rationed goods . Rationing in the UK also lasted longer. While America's rationing program ended in 1946, Britain's became even stricter after WWII ended, and Britain's program did not end until 1953 (sugar) and 1954 (meat).

With some exceptions, rationing during the wars appeared successful, although in Britain, it was very austere. There were real restrictions on the availability of goods - so the rationing and price controls ensured at least an appearance of fairness, and a basic diet for everyone. There was a black market, and certain people had "exceptions" (such as Congressmen), and there were ways for the rich to get around restrictions (for example, restaurant meals in Britain were not rationed). But on the whole, it worked.

So... back to our topic - climate change, and how best to save the planet. Help me think this out by commenting on my questions below:

Would a rationing system be a fair way to quickly reduce our carbon emissions?

Would a rationing system work unless there were real restrictions on the supply of goods?

Would a rationing system work in a country where a sizeable part of the population still does not "believe" in global warming?

What items should be rationed, and how could they be rationed? Gasoline? Cars? Food? Consumer goods?

Would you accept rationing? What would you NOT accept rationing for? Is there anything you would go to the black market for?

Would Americans comply with a rationing program for the good of everyone, the planet, as well as for themselves? If not, how could could they be persuaded?

If you don't think any kind of rationing would be accepted, what's your best alternative to cut emissions by 50% in the next 5 years?

Whew! Thanks in advance for your comments!


Theresa said...

Wow, huge topic! There are a lot of nuanced arguments that could be made, but in general I think that rationing would work if it could be broadly instituted/enforced. I don't think most people would buy in to the idea until there was an imminent threat to their well-being though. Climate change isn't seen as 'imminent' enough by the culture at large (at least not yet) to be compelling enough to encourage compliance with rationing.

In terms of what should be rationed, I think it would make sense to strictly ration those things that are laden with carbon emissions, either in their substance or process. Less carbon intensive things could be rationed less strictly.

I would accept rationing, as long as it was fair and applied to everyone equally. Exceptions would have to be rare, and for good reason. Politicians, etc., would have to be subject to the same constraints and limitations as everyone else.

As to the black market, there's no way of stopping it, but I would try and refrain from delving into that. I don't want to support a system that helps other people get around the rules. That being said, I have never had to deal with the serious lack of anything before, so I really don't know what I would do if I or my family got really hungry or really cold, or really sick.

I do tend to agree more with Sharon than George in this whole thing. I'm pretty sure we're past the point where we can afford a massive renewables build out. And I just agree more with the whole philosophy of moderation and restraint, rather than trying to build/buy our way out of something, again.

Chile said...

So, would I have to resell my meat and butter on the black market? ;-)

I have reservations about whether rationing would work in today's US society. We are an entirely different nation than we were during WW II. The country is now full of self-centered people who think they are entitled to anything and everything they want. (I'm generalizing, of course.)

Heck, people can't even wait to communicate with others - they have to be texting every minute of the day! And look at the huge number of lawsuits. Many are frivolous and really about somebody not getting their way or wanting to get something for free rather than about justice.

Rationing during the war was seen as helping the noble war effort. Just getting everyone to accept that energy resources are limited and climate change is happening has proven difficult. Asking them to ration to combat this? IMHO, it's not gonna happen unless dictated by government and then heavily enforced by armed personnel.

Don't mean to be pessimistic, but I think a lot of folks over-estimate the general public and their willingness to do any self-sacrifice at all. It's very easy to read blogs of like-minded people, go to meetings with others who care, and begin to think everyone would really want to better the world. Truth is, there are lots of people out there who either don't give a rat's patootie about anyone/anything but themselves, don't believe any of it, or think it's all a liberal lie. Even more scary, there are some that want it to happen because it's "God's will".

Hausfrau said...

Chile - Actually, they had provisions for vegetarians! Vegs (not vegans) got cheese and eggs in return for their meat. Not sure what vegans got :).

I think people might be able to accept gasoline rationing, if nothing else. Maybe if there were decent public transport?? But I'm not totally convinced.

I also tend to be pessimistic about the public, but they have also not been hit with a good persuasion campaign.

Maybe Congress could pass a gas tax while gas is still cheap....

Lewru said...

At this point I think rationing would be a fast way to start a civil war. People don't get it yet. I think the idea of charging corporations to pollute, sort of like pollution rationing, is a better idea. For now.
So while I think rationing would be a good thing for us to do, I don't think it would work given our present social mindset of denial.

Theresa said...

I like the carbon-tax way of rationing too. The way things are now, those that can afford to buy in 'bulk' get a cheaper rate for fuels - this is the opposite of what we need. I would like to see a system where everyone pays an affordable flat rate for a limited amount of fuel, and then there is an upwardly scaling carbon tax on anything over that. I think this could work for electricity, home heating, and water too. At least in my idealistic mind it could.

MeadowLark said...

Too many questions for my brain housing group, but I'd probably go to the black market for stuff. Gin and chapstick comes to mind. Yeah. I'm bad that way.

Anonymous said...

agree with meadowlark. being "off the grid" the blackmarket would most likley be the only way we could get goods as I am sure that a persons SS# would be the way that the rationers would keep track of things. While I see Theresa's point I am also glad to see that she can see a situation where one might need to "get around the rules" to take care of family.

Having said all of that I don't believe that the US population would deal well with rationing. I just think about how people act when they think that they are not going to get the HOT item for the holidays. Can you imagine how they would react if that item was fuel or food.

Wendy said...

If the item in question is subsidized or otherwise supported by tax dollars given to the government, then, yes, I believe it should be subject to rationing.

However, if the product or service is NOT produced using government funding, then I believe it should NOT be rationed. As such, any items grown or produced in my local community by private individuals should be available to anyone who can pay the price being asked in as large a quantity as they can afford.

I guess I'm a little more optimistic. I think rationing on a national level would create healthier local economies as we would have to start looking to each other to meet our needs. And while people may not like it at first, I think rationing would open up a whole market for entrepreneurs. Maybe we can't get "chapstick", except on the black market, but if I have bees in my backyard, I can make my own herbal lip balm using beeswax and some organic herbs from my garden.

And as for gin, there are "legal" local options for that, too. I just don't believe it has to be "do without or get it on the black market." I believe in the entrepreneurial spirit.

Jen said...

I would be perfectly okay with rationing, but I am used to living on very little. I also grow a lot of our food on our lot and believe wholeheartedly in sustainability and living simple. So does my husband (luckily for me).

Of course, I'm also for 2 years mandatory service in a field of your choice - military, peace corps, hospitals, non-profits, whatever. I did my six years of service, and it taught me so much. :)