Happy(?) Earth Day

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April 21, 2013 by losingourcool

It’s a mild April afternoon in the year 2020—time for an Earth Day cookout. You clean the grill and take the gas cylinder to the store for a refill. You swipe a credit card as usual to pay for the propane, but then you swipe a second time, with your ration card.

Ration card? They belong in 1943, not the 2000s, right? Well, don’t be too sure. On any given news day, you can hear pundits and politicians argue that if we attempt to curb greenhouse emissions, provide universal health care, or take other steps toward conservation and fairness, rationing will indeed be our fate. And they might just be right.

But while the prospect of rationing is anything but appealing, many of us see much worse fates looming: a climate gone haywire maybe, or wholesale extinctions, or deadly pandemics. And those of us calling for bold action to stave off such catastrophes should drop the euphemisms and admit that our adversaries are talking sense, if only on this point: the future we want could well entail rationing.

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 To be more precise, we’ll see new forms of rationing. Today, with the widening wealth gap, we parcel out goods in a terribly unfair way. Some of us are not even aware that anything’s wrong, while others see their consumption harshly limited by privation. It’s very true that fairer, explicit forms of rationing would not fit into today’s economy. But they just might be essential if we are someday to enjoy the kind of ecologically robust society that is envisioned in Earth Day celebrations.

That’s because creating such a society will mean cutting back deeply on our exploitation of fossil fuels and other resources. If we don’t do that, there’s an ecological cliff waiting for us not far ahead.

Strong limits on resource consumption are required to pull us back within the safe zone, but that would be very likely to send prices of basic necessities sailing out of the reach of most families. Inflation controls would become essential, but that would unleash demand, which would outstrip the fixed supply. The result—as experiences of the 1970s, for example, have taught us—would be critical shortages, long lines, and social conflict.

Therefore, any serious ceiling on total resource consumption will bring on the need for fair-shares rationing. Green-gadget sellers don’t want to accept that. But hard experience, in peacetime as well as wartime, shows that our economy generates new resource-consuming technologies at a much faster rate than it does resource-conserving ones, while campaigns for voluntary restraint inevitably fizzle in the face of the economy’s built-in drive to expand and our vast rich-poor gap. In contrast, clearly defined resource limits backed up by rationing have proven to inspire a sense of common purpose and cooperation.

To repeat, the question is how, not whether, to ration. Wherever there’s water scarcity, there’s rationing. Food rations are consumed every day around the world. The r-word comes up most often in the heath care debate, with adversaries tossing it around as an all-purpose scare tactic while ignoring the often cruel rationing that already pervades American medicine.

Among the many ideas for ensuring that economies conform to ecological reality, the boldest have featured rationing of greenhouse emissions. Since the 1990s, for example, activists and academics in the United Kingdom, and even some members of Parliament, have been advocating mandatory carbon rationing. Under such plans, each adult Briton would receive, free, an equal share of emissions credits each month. Then every fuel purchase or payment of a utility bill would require a debit from the household “carbon account.” At the gas pump, for example, this might mean swiping a ration card in the same way a customer would use a “loyalty card” today.

Eventually, though, circumstances may require more comprehensive systems, such as rationing of all goods and services (pdf, p. 39) based on their full ecological footprints. There’s even the idea of general, or expenditure, rationing—first conceived by World War II-era economists but never put into practice—which would place a monthly ceiling on how much money each household can spend.

I am fully aware that such suggestions may appear alien, politically toxic, even absurd in the context of today’s economy. But historically, people facing grave challenges often have preferred clear-cut, equitable limits on personal consumption to all-against-all strife.

So I’m betting that the ecological ration card would be broadly accepted as a simple fact of life in any future society that manages to achieve economic democracy while averting ecological crisis. As for how we can become such a society, well, that’s going to be the hard part.

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