Letter from 2071: Life after the exit ramp

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July 29, 2013 by losingourcool

A recurring feature in the journal Solutions is a message from the future, describing how we managed our way through the fearsome crises that lie between now and that future time.

For the July issue, I provided a message from the year 2071 that, I hope, helps answer a question I am often asked: “Why will we need rationing in the future, and how will it all come about?”


An epochal change came with the 2024 Common Resources Treaty, signed and ratified by 227 nations. It imposed ironclad barrel-and-ton ceilings on the global extraction of fossil fuels and other minerals. Specific extraction, import, and export ceilings were adjusted to accord with each country’s domestic endowment of resources, taking into account per-capita requirements for a good quality of life. An impermeable ceiling with no offsets or other escape hatches meant that the usual high volumes of production, consumption, and wealth generation were no longer possible in wealthier nations, while a solid floor made possible a better life for resource-poor populations …

… At first, rationing was restricted to energy and carbon emissions. As a model for how to proceed, governments dusted off several turn-of-the-century British proposals that had never been passed into law. As eventually adopted, the various post-2024 ration systems set strict national carbon-emissions ceilings that were lowered year by year. Every purchase of energy was then accompanied by a transfer of the appropriate number of ration credits, with each credit corresponding to the quantity of carbon dioxide (or equivalent in other gases) expected to be emitted in generating the energy. Utilities and other businesses and governments bought their credits, while individuals received free quotas of credits, which were deposited monthly into their personal “carbon accounts.”

By the mid-30s, with these systems in place, human-caused climate impact was already declining steadily. But as producers and consumers became more carbon-efficient, and as they spent less on energy, they spent more on other goods and services, stimulating production that often resulted in ecological damage extending well beyond greenhouse emissions. A new strategy was needed, and it employed the concept of an “ecological footprint,” which had by that time been under examination and refinement for several decades. It had finally become feasible to assign a fairly realistic footprint value to every good and service in the economy, not just to fuels and energy sources. An item’s footprint value encompassed not just the greenhouse emissions generated during production but all of its impacts on soil, water, biodiversity, and even whole ecosystems.

So in fairly short order, in country after country, producers’ and consumers’ carbon accounts were replaced with eco-accounts. Everyone now received a fair monthly allotment of eco-points, and every good and service was assigned a point value. Like World War II-era grocery shoppers deciding whether to spend their meat points on a small piece of steak or a larger quantity of hamburger, consumers quickly became accustomed to a ration system that became the foundation of the one we still use today. Often, the eco-point value, not the cash price, became the dominant factor in consumers’ decisions on whether to buy and what to buy. And in yet another wartime parallel, non-essential products with too-heavy footprints were excluded from the economy altogether.

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