Rationing of energy, water, food, medical care, and many other goods and services happens every day, usually through adjustments in the prices of resources and goods. But such rationing by ability-to-pay can have results that are, in the words of eminent economist Amartya Sen, “thoroughly unequal and nasty.” And the gap between the world’s haves and have-nots could grow even nastier if overall resource consumption is curtailed to protect the Earth’s ecosystems and conserve for the future. If we manage to keep the human economy within necessary ecological boundaries, we will have to do so in a way that ensures fair shares of essential goods for all. And doing that will require us to devise new forms of rationing.
Fair-shares rationing is not just a quaint practice restricted to World War II memoirs and tales of gas-station lines in the 1970s—even though those experiences hold valuable lessons. We see examples of non-price rationing all around us and around the world: water rationing from Denver to Mumbai; gasoline rationing in the wake of superstorm Sandy; rationing of subsidized food in Egypt, Iraq, Cuba, India, and even the United States; and the most controversial rationing of all—that of medical care. There is much to be learned from present-day attempts to share fairly as we consider the possibility of rationing greenhouse emissions and fossil fuels in the not-too-distant future.
What we need in the long term is a transformation of the world economy, one that shifts power from the now-dominant “one percent” to the ninety-nine percent who actually produce the world’s wealth. But meanwhile, ecological crises are bearing down on us. We have to become a society that puts the brakes on consumption and does it in an egalitarian way. In fact, by embracing the right kind of rationing, we might even discover a happier, better-fed, healthier, more comfortable, and more secure world than the one we inhabit today.
Any Way You Slice It is the first book to attempt such a broad examination of rationing as it happens in the real world, without the impediments of unrealistic economic assumptions or narrow political agendas. There are excellent histories of wartime rationing and books that advocate specific systems of rationing carbon emissions or medical care. But as the subtitle of this book indicates, it goes much farther, asking what we can learn from our rationing experience in the past and present in order to ensure a fairer future.