Could Rationing Be Made Palatable?

Sharon June 15th, 2007

Could a system of energy rationing, or even rationing of high energy goods and foods work in the US? The conventional answer is that it is politically impossible to even consider it, and that the public would never go along with it. But a closer look at the history of rationing during the second World War suggests that it might not be so unthinkable, and that in fact, rationing has historically been viewed as highly positive, pro-democratic and good public policy by the general populace. Now there are obvious historical differences between now and the past, but the framing of rationing may be more important than the exact historical context – in World War II, for example, where few real risks of famine or severe shortage existed, rationing was quite popular. Now, facing actual shortages and potential crisis, rationing is probably not as hard to sell as many people believe.

This is important because there are a number of public policy initiatives that include rationing plans. Among the most important are Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Protocol, discussed in Heinberg’s book of the same title and George Monbiot’s proposal for carbon credit cards described in _Heat_. These are excellent and highly rational programs that create just responses to difficult issues, and they deserve to be given more attention than they have. I believe that in part, they have been underestimated because of the assumption that rationing is politically infeasible.

Formal rationing, whether voluntary or mandatory, is preferable to traditional capitalist rationing by price or taxation models. For genuinely scarce items for which everyone has a basic need, rationing is really the only just system. Energy, food, water and many basic consumer goods (shoes, energy lowering infrastructure adaptations, basic clothing) fall in the category of things that should not be rationed by price if they come up short. Otherwise, we risk doing irrevocable harm to the poor and those who are disproportionately unable to handle service disruptions – the elderly, the disabled and children. Rationing by price also penalizes those who already use the least energy in many cases, rather than those who use the most, and thus is less effective than formal rationing at reducing usage. It also creates strong social unrest and internal conflict, including violent conflict, at times when unity and engagement are most necessary. In short, rationing just plain makes sense.

It is also worth noting that rationing is not a distant hypothetical. State and local government imposed rationing of water is already occurring in Australia and in some parts of the American southwest, in response to extended, devastating droughts. Projected short term and regional summer shortages of gasoline could also result in localized rationing. Rationing is something that is beginning, for the first time since the 1970s, to re-enter the American parlance again. Understanding how rationing works within the culture is an important first step to making rational and wise rationing policy choices. If we make errors in initiating rationing, we risk turning the public against the whole procedure, and cutting rationing out of our options. On the other hand, careful public education about rationing, and framing of its implications can make rationing a political success in the face of both local energy and environmental crises and world wide ones.

One of the assumptions people make about rationing is that it was always resisted and resented. In fact, that’s not the case – generally speaking, rationing, if instituted fairly, has been viewed fairly positively, as patriotic and necessary, a chance for everyone to contribute in whatever national crisis is being averted. As Amy Bentley documents in her excellent book _Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity_, in February 1942, rationing had a two to one approval rating. More than 60 percent of those responding to a poll asking what the government ought to have done differently during the first year of World War II responded that they felt that rationing should have been instituted sooner, and the OPA, which regulated prices and rationing had extremely high approval ratings (Bentley, 23)

Women especially liked rationing. Throughout this essay, I will be talking about the history of rationing, mostly in World War II America (I am focusing on the US because the US needs to reduce its energy usage most). Generally speaking, before rationing women were angry about shortages, frightened about nutritional deficiencies and often anxious about their own participation in the war effort as husbands and sons went to war and left them wanting to participate. Rationing, with the strong message that food was a battlefield we could win, was a way of engaging women, and to a lesser extent, older men and those unable to fight (men were the largest percentage of victory gardeners). Knowing that things would be fairly distributed not only relieved women’s private fears of shortage, but enabled them to participate more in war and community work – for example, for women who took over factory work from men, knowing that they could expect to find food in the shops even at the end of the work day meant they were free to participate without fear of their children going hungry.

It is presently even more urgent that we engage women on the subject of rationing – American women make or strongly influence 90% of all purchases, cook 77% of all meals, and spend much more time with children than men do, thus influencing the not-inconsiderable purchasing impact of children. In general, women schedule, organize and plan household activities more than men – that is, they are responsible for finding time for sustainable practices (this is not how it should be, merely how it is). In the growing organic movement, according to Michael Pollan, women make 80% of all purchases (Pollan, 89). All of these things mean that rationing will not succeed if it is positioned without regard to gender. Thus far, programs like the ODP and Carbon Credit Card model haven’t sought to use women’s communities or women as spokespeople and advocates, and that may have something to do with their lack of popular support.

Historically speaking, because most rationing has involved food and clothing, it has been focused on women, and often led by them. In fact, ration systems have often been empowering for some women – the best example being women in India during Gandhi’s revolution, but this is also true for women in the US during every major war and crisis. Energy rationing has largely focused on corporations and nations (mostly led by men) or it has been presented by men, with a heavy emphasis on technical details, and, in the case of Monbiot, with a strong dismissal of the power of the personal. But like it or not, the personal is often the currency of female discourse, and much of the energy consumption, along with consumption of energy intensive items like food and goods is driven by women – they need to hear this message, and because they are not being addressed, they are tuning out.

It isn’t that people preferred rationing to no rationing, but they vastly preferred it shortages, lines and fears of inadequate nutrition. For example, in the 1970s, it was not rationing that came in for the greatest criticisms, but the long gas lines that people were forced to endure. Americans generally speaking were willing to go along with rationing during World War II and in the 1970s, and in other wars to voluntarily boycott, embargo and self ration goods. What they don’t like is to have some people get things and others not – this is widely perceived as anti-democratic. This notion was reinforced by much US and British advertising – it was patriotic and democratic to use only your fair share, fascist and anti-democratic to buy on black markets, price gouge or hoard. The most important thing was that we all be in it together.

Writing about the American Revolution, the historian Timothy Br
een coined the term “Rituals of non-consumption” to describe the ways that in a culture of constraint, people derive satisfaction, power and pleasure from not buying things, or living within strictures. He argues in “Consumer Virtues in Revolutionary America” that in fact, the American Revolution was in part a revolution of buying habits. Extending Breen’s idea to the present, this idea of ritualized non-consumption and consumer revolution becomes a powerful way of drawing connections between the radical change required for a low carbon, low fossil fuels society, and between the founding political event of America (at least for Americans ;-) . In fact, most wars have involved radical changes in consumer culture and behavior, including new communal cultures dedicated to enabling change and encouraging compliance.

For example, during the American revolution, British woolen products, cloth and other materials were embargoed by American patriots. Despite the fact that Americans had been discouraged from sheep farming and wood industry, almost overnight a homespun culture grew up, with thousands of women now producing their own fabrics and wool. In the northern states during the civil war, a similar embargo on cotton led to women making homespun again out of wool.
Not buying things is one of the most radical acts a community can engage in, and a powerful one. During times of war and crisis, leaders have always asked their constituents to refrain from using or buying something, or to replace it with homemade goods. During World War I, there was no formal rationing in the US (although there was all over Europe), but average citizens instituted voluntary rationing – in _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ Laura Schenone records that Herbert Hoover believed formal rationing unnecessary, that in fact, the public would do it for him out of patriotism without the expense of a formal program, and he was quite correct.

“…Hoover urged, begged and shamed American women into voluntarily conserving food. ‘Food will win the war,’ he proclaimed. His sacred mantra was repeated over and over again on billboards, posters, and pamphlets, and disseminated by state and local governments, libraries, schools, colleges, businesses, women’s clubs of every stripe and even chain stores. A master of the media, Hoover also got newspapers and magazines to scold women on a daily basis to save more food for the sake of liberty and democracy…Wouldn’t American women conserve for the sake of their starving sisters across the Atlantic?”

And, in fact, American women responded enthusiastically. They cut food waste by 20%, reduced consumption of dairy products and meat dramatically, even formed “vigilance committees” to keep an eye on communal garbage cans for waste. 14 million “liberty gardens” were planted, and American women initiated “meatless days” and “wheatless days” that would, during World War II, be made mandatory. Millions of women participated, with no more incentive than that it was patriotic.

Herbert Hoover was a political conservative who believed very strongly that conservation of resources for the war effort should be voluntary. I’m not a political conservative, but it should be noted that it isn’t merely conservatives who worry about handing the power to ration over to governments. In fact, the success of Hoover’s model might be an important lesson for those of us engaged in voluntary reduction models – a way of resisting government beaurocracy and interference is to ration voluntarily sufficiently that external controls need not be extended.

And I must note here that despite the fact that Schenone clearly disapproves of Hoover’s paternalism, Hoover’s success should point out the possibilities of grassroots self-rationing. The fact that less than 100 years ago, an entire nation voluntarily went on rationing without any more government support than advertising should give us a vision of what is possible from a purely voluntary movement. It is well within the realm of possibility that a self-imposed model rationing program that grew popular enough (think the Compact, Craggers, or, dare I say, even our own Riot for Austerity ) might become the blueprint for a national program, with national support. At a minimum, such programs represent not just models, but existing social structures through which to transmit education material and support for those engaged, programs that might be put to use by governments in times of rationing. This is something to think about.

It is also essential to recognize that movements towards self-rationing indicate that rationing itself is not automatically viewed as an evil. In fact, often it is perceived as a meaningful way to make change. This also gives further evidence that the oft asserted claim that voluntary conservation can’t lead anywhere is wrong – what was once done can be done again. Instead, this provides a powerful contrary model of privately led, voluntary programs. That said, however, even privately led programs were made much easier by government *assistance* and to make meaningful reductions on a large scale, government must either lead or follow, it cannot ignore the problem.

In 1942, the Roosevelt administration instituted mandatory rationing in the US. Some items, like meat, shoes and coffee, were rationed because of genuine shortages of the item – increased demand, reduced transport availability, or producers gone to war were among the reasons that these items were not often unavailable in shops, and rationing ensured that spot shortages would stop, that those who were not free to stand in line would still get their fair share. Others, like gas were rationed not because there was any gas shortage, but because a study panel determined that gas rationing was the best way to save tires, and rubber sources were being held by the Japanese. Some proposed rationing programs were dismissed, including rubber rationing for girdles. Women overwhelmingly protested this call for the end of the girdle, arguing that the back support provided by foundation garments was essential to their productivity. They won.

Other items were de facto rationed – factories were prohibited from making refrigerators, new cars and other luxury items, and there were simply none in stores. Again, American consumers were told it was their patriotic duty to invest their money in war bonds and other patriotic activities, rather than luxury goods. There was surprisingly little controversy on these points.

In 1941, there were real fears of shortages, inadequate nutrition, and hunger to match that experienced by much of Europe during the war. By 1942, Russians and Scandinavians really were starving to death, and the British were experiencing desperate food shortages. Americans were shipping food abroad, and being asked to share what they had with millions of other hungry people – to consume less so that others could have more. A famous poster of the period showed a middle class white man, his wife and two children at a table, joined by two American soldiers, and a stereotypical Russian, Englishman and Mexican in serape. The American family is reassured that they will get the majority of American food, but are told that we must make room at our table for our allies. “Don’t begrudge it – but produce and conserve, share and play square with food.” We have a strong precedent, then, from both World War I and II for a rationing that isn’t simply based upon local shortages, but upon a world-wide mutual interest and concern.

Americans, for example, have in the past been willing to make do with less so that others will be less hungry. Again, this is a powerful iconography, one that argues strongly against the notion that only personal suffering would make the case for rationing. This is a strategy that might well be deployed by advocates of the ODP and Carbon rationing programs – the notion that Americans have to do with less to preserve the lives of their allies is not merely rhetoric any more – with global warming and the tragic consequences of risi
ng fuel prices for poor nations, this might, in many ways be a more compelling argument than peak oil itself for a national rationing program.

In fact, in 1946, shortly after rationing was finally lifted, when it became obvious that 800 million people world wide were in danger of starvation because of disrupted food supplies and war related crop failures, more than 70% of Americans, in three separate polls, indicated that they would prefer to have rationing reinstated. Historians make a great deal of the orgy of consumerism of the 1950s, perceived as a response to war rationing. But it is perhaps even more significant that at the end of the war, most Americans were not only willing but enthusiastic about cutting back on their own new supplies of meats and sweets so that others would not go hungry. Bentley quotes a Mrs. E.H. Gembel as writing to Truman, “Sir, we support any measure necessary to provide for the starving people of the world. Get tough.” (Bentley, 146). In fact, it was the US government, led by Herbert Hoover again, that resisted citizen calls for rationing. Women especially expressed their willingness to go back to rationing and eat less in order to serve the hungry. Again, addressing discussion of rationing to women may bear more fruit than discussing it before congress.

This flies in the face of the oft assumed notion that Americans would not be subject to arguments that are mostly about other people’s needs. Now it is true that we live in a different era – but that works in more ways than one. We are, of course, less accustomed to privation. But we also have much more leeway to give. Again, what has been done can often be done again.

The iconographic World War II poster was Norman Rockwell’s famous “Freedom from Want” poster, reproduced since in a thousand places. Rockwell created a series of posters to illustrate Roosevelt’s four freedoms that should apply world wide. The Office of War Information, in charge of propaganda posters initially rejected Rockwell’s images, which are among the most famous American paintings in the world now. Rockwell’s images of “Freedom of Speech” “Freedom of Worship” and “Freedom from Fear” are among his best work. The “Freedom from Want” poster was more troubling and controversial in many ways – American allies criticized it because the image of the festival meal with giant roast turkey on it seemed a slap in the face to those going hungry, to say that, as Bentley puts it, “The scene illuminated the ‘inalienable right’ of Americans to eat their familiar and abundant foods in their traditional ways, and not just at Thanksgiving. (60).” But the image can be read another way – that what was powerful about Rockwell’s illustration was his capacity to invoke the stability of the festival in times of restriction. That is, the image of Thanksgiving and the unified family (everyone, including the young men are home to eat here) is the reminder that restriction and the festival can exist simultaneously, indeed, that one can be made possible by the other. This too is an important message – instead of offering absolute restrictions, the notion that one conserves to celebrate, that careful husbandry enables generosity and abundance is important here was well.

Despite the disproportionate emphasis given to the famous “Freedom from Want” poster, it is important to remember that Rockwell’s dinner image appeared in context with the other three posters both in its initial publication in the _Saturday Evening Post_ and later in many reproductions. Thus, Thanksgiving, that in many households begins with a prayer is juxtaposed with images of people praying in the “Freedom to Worship” image, with the blue collar man who speaks up at the town meeting in “Freedom of Speech”, and with the mother and father tucking their children safely into bed together in “Freedom from Fear.” That is, these things are associated with each other – food rationing, not explicitly mentioned but in the psychological background, and its commitment to fairness and thus abundance for everyone is linked to democratic participation, to religion and religiousness, and also to security. Add to this posters such as the little girl canning at her mother’s side, saying “We’ll have lots to eat this winter, Mommy, won’t we?” And we see the context that rationing must derive from – it isn’t merely about scarcity, it is about enabling the creation of a moral context for us to eat and live within.

The same things could be said of the current 100 Mile Diet, and recent books that call for a moral commitment to better food – _Fast Food Nation_, _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ and Barbara Kingsolver’s recent (and lovely) _Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_. For a long time, moral context in America has read “Religious Prohibitions about Sexual Behavior” – but even many American conservatives are rejecting this model, what Rod Dreher calls the “Look, it is Janet Jackson’s unsheathed ta-ta” model of political conservativism. Calls for a wider, more environmentally conscious sense of moral context have pervaded religious communities of all stripes, as well as secular and political ones. Rationing advocates have the chance, if they are wise enough to take it, to frame rationing as a moral response to insufficiency, and to link it to other justice movements, and to imbue the act of conservation with a larger, collectivized meaning.

In fact, the whole notion that rationing is about democracy, equality, and sharing – not just with your literal neighbors but with your neighbors around the world is what made rationing acceptable, even preferable to other systems, such as price based rationing. Millions of American homemakers signed a pledge abjuring black markets, promising not to buy from shopkeepers who price gouged, and swearing to turn in ration coupons for their goods. The message, both promulgated by the state and argued by women themselves was that their willingness to play fair meant a shorter war, a more democratic system and a greater degree of justice. Women were justifiably proud of their willingness to ration.

There was anger over rationing – some shortages were greeted with frustration, particularly coffee. And there was a great deal of resentment over unequal treatment. For example, gas rationing was a particular point of contention, both in the US and Britain, where often political figures and people of local influence were able to get larger rations. Anyone who doesn’t grasp the anger directed at Al Gore or Tony Blair for their failure to conserve when ordinary people, particularly blue collar people, are being pressured to do so ought to take a serious look at this phenomenon. Rationing can be perceived as just, fair and reasonable, but only if the exceptions are minimized, and limited to the truly needy.

World War II was remarkable because of the widespread, egalitarian participation. Everyone’s sons went to war, not just the poor. Male Hollywood celebrities enlisted. All four Roosevelt sons went to war and the White House table went without sugar and coffee. While hardly perfect, even racial segregation was to some degree reduced and the stage set for greater change by the desegregation (fiercely resisted) of the armed forces. Women of all classes participated, if not perfectly equally, then in a way that marked radical change, in war work and endured largely the same restrictions. Famous women like Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall ran Stage Door Canteens, not only performing for soldiers, but making them sandwiches, washing the dishes themselves and dancing with the soldiers.

It wasn’t that all hierarchy or inequality broke down – far from it. In fact, some labor gains were lost, and the Japanese internment camps represented a remarkable instance of simply hideous repression. But most people were bound by similar restrictions, and to an astounding degree, the restrictions were obeyed. Rich families as well as poor went without meat, or ate offal. Rich people as well as poor bought their shoes with ration coupons. In 1942, when a poll asked whether the governme
nt should ration items that *might* be in short supply in the future, 73 percent voted for immediate rationing to avert shortages and to increase the fairness of distribution. More than communal culture, the abiding concern was *fairness* – restrictions were acceptable, but they had to be applied across the board.

All of this should show that any rationing program must emphasize fairness and democratic equality – there need to be few exceptions, and the more people who share in deprivation, the more unifying the overall effect. Celebrities should be enlisted, and application must be regardless of class, race, gender and political affiliation. Environmental activists right now often make the case that their flying or traveling “enables others to use less energy” – but for every person we influence directly, another person is alienated because our message doesn’t match our personal habits. Those who wish to advocate for these kinds of programs must lead the way personally – that means getting off the planes, and finding other ways to lead, except in the most urgent exceptions.

In a news item today, India announced it won’t do anything about global warming until the rich nations do. The rule about fairness being an absolute policy applies across national borders, it seems – and justifiably so. Anyone who proposes to argue for rationing must argue for as just a system as possible – and must model that rationing. Hypocrisy gets us nowhere.

Along with egalitarian applications, education was absolutely essential to rationing in every era.
Recipes for meatless, wheatless and sugarless dishes flew down from national administrations, out of women’s magazines and from neighbor to neighbor. Suggestions for how to build looms and make substitutes for tea and sugar were exchanged by women during the American revolution, and ways of preserving food without salt were passed through women’s teas in the South during the civil war. Patterns for socks for soldiers, new card games that could substitute for going out driving or taking vacations – all of this was absolutely essential, for several reasons. First of all, because it helped people find ways to conserve and make do. But also because exchange is a central way we interact with one another – in a conserving society, where gifts and luxury foods are restricted, the exchange of suggestions, advice, kindness and mutual support substitute for goods and luxuries. When those things are taken away, the loss is felt more acutely.

Generally speaking, programs with the greatest success used *existing* social and community structures to transmit not just the requirement to conserve, but also classes and suggestions as to how to do it better. Such material was best absorbed within one’s community – during World War II, attempts were made to offer nutrition classes to working class women, but the economic gap between them and the nutritionists was too great to engender good results. Eventually, a highly successful program of paying “block captains” to take classes and transmit knowledge within their neighborhoods and communities was undertaken, and immigrants, African Americans and working class people learned from their neighbors.

One of the important emphases of rationing was freedom of choice – the point system, applied to most foods, enabled people to choose how to use their rations. The US government, according to Bentley, made heavy emphasis of the link between the freedom to choose how to use your limited assets and democratic freedom. Both the ODP and Carbon Credit Cards are tradable rationing systems – politically speaking, this is likely to appeal to capitalist cultural assumptions, and can be linked to freedom, and also to justice for ordinary working people. The fact that ordinary people already use less energy than the rich is potentially a political selling point for those interested in appealing to those “squeezed” by things like lack of health insurance and increased food costs. The dual emphasis – that tradable rationing can improve the economic stability of lower middle and lower class households and that people are still free to choose how to use their energy should be strongly emphasized, and linked to democracy.

We need to make clear that the question is not “will we ration” but “will we ration by price, or will we ensure everyone gets some.” Any system of rationing needs to draw very clearly a picture of the alternative – of shortages, lines, hunger, poverty. These are real consequences, and rationing should be portrayed as the collective, fair, and above all anti-elitist option.

The victory garden movement reiterated that what we do not buy, the ritual of non-consumption is even more important than what we do buy, and it did it while valuing anti-elitist skills such is agriculture and physical strength – it cut across racial and class lines. In parts of the south more than 90% of African Americans, often angry at their government in other respects, grew Victory gardens. The call for national victory gardeners was phrased as a form of military participation as essential as military itself. In a poem engraved on a statue dedicated to Victory Gardeners, we learn,

“Not he alone, nor the family that gathers at his table -
But all men everywhere, fighting for Freedom’s cause,
Are richer for his work.
For the food he does not buy is theirs to have…
In camps, in ships on every bloody sea,
On battle fronts where food is life itself….
And in those dark and hungry lands now being freed -
Where food is more than life…
Where food means tyranny’s long hoped for end.
The seeds of Victory are planted in his garden….”

The poem is heavy handed, of course, but it links ordinary acts, like daily gardening, placed in the context of rationing, to resistance to tyranny, and makes them available to ordinary people. These kinds of links are tremendously powerful rhetorically – more powerful, I would suggest, than the simple statement of necessity or any fear mongering. People are willing to endure remarkable things in order to feel powerful and valued. A rationing movement must make it clear that the consequence of participation is that you are doing something important. Fortunately, that’s true.

Many people can be persuaded to view their ordinary actions, including their ordinary actions of conservation, and acceptance of rationing as acts of resistance and power. Ultimately, selling rationing will be about de-emphasizing what you don’t have and about emphasizing the returns – particularly the returns in terms of social goods. Particularly emphasizing that individuals are acting in powerful ways by resisting is important – for example, in discussing Carbon Rationing, George Monbiot is somewhat dismissive of personal solutions. But to make rationing politically palatable, it must be represented as an independent way of resisting, shared by everyone. There is, of course, an inherent contradiction between these two things, and yet it is possible for them to function towards both ends in truth and in representation.

It is important to note that the recognition that acts of non-consumption are important and powerful is one that is extremely scary to corporate powers. All through World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin documents that the rights of consumers and the rights of corporations were in constant tension. In fact, members of the OPA were appointed specifically to represent consumers against corporate authority. In some cases, consumers found that they were newly empowered to resist corporate authority. For example, a group of activist women in Syracuse, NY challenged the dairy industry on rising milk prices. When one of the leaders was derisively asked “Have you ever produced milk?” The woman in question stood up and announced in public that yes, indeed she had, that she had several children and had produced quite a quantity of milk, and moreover, that as a mother of soldiers and a war worker, she had a right to resist price gouging. I
n this case, a movement towards non-consumption had the undesirable (to corporations and many government figures) effect of empowering consumers, and encouraging them to resist corporatism. While this is by no means a certain result, a growing movement towards better, safer, local food has the potential to reduce corporate power in all spheres, simply by the fact that rationing means that consumption is political. Once people begin to see that, this extends into other areas of their lives. Framing energy rationing as a logical continuation of consumer movements like the slow food movement is likely to help bring public opinion around to accepting rationing as a structure.

All of this was predicated upon, of course, a reasonable threat of shortage and crisis. But such things are easy to come by these days – it is more than likely that this year will see shortages of gasoline for summer driving, and that the next cold winter will see a jump in natural gas prices. As climate change wrought drought continues, experiences of shortage and rationing by price will become more and more normal. And as we have seen, rationing has its virtues, particularly over shortages and unequal distribution. We have reasons to ration already. What we lack is a full articulation of the benefits of rationing.

It does not seem unlikely to me that a case for rationing energy (a la the ODP) and carbon emissions could be made compellingly within the next few years. Existing self rationing programs could be expanded, and should think carefully about how they might be adapted into regional, state or even national programs. Craggers and compact members may find that what they’ve created is the base structure for something much larger. Models will be needed, and existing community structures will be required. Getting outside the internet and outside of the current political parameters of peak oil and climate change will be important – there are large numbers of people who simply won’t be involved with something they perceive as elitist or leftist in origin, but who would be willing to ration for reasons of patriotism, and because their neighbors are doing it. So one of the most important things voluntary rationers can do is bring rationing into their churches, to their local republican party, to their neighbors – not in a threatening way, but in a celebratory one. Support groups to help people cut emissions, reduction picnics and parties, recipe exchanges, techniques and cool tricks, sermons and library talks, movies and parties – these are the exchange medium of change. More importantly, these communal activities become a substitute for what is given up.

Rationing is both possible and potentially quite palatable, as long as it occurs in the context of public education and strong connections to current events. Rationing is democratic – much more so than price rationing, and making a good case for rationing is essential to good public policy.

13 Responses to “Could Rationing Be Made Palatable?”

  1. HRDeane says:

    Thankyou for such an empowering and informative post,…there was a lot I didn’t know about here, makes me wish my grandparents were still alive and I could access their wonderful experiences. In Australia we are experiencing this rationing with the water and potentially facing large increases in food, vegetable and electricity prices. I think a lot of people would prefer to have a reasonable ration of these things rather than paying huge prices that freeze out the least well off. We are in an election year and both sides of Govt are desperate to avoid any unpopular policies, so nothing really brave is being done, which is extremely frustrating. We are going to have to face this sooner than I think a lot of people anticipated, but the knowledge is out there. Thanks again, knowledge really is a powerful thing.

  2. Farah says:

    I hate to break this to you but your information on voluntary rationing in WWI isn’t correct, it’s based on the way people felt about what they were doing.

    Harvey Levenstein’s book “Paradox of Plenty” cites evidence that–Hoover’s despair–consumption of meat and bread actually went up. It was worst at the end of the war when the appeals to save food to help Europe fell on deaf ears.

    Similarly, you can acclaim the rationing of WWII but the food supply in the US was so safe and food was so plentiful that it did not form a real test: one of the reasons US troops caused so much resentment in the UK was because they were visibily incredibly well fed. Levenstein found information on calorie intake for new recruits and the food availble per soldier was as high as 5,000 calories. US soldiers came out of basic training having put on weight.

    What is true is that the US goverment was incredibly good about making people feel as if they were doing something, and that can be harnessed again. But real, painful rationing of the kind that would be needed wasn’t experienced in the US in the twentieth century.

    A better “test case”, and a depressing one, was the UK election in 1950. Britain was still experiencing bread rationing, an act of pure self-sacrifice to enable wheat to be exported to starving Europe. The Tories ran a campaign which was basically “us first” and an end to bread rationing, and won the election. (And I haven’t even begun to tell you about the widespread blackmarket for all goods during the war).

  3. delpasored says:

    Thank you once again for an inspiring post. I’ve been thinking lately about what might have happened if W had asked Americans to conserve and reduce oil consumption after September 11, instead of asking us to buy and spend(our role as consumers/patriots). It’s too bad that we will never know. Our present and our children’s future would be quite different.

  4. jewishfarmer says:

    Farah, actually, I’ve read Paradox of Plenty, but Schenone’s argument is slightly different – it is true people actually consumed more, but that mostly came out waste reductions, rather than production increases. She cites figures based on household home economic data that suggest that it wasn’t merely the way people felt about what they were doing – they were buying less food and getting more of it out of their gardens during the middle and early part of the war, but that did change at the end. Randolph argues that the change came in part because of confusing messages – the “everything is better” message suddenly replaced by new crisis.

    Highest rates of meat consumption in the US are listed by Bentley as in 1910, with a slow but steady drop through the war, and a (small) bump in 1917-18, then a decline into the depression, and a rise during the war years. I’ve also noted that while grain consumption did rise steadily, liquor production dropped like a stone – some of that grain was going into people’s mouths as bread. I like Levenstein’s book, but I think there’s additional evidence for marginal success – I don’t claim more than that.

    Hoover’s strategy *absolutely did not* work after WWII – and it was a mistake to put him in charge. I don’t agree that a purely voluntary project is possible – but I do think that the WWI case represents an interestingly useful model. Barbara Grace argues that the failure of the WWI model was in large part due to organizational problems, in direct contrast to Levenstein.

    I’m no fan of Hooverism in any sense – but I do think that if we could make voluntary rationing really work, it offers the possibility of engaging political conservatives in energy rationing – which would be worth a *lot*.

    We could also pull out revolutionary and civil war examples to demonstrate that voluntary boycotts and self rationing have worked in the past – even the British model worked for 5 years after the war.

    I’ll agree that WWII didn’t represent a serious test of our ability to handle *shortage* – as JK Galbraith said, never has so much credit been given for living without so little. Most of the real extremes of shortage were experienced by people who were already poor. On the other hand, even among them there was a willingness to participate in rationing and other war programs. Poor African Americans were both angry and disaffected during the War, for excellent reasons. On the other hand, 90% of poor black southern families victory gardened – up by almost 20% over the depression years. 67% purchased war bonds and more than 70% approved of rationing according to Bentley. So even among people who *were* experiencing real hardship – remember, malnutrition was a real phenomenon then – rationing was politically possible.

    But ultimately, in the short term, what matters is whether rationing could be initiated successfully – sustaining it is an issue, but first we’ve got to get past *starting*.

    There certainly were black markets, and eliminating them by making energy rationing tradable simply makes sense – no argument there.


  5. Michelle in Ga says:

    My English stepmom can remember
    postwar ration/coupon books, and
    lines for everything. “People
    que up for eveything, because of the war, even now.”

  6. Ares Olympus says:

    Could we rationing by social norms?

    I have two interesting thoughts. First that “information is power”. If we had figures of “average per capita consumption”, by country, state, city, etc, people would know what a “fair share” might look like, even if categories were included: youth, singles, elderly, families, etc.

    Second I consider a conversation I had with a coworker. Our accountant started buying kitchen snacks from Sam’s club a few years ago, cheaper prices, and as you might imagine, over the years of this I’m SURE consumption has gone way up, compared to the days when we had a little variety “snack pack”.

    Anyway we questioned what would change behavior, reduce unhealthy overconsumption – like raising prices from $0.40 each to as high as $2.00 each perhaps, with “profits” going to a charity perhaps.

    But an alternative approach we thought about was rationing through perception. Specifically, our accountant put out ALL the snacks, so we’d see all these boxes and THINK there’s abundance and consume more. In comparison after a while we’d go way down in visually supplies before her next refilling. I’m sure consumption SPIKED with visual surpluses and declined when visual supplies ran low.

    So the obvious solution, our accountant should have kept supplies in a back room, and brought out just a fraction every week, perhaps based on how much she had and how often she wanted to restock, and let “demand” deal with supply like that.

    Anyway, it would seem there’s interesting socialogical experiments possible, to see how people react to appearances of surplus and appearances of shortages, I mean independent of price. If you go to a party and see tons of food, you pig out, or at least it makes it easy. If you see just a little, you scale back your gluttonous appetite and leave something for someone else.

    It would seem hard to imagine a PURE voluntary rationing could be done, allowing everyone to “take what they need, no more”.

    It’s a tricky business, since the opposite human behavior of hoarding can as well come out in fear of shortages. If your local gas station was empty last week and fills up, and you get there first, do you “top it off” because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance or “take what you need” based on faith more will be available later? Obviously depends whether you can trust it’ll be available.

    Anyway, to me this shows an “upside” to the U.S. gasoline refinery limits, even if the result is a higher price and profits. And its fun to think that conservation is what’s needed to bring prices down.

    Previously I’d think “shortages” are bad (like caused in the 70′s when mandated gas prices caused stations to be sold out), but perhaps irregular shortages are good, because it keeps people aware of the value of conservation.

    It’s most interesting compared to the REAL illusion, that the economy can run blindly into future shortages merely because of memory of past success to meet demand.

    Shortages have another advantage -people have to think more seriously “What if I CAN’T fill my tank” next week, how will I get to work? Necessity is the mother of invention, and fear is sometimes beneficial, when there’s something to be done about the threat.

  7. Anonymous says:

    When we were talking about your post, my wife asked how much commercial PR campaign there was against rationing, when it had these favorable public receptions. Was big meat, big sugar, and big wheat trying to undermine the WWII rationing system in public? Or were they behind the deal? Were they undermining it but only behind the scenes and not via PR campaigns? I can easily imagine selling rationing to Americans as patriotic, generous, fair, and far better than rationing by price or having shortages. I have troubles imagining a rationing support campaign that would hold its own against a concerted effort from Big Oil to obstruct or undermine it.
    -Brian M.

  8. jewishfarmer says:

    Brian, it was a very mixed bag – large industrial producers often were very supportive of rationing in part because of the enormous government military contracts at stake. On the other hand, people in smaller industries or those that weren’t in full production often weren’t thrilled about rationing. There was strong opposition by corporations *after* WWII to government implemented rationing – in fact, advertising implying that people who wanted rationing back so the US could meet its famine relief commitments (which it failed to meet) were anti-democratic and selfish.

    One of the most important factors used by the OPA was that members of its board existed to represent business and consumers seperately – that is, the board was fairly evenly balanced between consumer advocates and business advocates, rather like having Ralph Nader and Lee Iacocca negotiating. And I ought to have said that I think *that* part is simply unlikely to happen again. So yes, you are right. Now the thing about the ODP, is that it might well sell to big oil once they start experiencing serious shortages. So I can imagine circumstances in which businesses can be persuaded, but it is worth noting that sheer corporate power we’re up against is a real problem.

    Ares, that’s a really interesting analysis. I wonder if you could manage shortages – certainly, the sheer number of consumer goods we see influences our buying patterns.


  9. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been working on peak oil stuff for a couple years, but clearly not as much as you. But everytime I run my strategies I reach the same road blocks. The people should prefer rationing systems to rationing by price. But it seems that the Big Oil companies, even once we get to serious shortages, ought to prefer rationing by price and shortages, because their profits are tied to price as much as they are to volume. As crises mount this gets called “profiteering” and is perceived as anti-social. Eventually a government steps in and starts more heavily regulating an industry. But Big Oil, knows all this and has huge PR and lobbying experience. They’ll block the perception of profiteering as long as they can, and block government action even longer. When it comes down to it the corporations just seem to have so much more power than the people that it is hard to imagine how our interests could get into the mix. As you say, we probably won’t even have representatives at the table. Our power is very small compared to that of corporations, and the little power we have (such as altering how we spend our money en masse, not the outlier individuals) is currently very tied to advertizing and spin. But selling rationing to OTHER CORPORATIONS, now that has potential. As things get bad for the people, it will get bad for a lot of other corporations besides big oil too, and maybe they’ll have the power and incentive to make rationing happen. It just seems that how well the people are willing to tolerate a rationing system is far less decisive that how well the corporations are willing to tolerate it, since they have the power and the people don’t.
    -Brian M.

  10. Kevin Anderson K9IUA says:

    Good article, Sharon. I’ved bookmarked it on a couple of computers to make sure I have it again for later, for when I want to pass it on to others to read.

    I too have read the Bentley book and numerous documents on U.S. and U.K. during WWII. Your article is a very good summary, and makes very good points about how to proceed with fairness and equity. And I would like to see rationing happen sooner rather than later (especially with energy), before the shortages appear, and to have them equally distributed on a per-person basis to be fair to rich and poor alike. I’m still not sure how a tradeable enery rationing plan would work, but would prefer to see something in place so that those who do conserve can possible “trade” their savings for things they do need. And I agree that price controls only will not do it and unfair to the poor.

    Keep up your quality writing.

    Kevin in Iowa

  11. Dave says:

    Hi Sharon,

    It’s interesting that after WWI, Hoover was effective in leading the efforts to feed Europe, which, of course, is why Truman asked him to lead the effort after WWII. His failure in this second effort speaks to an interesting change in the American culture, or at least a change in the dynamics of consumerism. Hoover’s tragic belief that the people would do the right thing because it was the right thing to do made sense somehow during WWI, but failed miserably during the depression and onwards. While not conservative myself by any means, I can sympathize with a point of view suggesting good should not be mandated by a dubiously trustworthy government. It’s a very interesting point you made in your answering comment, of wondering what can be learned from the WWI model. Similarly, with government controlling a rationing effort, the temptation to use rationing as a political tool in our system would be simply irresistable to those seeking power. Self rationing, similar to your 90% effort, seems a more pure, wholesome approach.

    I’ve blathered on quiet enough, I’m sure, but one item I do not see us address enough in the effort to curb consumerism is the need to attack free and easy credit. Easy credit, beginning with the Diner’s Club card in the ’50′s, has been the hand maiden for the Madison Avenue driven commerciality, becoming the substitute for the “company store” to keep people in servitude. Why self ration when we can have what we want when we want, as long as we can keep ourselves from thinking about the future hours labored to work off the debt. Preaching to the choir here, I know. Thanks for another thought provoking piece – I very much appreciate the scholarship behind this essay.


  12. Shaun Chamberlin says:

    Dear Sharon,

    I am a regular reader of your blog, and also the Development Director for TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) – the tradable system advocated by Monbiot and many others.

    I just wanted to thank you for your insightful discussion of this topic, and will certainly take many of your points on board.

    Best wishes,

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