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Ready for Rationing? Why We Should Put the Brakes on Consumption If We Want to Survive


It’s not clear whether Stan Cox is a plant breeder with a penchant for politics, or a political provocateur who finds time to do science. Whichever aspect of his personality is dominant, Cox artfully draws on both skill sets to make the case for rationing, perhaps the most important concept that is not being widely discussed these days. The power of his new book, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, comes from his blending of scientific analyses of dire resource trends with a compelling moral argument about the need to reshape politics and economics.

In his day job at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, the country’s premier sustainable agriculture research facility, Cox works to develop perennial sorghum. A member of the editorial board of the magazine Green Social Thought (formerly Synthesis/Regeneration), Cox also has been thinking long and hard about the multiple ecological crises we face. In 2010 he published Losing Our Cool, a sharp-edged examination of the impacts of our society’s obsession with air-conditioning.

In this new book on rationing, he argues that we have to become a society that puts the brakes on consumption—in an egalitarian fashion—if we want to survive. A society dependent on reckless growth that enriches a small minority of people cannot expect to endure and flourish for the long haul. Cox believes that the right kind of rationing can produce a happier and healthier life for everyone.

Robert Jensen: In your book, you mention that some have compared raising the possibility of rationing to “shouting an obscenity in church.” Why is that idea so unacceptable today?

Stan Cox: People have shown a willingness to accept rationing in a broad variety of situations in which society-wide scarcity is obvious—wartime, say, or when governments have a fixed supply of subsidized food to sell, or in a drought when there's only so much water to go around. But if rationing is proposed as a way to preserve resources and ecological life-support systems for the future—for dealing with environmental problems or providing equitable healthcare, for example—then we are talking about limiting consumption when there is no apparent scarcity. In that situation, we all like to believe that we exercise freedom in the marketplace, and to many it seems outrageous to limit that freedom. 

RJ: Before getting to the specifics of how rationing might work, let’s talk about those cultural assumptions about freedom and abundance. We live in a world that routinely tells us there are no limits, that whatever limits we bump up against we can overcome with human creativity and advanced technology. You seem to believe that we live in a physical world with physical limits.

That’s a rather sensible position, of course, but it seems to cast you in the role of Eeyore, always the gloomy one. How do you defend yourself?

SC: OK, you’re getting down to the heart of the matter right away here. When opposing any kind of environmental responsibility, the Right loves to raise the specter of rationing, but it’s really the bigger idea of overall limits to growth that’s at the heart of our anxiety. We face an irresolvable contradiction: We all know intellectually that no kind of growth can go on to infinity, yet if we exist within a capitalist economy, our lives and livelihoods wholly depend on unceasing expansion of economic activity. A year, even a quarter, of slack or negative growth might reduce national carbon emissions but it also triggers widespread human misery. The converse isn’t true; robust growth doesn’t necessarily bring prosperity to all. In recent decades, the benefits of growth have flowed almost exclusively to the top of the economic pyramid.    

With the imposition of any serious physical or ecological limits on the economy, familiar capitalist economic relations would malfunction, to say the least. So those at the top of the economy who benefit from growth have every reason to be alarmed by the idea of fair rationing. And if we agree to overall limits but remain committed to the current means of rationing resources and goods—that is, “to each according to ability to pay”—then the rest of us should be alarmed as well. But with a commitment to “fair shares for all,” as they put it back during World War II, and with everyone playing by the same rules (and of course with a much smaller chance of global ecological breakdown), life under physical limits could well be a better life for the great majority of us. 

RJ: You mention WWII, one of the cases of successful rationing. As you say, the conventional wisdom is that such rationing is only possible in times of crisis, when the need to limit consumption is clear. So, how would you explain the crises we face today that make rationing necessary? 

SC: In the 1940s, Washington did shore up support for the ration system by promising a world of plenty once the war was over. And except in a few resources like rubber, there was no absolute scarcity. Farms and factories were highly productive, there was no unemployment, and wages were rising. But a huge share of what was produced—for example, 4,000 calories worth of food per soldier per day—was diverted to Europe and the Pacific. People could see that with the end of the war, all those resources and goods were to be available again to everyone.

Now the green future, if there is one, will parallel the wartime ‘40s in the sense that a large part of the economy will have to be diverted for a period of years, or in this case, decades. We won’t be using resources to pump up the consumer economy, because they will have to be shifted into vast projects needed to build non-fossil, non-nuclear energy sources; convert to a much less energy-dependent infrastructure; build or convert to more compact, low-consumption housing; rework agriculture; and rearrange living and working patterns to reduce the amount of transportation required. The economist Minqui Li has estimated for the United States that building the necessary wind and solar capacity alone would cost $120 trillion.

All of that production will be unavailable to the consumer economy. It may provide stimulus, but with a nationwide policy of leaving resources in the ground, bigger paychecks will serve to drive up the prices of goods that are available. If the past is any guide, the only acceptable solution will be price controls and fair-shares rationing. Indeed, in both the ‘40s and the ‘70s, there was popular demand for formal rationing. Next time around, as you say, we won’t have the consolation that we can look forward to a peacetime or post-energy-crisis cornucopia. For example, alternative energy sources, even at full capacity, will provide far less total energy than do fossil fuels today. However, we may still be able to anticipate better times to come, once the physical conversion of society has achieved its goals.

At that point, not only will most of the economic effort that had gone into the conversion become once again part of the “civilian” economy, but that new economy will be able to satisfy more real needs for each unit of physical consumption. I guess if there is any light at the end of the tunnel, that’s it. If the conversion is successful, there won’t be as much easy energy around, and GDP won’t be rising, but quality of life will have been given the space needed for improvement.

RJ: Let’s go back to these two basic points that are so contentious. Your pitch for rationing is partly based on an assessment of physical realities: Resources are finite, and technological capacities to stretch resources have limits. Lots of people don’t accept that. You also are arguing that we are going to live with a much a lower level of consumption. For lots of people, that is depressing. Let’s tackle both of those.

First, one of the major things you argue we have to ration is energy, at a time when lots of people are celebrating new technologies that allow humans to tap into new sources of fossil fuels (fracking, tar sands, etc.).  How do you see our energy future? 

SC: Until a few years ago, a lot of environmentally minded people were hoping that the imminent peak and subsequent decline in the annual extraction of conventional fossil fuels would do our work for us, enforcing strict limits on consumption. Now a bonanza of so-called unconventional fuel reserves has blown that possibility away, forcing us to face the necessity of practicing self-restraint. Can we leave precious energy in the ground when we have the ability to bring it out? If we manage to do that, I guess it will be a first. But that’s what we need to do.

It will be a test of how addicted to dense energy we really are. Are we willing to launch an all-out assault on the Earth, just to avoid a disruption of economic business-as-usual? Unconventional fuels are a disaster—destroying vast landscapes, wrecking water supplies, causing spills of petroleum and nasty chemicals, increasing carbon emissions, and giving the human economy the capacity to do all the usual ecological damage that potent energy sources encourage. And these fuels are no free lunch. Individual gas wells are small and dry up quickly, so enormous numbers of them have to be drilled. They require a huge investment of energy and other resources to produce each unit of usable fossil energy. Yet even with all those problems, that energy is too valuable not to use, and we face a seemingly irresistible temptation to use up these resources as fast as we can extract them. You could say we’ve met our 21st-century Mephistopheles in the sands of Alberta and the Marcellus shale.

RJ:Second, in a world where so many people associate happiness with consumption, how do you make the argument that for those of us in the more affluent parts of the world, less can be more?

SC: In the early 1990s, several economists took note of an apparent statistical anomaly. While people in richer countries tend to be happier than those in poorer countries, increases in average real income in richer countries have not conferred an increase in happiness. In the words of Richard Easterlin, a University of Southern California economics professor whose name has become attached to this seeming paradox, “raising the incomes of all” will not “raise the happiness of all.”

It’s a fascinating problem, but the solution is just as dreary as most explanations of modern life. As society becomes materially richer in the aggregate, it takes a higher income every year just to keep up and maintain the same level of contentment. When everyone has an increasing income, it becomes harder and harder for anyone to achieve greater happiness. In this sense, times haven’t changed much in the century-plus since Thorstein Veblen described this phenomenon. Erosion of happiness is largely a result of everyone trying to keep up with the Joneses.

It’s not just the global north. In many nations once considered poor (and in which most people still are poor), rising incomes are not bringing happiness. On the contrary, examination of average income levels in countries worldwide has shown that more rapid aggregate growth is associated with a reduction in average happiness. The kind of breakneck growth that can carry a nation as a whole from poverty to affluence in a single generation also tends to worsen inequality and eat away at its citizens’ sense of well-being. But make no mistake, simply putting more emphasis on the pursuit of happiness cannot tame a capitalist economy any more effectively than can appeals to life or liberty. Inequitable growth in consumption is in the DNA of capitalism, and that has to be faced directly.

RJ: It’s clearer now why rationing is like an obscenity in church. It means leaving fossil fuels in the ground and permanently reducing overall consumption for almost everyone in the United States. That will require collective action through government and a serious overhaul of the economy. All this has to happen at a moment when what passes for leadership in the political system can’t face the basic problems, let alone imagine serious systemic change.

So, last question: What do you hope your book will accomplish? It’s a clear, compelling argument for rationing in a society that seems unwilling to accept limits and unable to comprehend the need for them. How do we get this into the public conversation?

SC: My aim is, in a way, parallel to what I tried to do with Losing Our Cool—to touch off a debate where there seemed to be total agreement. Air-conditioning has always been viewed as being of pure benefit to humanity, which it’s not. Rationing is constantly being held out by the Right as an unutterably nightmarish fate that awaits us if we get serious about ecological restraint and fairness. Meanwhile, the environmental establishment (in basic agreement with the Right) wants to go on letting people believe that the human economy can just keep on growing, that the market can allocate fairly, and that rationing is indeed an evil to be avoided at all costs.

My purpose with this book is to ask, so rationing’s the worst that could happen? Really? Well, let’s see how bad it might actually be—which may not be as bad as you think. And then let’s compare it to major-league worst-case scenarios, like the global ecological meltdown and all-against-all conflict that we could well see if we don’t restrain ourselves.

Arguing for Our Lives (City Lights, 2013) and All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009) among other works. He can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

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