Is It Time to Say the R-Word Out Loud? Carbon Rationing in a Modern World

Among the many ideas for ensuring that economies conform to ecological reality, the boldest have featured rationing of greenhouse emissions.

| June 24, 2013

It's a relatively mild July afternoon in 2020 — time for a 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, and then you swipe a second time, with your ration card. 

What? Ration cards? They belong in 1943, not the 2000s, right? Maybe, but those of us seeking strong action on climate and other ecological issues should drop the euphemisms and consider the possibility  that the future we want to see could well entail new forms of rationing. And when you think about it, how terrible could that be? While the prospect of rationing is not necessarily appealing, many of us see much worse fates looming: a pressure-cooker atmosphere, or wholesale extinctions, or deadly pandemics.

Today, with the widening wealth gap, we already ration basic goods, but in a terribly unfair way. Some of us are not even aware that it's happening, while others see their consumption harshly limited by privation. It's true that fairer, more explicit forms of rationing would not fit into today's economy. But they just might be essential in a future, less fragile society. 

That's because creating such a society will mean cutting back deeply on our exploitation of fossil fuels and other resources. Prices of many basic necessities would sail out of the reach of most families, forcing the government to impose price controls. Higher demand would outrun the fixed supply. The result — as experiences of the 1970s, for example, have taught us — would be shortages, long lines, and social conflict.

Therefore, any firm ceiling on total resource consumption will make fair-shares rationing necessary. Green-growth enthusiasts don't want to accept that. But hard experience, in peacetime as well as wartime, shows that technical innovation can't fill the resource gap, while campaigns for voluntary restraint are unfair and eventually fizzle in the face of the economy's urge to expand. In contrast, clearly defined resource limits backed up by rationing tend to inspire a sense of common purpose.

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 health care debate, with adversaries tossing it around as an all-purpose scare tactic while ignoring the often cruel rationing that already pervades American medicine.      

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