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

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Different fuels or energy sources would have different values in terms of carbon credits, much as the "point" values of different cuts of meat varied under wartime rationing.

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.      

Among the many ideas for ensuring that economies conform to ecological reality, the boldest have featured rationing of greenhouse emissions. Since the 1990s, for example, activists and academics in the United Kingdom, backed by allies in Parliament, have been advocating mandatory carbon rationing.

In a typical such scenario, Parliament would set an annual “carbon budget” (an overall ceiling on national carbon emissions, to be lowered year by year) and allocate, say, 40 percent of the budget to the nation’s households in the form of electronic credits that customers would need when making all energy purchases. Each adult Briton would receive, free, an equal share of credits. (The rest of the emissions credits would be auctioned off to businesses and government agencies.)

At street level, the system would not be complicated. Each household would have a “carbon account” into which its monthly ration—its share of the national carbon budget—would be deposited automatically. Then every fuel purchase or payment of a utility bill would require a debit from the household’s carbon account. At the gas pump, for example, this might mean swiping a ration card in the same way a customer would use a “loyalty card” today.

Different fuels or energy sources would have different values in terms of carbon credits, much as the “point” values of different cuts of meat varied under wartime rationing. The credit value of, say, a kilowatt-hour of electricity or a cylinder of propane would be tied to the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the production and consumption of that energy.

Eventually, though, circumstances may require more comprehensive systems, such as rationing of all goods and services based on their full ecological footprints. There’s even the idea of “expenditure rationing”—first conceived by World War II-era economists but never put into practice—which would place a monthly ceiling on how much money each household can spend.

I am fully aware that such suggestions may appear alien, politically toxic, even absurd in the context of today’s economy. But historically, people facing grave challenges often have preferred clear-cut, equitable limits on personal consumption to all-against-all strife.

So I’m betting that the ecological ration card would be broadly accepted as a simple fact of life in any future society that manages to achieve economic democracy while averting ecological crisis. As for how we can become such a society, well, that’s going to be the hard part.  

Stan Cox’ book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing was published in May by The New Press