FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Rationing for Earth Day

The Right has developed a kind of shorthand language for talking about the future they fear more than any other, and the key word in that language is “rationing.” On any given news day, politicians, pundits, and media personalities who oppose climate protection, hate food assistance, and fear universal health care can be heard making the claim that if any serious steps are taken toward creating a fairer, healthier, more ecologically sound society, then we will be faced with rationing. And—on this point if on nothing else—they’re right.

But while that prospect is anything but appealing, many of us see much worse fates looming: a climate gone haywire maybe, or wholesale extinctions, or deadly pandemics. So those of us calling for bold action to stave off such catastrophes should drop the euphemisms and admit that the future we want could well entail rationing.

Or to be more clear, we’ll need new forms of rationing. Today, with the widening wealth gap, we divvy up resources all the time with no regard to fairness. Some of us are not even aware that anything’s wrong, while others see their consumption harshly limited by privation. It’s very true that fairer, explicit forms of rationing would not fit comfortably into today’s economy. But so what? They’ll be essential if we are someday to enjoy the kind of ecologically robust society that is envisioned in Earth Day celebrations.

That’s because creating such a society will mean cutting back deeply on our exploitation of fossil fuels and other resources. Otherwise, there’ll be an ecological cliff waiting not far ahead.

Evidence of that cliff is overwhelming. At least one-quarter of all plant growth and freshwater flow on Earth is captured and used every year by our species. In a high-profile paper published four years ago, a group of twenty-nine scientists from seven countries defined nine “planetary boundaries” within which humanity can “operate safely.” Their grim conclusion: levels of carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrogen, sea-organism loss, freshwater resources, soil erosion, species extinction, and industrial chemicals show that we have either already breached, or are on the way to breaching, all of the Earth’s critical boundaries.

Fair Skies

Strong limits on resource consumption are required to pull us back within the safe zone, but that would be very likely to send prices of basic necessities sailing out of the reach of most families. Inflation controls would become essential, but that would unleash pent-up demand, which would outstrip the fixed supply. The result—as experiences of the 1970s, for example, have taught us—would be critical shortages, endless waiting lines, and social conflict.

Therefore, any serious ceiling on total resource consumption will bring on the need for fair-shares rationing. Green-growth enthusiasts don’t want to accept that. But hard experience, in peacetime as well as wartime, shows that our economy generates new resource-consuming technologies at a much faster rate than it does resource-Any Way You Slice It-mconserving ones, while campaigns for voluntary restraint inevitably fizzle in the face of a one-two knockout punch: the economy’s built-in drive to expand and our vast rich-poor gap. In contrast, clearly defined resource limits backed up by rationing have proven to inspire a sense of common purpose and cooperation.

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, and even some members of Parliament, have been advocating mandatory carbon rationing. Under such plans, each adult Briton would receive, free, an equal share of emissions credits each month. Then every fuel purchase or payment of a utility bill would require a debit from the household “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.

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 general, or 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.

Painful Decisions

It’s most often in the context of the U.S. health-care debate that the R-word shows up in the media. If the adversaries in that debate can agree on nothing else, they at least use the same definition of rationing: it’s something that will happen if the other side prevails.

But of course there’s no shortage of medical rationing going on right now. Uninsured heart patients are less likely to find treatment than are those with insurance; children lacking private insurance are 80 percent more likely to have trouble getting specialist care; and when receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, uninsured patients are told three and a half times more often than are insured patients that their cancer has already metastasized.

In the medical world, rationing American-style means excluding patients. But if we must discriminate, it should be against drugs and procedures, not people.

Waste reduction, that ill-defined panacea, won’t be enough. Eliminate all ineffective or counterproductive treatments, and the medical world will still have to contend with a deluge of increasingly expensive technology, soaking into the economy year after year. Once a technology is declared beneficial, the industry is obliged to offer it, however small the expected improvement in quality or length of life. As a consequence, medicine will soon occupy an unhealthy one-fifth of the entire U.S. economy, on the way to one-third.

Daniel Callahan of the Garrison, NY, Hastings Center, a bioethics think-tank, has called for curtailment of medical research-for-profit. He contends that “when the research imperative acts as a moral bludgeon—turning a moral good into a moral obligation and then into a call to arms—to level other values in the name of reducing suffering, it goes too far.” To resist such supply-side bullying, Callahan has suggested that we “come to see health care as being like fire, police, and defense protection—a necessity for the public interest rather than a market commodity.”

***

I am fully aware that talk of rationing anything—energy, drugs, water, food, spending—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 or medical ration card would be broadly accepted as a simple fact of life if our future society 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’s book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing will be published in May by The New Press. He can be reached at t.stan@cox.net.      

 

 

More articles by:

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail