FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 19, 2019
Richard Falk
Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, and Ignoring Kashmir
Charles Pierson
With Enemies Like These, Trump Doesn’t Need Friends
Lawrence Davidson
The Sorry State of the Nobel Peace Prize
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Scourge in the White House
Urvashi Sarkar
“Not a Blade of Grass Grew:” Living on the Edge of the Climate Crisis in the Sandarbans of West Bengal.
Thomas Knapp
Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?
Dean Baker
Is There Any Lesser Authority Than Alan Greenspan?
Gary Leupp
Warren’s Ethnic Issue Should Not Go Away
George Ochenski
Memo to Trump: Water Runs Downhill
Jeff Cohen
What George Carlin Taught Us about Media Propaganda by Omission
Stephen Martin
The Perspicacity of Mcluhan and Panopticonic Plans of the MIC
September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail