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Appeals for rationing through the ages: A Canadian Food Board poster from the First World War, a U.S. military poster from the Second World War, and a protest sign at a Madrid climate demonstration in 2019 that reads 'meat is the No. 1 cause of climate change.'

Toronto Public Library; U.S. Office of War Information; AFP/Getty Images

Eleanor Boyle is a Vancouver-based writer. She is the author of High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat and the forthcoming book Mobilize Food! Wartime Inspiration for Environmental Victory Today.

It’s too bad meat is so tasty, driving so convenient and airline travel so desirable. Because those all create large amounts of greenhouse gases and worsen the climate crisis. We know it, and some of us feel guilty getting on a plane, hopping in the car or eating burgers. But how are we to cut back when we’re not sure what level of a high-emission behaviour is sustainable – and when everyone else is doing it?

Some environmental activists and leaders suggest we should practise moderation, take the bus, eat veggie burgers. But voluntary measures just can’t deliver when the problem is this big and time is so short. That’s why it may be time for mandatory cutbacks on the kinds of consumption that threaten all of us.

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It may be time for rationing.

‘We would all be starving in the dark.’ Is the climate crisis like a world war? Readers debate the merits of carbon rationing

At a Canadian butcher's shop in the 1940s, a patron looks at a meat chart to see how much the ration coupons in her hand will get her.

Government of Canada via The Canadian Press

Rationing sounds awful

I know, I know, it sounds awful – even shocking given our expectations. Rationing is for populations at war. But given the terrible consequences of climate change, we are in a war to save ourselves.

“The climate crisis is our third world war,” writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “It needs a bold response."

According to writer and activist Bill McKibben, “it’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.”

The dramatic Green New Deal proposed by some Americans calls for a wartime-like retooling of our economies and our lives. We need to immediately put the brakes on consumption, with everyone sharing the burden. This is not to lay the climate crisis or its entire solution at the feet of you and me or absolve governments of action. But every person needs to play a role.

Rationing isn’t actually all that radical or unusual. Consumer and social goods are limited and need to be deliberately allocated, ecologist Stan Cox says in Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing. During summer water shortages, we’re told to hold off on dousing the flowers every day. Before heading into backcountry areas, you’ll probably need a recreation permit that limits the number of visitors to sensitive places. To fish, you need a licence setting a quota on how many you can catch. Health-care professionals decide which patients get which treatments and how quickly – especially if there are wait times for surgery or a shortage of drugs – even in emergency-room triage, which sorts patients by severity. It’s more obvious for cars and clothes: Human wants are greater than the goods available.

For allocating stuff, our usual mechanism is price: If you want something and can afford it, generally, you can have it. But that’s no way to reduce activities that generate emissions. Even though sin taxes on meat or carbon taxes on gas may lower some emissions, they don’t restrain wealthy people who like to fly and eat steak and barely notice the expense. So higher prices don’t achieve the limitations we need on greenhouse gases. They’re also inequitable and unfair.

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Ads in The Globe and Mail from late 1942 to 1943 mark the gradual introduction of rationing on butter, then meat, then jams and preserves.

Gasoline coupons became a precious commodity once they were introduced. Government ads warned Canadians to guard the books closely, and to diligently fill out the paperwork to prevent counterfeiting.

Globe and Mail archives

‘Fair Shares for All’

Fairness is what rationing is all about. That’s why so many citizens approved of it during the Second World War. Polls in Canada in 1945 showed that more than 90 per cent of adults felt that rationing had done a good or fair job during the conflict in distributing food equitably, Ian Mosby writes in his 2014 book, Food Will Win the War. Even in Britain, where wartime rationing was more extensive, opinion polls showed that most citizens agreed with government policies aiming to ensure “Fair Shares for All.”

At the start, people weren’t crazy about the limitations, but they soon perceived that the system guaranteed everyone (even low-income citizens who had been undernourished) adequate supplies of eggs, sugar, butter, meat and sweets, as well as clothing and fuel. Rationing becomes appealing when consumers come to see the positives as well. The glass may be half-empty but it’s also half-full.

Wartime food programs have intrigued me for a decade.

I’d been writing about how we can eat more sustainably by lowering our meat and dairy intake. Then, my husband and I were in London and discovered the Imperial War Museum and its exhibit The Ministry of Food. There we learned of Britain’s food-system overhaul in the 1930s and forties to keep its citizens fed through chaotic times. Because war can wreck normal infrastructures, including those for food production and distribution, the British government assessed the country’s food network, refocused agriculture toward domestic needs and set clear objectives for every citizen to grow locally, minimize food waste and abide by the ration so everyone would have enough.

If you’re thinking that slice of history isn’t relevant because people don’t want government to be involved in food, it’s too late. Elected officials and their administrations already oversee agriculture, food safety, dietary guidelines and more. Besides, we in Canada want the government to act in key sectors such as transportation, education and health.

Given that food is even more essential than those, because we need to eat to survive, and given that climate change is threatening global food production, we need public leadership. We need visionaries with the foresight of British wartime leader Winston Churchill to inform and inspire us and require that we act.

Various examples of the ration books issued by the British government in the 1940s. Like Canada's books, the British ones had a tiered system for different grades of food. Over time, authorities combined the coupon books for different products, including clothing, for convenient use.

Hulton Archive, Keystone/Getty Images

Demand management has been on the table

Intervening in the market to dampen consumer demand and emissions has been proposed before. In B.C. and elsewhere, we have carbon taxes on fossil fuels. Internationally, some jurisdictions have imposed taxes on meat.

As for more ambitious programs, in 2006 British Environment Minister David Miliband recommended widespread rationing to limit personal carbon emissions. Officials explored the possibility but felt citizens would never agree to it. Here and there leaders have considered personal carbon allowances, tradeable energy quotas and carbon entitlements. In the early 2000s, British activists formed Carbon Rationing Action Groups, which helped individuals lower their footprints but were hard to administer without legal frameworks. The ideas were ahead of their time.

Now, however, there’s awareness and a hunger for action. A recent Canadian poll shows that three-quarters of respondents are “worried” about climate change and 42 per cent believe it is now “an emergency.” That research from Abacus Data was commissioned by policy analyst Seth Klein for his forthcoming book on mobilizing Canada for the climate crisis. In the United States, polls say it’s a top issue and that citizens want the government to act. In Britain more than a decade ago, commentator George Monbiot called for personal carbon rationing. More recently, Guardian writer Sonia Sodha confessed that she talks a good environmental game but burns a lot of fossil fuels. She suggests legal limits be implemented on her and the rest of us. We’re not bad people, she says. Just human.

In 1941, these British children are making do with carrots on sticks instead of ice cream, which is not available due to rationing.

Ashwood/Fox Photos/Getty Images

How would rationing work?

There are numerous possible models. Carbon could be a kind of currency that we spend (along with regular money) when purchasing high-emission goods or services. Each of us could receive an allocation of carbon points to spend in a month or year. These could be stored on a smart bank card. When paying for gasoline or airline tickets or certain foods (or, more broadly, energy use), the card would electronically deduct money plus appropriate numbers of carbon points. If we used our entire allocation, we might be able to purchase more – there are pros and cons to tradeability – from individuals who don’t need them, rewarding them financially for their low-carbon lives. Prices of goods such as meat would not necessarily rise. Rather, everyone would only be allowed to purchase certain amounts.

Would rationing be complicated to design and implement? Sure, but it’s doable. Problems would include accommodating variations either regional (more meat up north) or personal (people who need to drive for work). But these should be solvable in today’s data world. Already government payments – say, for employment insurance – are calculated differently based on factors such as where you live and local employment levels. Allowing for complexity doesn’t require an army of people with pencils and calculators, but rather good data sets and effective software programs.

Would there be abuses and a black market? Yes, because humans will always be crafty. But Britain demonstrated in wartime that if fair-share systems are transparent and perceived as equitable, abuses and black-market activity can be minimized.

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Canada's Second World War rationing didn't end when the fighting stopped. The measures were eased, but still continued until 1947 so Canadian produce could be saved for export to Britain and other battle-scarred European nations. Here, a Globe and Mail front page from August, 1947, reports the loosening of Canadian canning-sugar rations and the tightening of British meat rations.

Globe and Mail archives

It’s a hard sell

I realize this is a tough sell. Rationing sounds scary (maybe right-wing, maybe left-wing, but probably bad) and out of line with the freedoms we’ve come to expect. In our consumer culture, as Mr. Cox tells it, suggesting rationing is like shouting an obscenity in church. Besides, scarcities aren’t always visible. For meat, there’s no actual shortage of chicken, pork or beef – just scarcities of the land, fresh water and greenhouse gas capacity needed to sustainably produce them.

Nor would this be easy. Rationing would change our lives and involve a word I’ve been trying to avoid: sacrifice. But what are we to do? Science shows we have barely 10 years to avoid disaster, suggesting we shouldn’t count entirely on technological innovation or self-moderation. Meanwhile, we’re all in a lifeboat with just enough space for each of us. Should we really be complaining about not getting first-class seats if doing so would bump others? That’s what we’re doing when we consume too much of the stuff that fuels climate change.

It wouldn’t work without political will. Environmental scholar Maurie Cohen analyzed wartime rationing and concluded it might be effective today if consumers were given specific objectives; if legislation was flexible to allow for surprises and change; and if political leaders were genuinely committed.

I’m not alone in my uncertainty about eating animal-source foods and getting on planes. I’d like to know how much driving and home energy use are justified. Based on science, a rationing system would remove the guesswork in addressing the climate emergency. It would also assure us that if we’re going to cut back on vacations, others will, too.

There would be psychological benefits as well. Knowing we are living within planetary boundaries would bring hope to those who are frightened or depressed, boosting societal morale. Morale was a justifiable concern in wartime, especially in Britain, which needed everyone to optimistically support the quest for victory. Today, our countries need policies and practices that inspire confidence in humanity’s prospects. Programs such as rationing could fairly share emission-intensive goods, give people meaningful ways to contribute and help maintain our commitment to a livable future.

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