I no longer feel lonely in suggesting that rationing could help the climate crisis. This week I discovered that a team of European researchers has published an article arguing for wartime-style allocations that would put sustainable limits on the things we buy, build, drive, and eat. Thank you Nathan Wood, Rob Lawlor, and Josie Freear of research centres including the University of Leeds, for your article in the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment. (Read it here.)
They cite the desperate need for the world to cut back on emissions, and say nations could make progress by mandating sustainable levels of consumption among citizens. They cite the success of rationing programs in the UK during World War II and show that these programs were actually popular among citizens who appreciated the underlying fairness. As I also detail in my book Mobilize Food!, wartime British citizens realized that shortages of food and other goods were not a result of rationing ― but were a result of the war. Rationing then ensured that everyone could get some of that sugar, butter, fuel, and more.
You need a thick skin to propose this bold an idea, as I discovered after arguing for rationing a few years ago in Canada's national newspaper The Globe and Mail. To address the climate crisis, I argued, we need to cut way back on production and consumption that emits too many greenhouse gases, such as in my specific area of research ― livestock for meat and dairy.
My article garnered hundreds of online responses. Many were supportive, with versions of: Thank goodness someone is talking about fair ways of lowering consumption! But many comments were critical and even angry. I got called names. Some declared that I was stupid or a Communist.
They might want to consider that the architects of World War II British rationing were intelligent and far from being radical socialists. They were upper-class Conservatives, who developed rationing not for ideological reasons but for practical reasons of equity and ultimately survival.
Dr. Wood and his colleagues have also attracted their share of derisive comments. As Dr. Wood said in an email to me, the authors were labelled "bicycle-riding vegetarians" by one conservative news outlet. Funny, that doesn't sound derogatory to me.
Their elegantly written article squares with my own findings, published in Mobilize Food!, that rationing of necessities in World War II Britain offers lessons on how we can fairly share the responsibility of making lifestyle changes that support climate rather than undermine it. Two other researchers, whose work I deeply appreciate, are also quoted in the Ethics, Policy & Environment article: Mark Roodhouse, a UK historian who has written extensively about wartime rationing and considered its climate applications today, and Stan Cox, an American plant scientist and author of a wide-ranging book on the concept and applications of rationing. Both have argued that this approach could reduce emissions quickly and dramatically.
I get that the idea of rationing climate-destructive foods like steak sounds shocking to many. As well, our planet is producing more meat every year, so you might ask: Where’s the scarcity? Today's scarcity is not of meat (or oil or gas), say authors Wood et al., but of carbon sinks ― the planet's environmental capacity to absorb large amounts of the carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide created when we eat meat every day, build new fossil-fuel infrastructure, and rely excessively on industrialized approaches to life.
As the authors rightly say, rationing isn’t the only solution to our climate crisis. No single approach is. This one would need to go hand-in-hand with other structural changes that together would allow us to heal the planet and move toward a liveable future.