Ration consumption or ration production?

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Don Fitz: To ensure fairness and sustainability, an ecosocialist society will have to ration scarce resources. The real question is, what should be rationed, and how?

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AnyWayYouSliceItStan Cox
Any Way You Slice It
The Past, Present and Future of Rationing
The New Press, 2013

reviewed by Don Fitz

Don Fitz  is editor of Green Social Thought and is a member of the National Committee of the Greens/Green Party USA.

Stan Cox got quite a few folks a bit hot and bothered when his book Losing Our Cool critiqued air conditioning during the middle of the 2010 heat wave.  Now, in the middle of massive joblessness and economic downturn, his new book, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present and Future of Rationing, is based on the assumption that humanity needs to massively reduce consumption if it is to have any chance of surviving.

Is the guy nuts?  Does he hate the working class and poor?  Or does he have very keen vision into a topic that few progressives and socialists have even thought about?  Peeking beneath the surface, Slice It has the potential to spark serious discussion about the role of social wages in challenging climate change as well as control over production during the transition to a post-capitalist society.

Away with confusion

The book challenges many conceptualizations, beginning with the faith that unlimited expansion of the economy is possible or even desirable.  A direct challenge to green growth enthusiasts, Slice It minces no words regarding the multitude of environmental catastrophes that require an entire re-thinking of what the “good life” is all about.

Another misunderstanding is that rationing occurs rarely and only under special circumstances.  In fact, virtually everyone participates in rationing every day.  It is not an issue of “Will we ration?”  The question is “How will rationing occur?”  In a typical capitalist society, goods and services are rationed by the amount that people can pay for them — what economists call “implicit rationing.”  Anyone can obtain what they can afford and cannot buy what they cannot pay for.

A third source of confusion is idea is that rationing is always by quantity: a certain amount of this and so much of that.  Though this type of “unit rationing” occurs, there is a vast array of rationing systems.  Much more frequent is “rationing by points,” when people choose between multiple items.

By far, the biggest misconception regarding rationing is that it is always hated.  Not only is it not universally disliked, there are many times when people want rationing.

  • US citizens supported food rationing during WWII if it would help feed Europe.
  • Life expectancy increased in England with the rationing of medical care during WWI and WWII.
  • During the 1970s gas shortage, Americans expressed preference for rationing over tax schemes.
  • Despite food shortages, rationing eliminated childhood malnutrition during Cuba’s “Special Period” after the fall of the USSR.
  • People accept rationing of emergency room care by need and reject care going to those who pay more.
  • In lab experiments, participants prefer that scarce water go to “weak people first.”

Actually, claims that rationing is liked and disliked tend to both be true.  The rich try to stir their allies into an anti-rationing frenzy even though they adore “implicit” rationing by price, which guarantees them what they want.  Those who are less well off prefer rationing of basic goods and services, especially when they are in short supply as in times of war.

Rationing what?

The central theses which Cox drives home are (a) the Earth sets limits to human activity; (b) this means that there are limits on human consumptions; (c) “explicit” or openly defined rationing is the only fair method of distributing goods; and (d) the importance of fairness will increase as environmental crises worsen.  The book draws on academic literature, a vast array of stories and extensive personal experience.  The author shares with readers his knowledge of water rationing in India, bread rationing in Egypt and medical rationing in England.

What is clearly the major interest of the author and probably readers is the urgent need to ration CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalency.  The idea behind carbon rationing plans is that everyone has a certain amount of CO2e to use.  There would be a dual price for everything: first would be the regular price we are used to; and, second would be the estimated amount of CO2e required to produce it, or its “embodied” CO2e.  Each purchase would eat into the amount of embodied CO2e allotted to the person.

What happens when CO2e-thrifty people use less than their allowance?  Some propose that they be able to sell allowances to others.  Cox warns that this would create a two-tier system.  Those who are well off would be able to buy extra carbon credits, undermining the whole idea of universal fairness.  Instead, Cox supports an idea derived from Michal Kalecki’s thinking: people would sell unused carbon credits back to the government, which would maintain the fairness aspect of the system.

I think that problems could emerge with a cash buy-back of carbon credits. First, the buy-back means that people have more money to spend, which means that extra CO2e is produced by creating and/or using extra commodities.  Additionally, cash buy-backs would encourage the thinking that happiness comes from having more physical objects, which Cox debunks in other chapters.

The question is: What could be used as a reward that is not money or material objects?  Praise?  Recognition?  It is unlikely that adults would be motivated by goody-goody stickers.  There is one reward that just about everyone likes. (When I ran it by Cox, he agreed with the suggestion).  That reward would be working less.  The government could give people the option of receiving cash or a shorter work week (by its buying working hours from the employer).  That would give people more free time and encourage the idea that the good life comes from living well rather than acquiring things.

The opposite problem is actually more frequent: people wanting more than their rations permit.  The book emphasizes that voluntary restraint, though pointing in the right direction, is insufficient for enormity of changes that need to be made.  This is significant for eating meat, which is widely ignored as one of the most important sources of CO2e, with estimates of meat accounting for between 18–51% of total greenhouse gas emissions.  Cox suggests that voluntarily reducing consumption of meat might be “far-fetched.”  But maybe not.  For a very long time, Catholics did not eat red meat on Fridays.

If the Pope were to receive a divine inspiration that people should eat no red meat on Fridays, eat vegetarian on Wednesdays, and vegan on Mondays, this “rationing by faith” might do more than all the current schemes and practices to reduce CO2e emissions combined.  Catholic meatless days would certainly have powerful effects if followed by other Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists.  Such “rationing by faith” may extend beyond religion and indicate that people committed to a belief (such as the need to win WWII or a War for Human Existence) might very well change their behavior by the hundreds of millions.

Rationing as social wages

Slice It covers food, water and medical care because rationing them is so widespread due to their necessity for life.  Areas not covered include schools, roads and parks.  These are rationed, usually by being made available to all citizens.  In the early 21st century, each of these is under “privatization” attacks which would force citizens to pay for access.  As is typically the case with rationing, the rich want services to be provided on a cash basis while progressives wish them to be citizen rights.

Another way of understanding the conflict is the contrast between individual and social wages.  Each worker receives individual wages.  Social wages are collective benefits received from the combined labor of all.  They can include schools, parks, roads, water, food, housing, libraries, postal services, pensions (such as social security), and medical care.  Efforts to expand social wages appears the same as efforts for fair shares rationing.  Whenever the powerful are forced to grant social wages, they insist on having a two-tier system: the smallest amount of rations possible for the general public; and, a higher quality product that goes to those who pay.

Does the concept of rationing CO2e fit into the framework of social wages?  On the surface, it appears that people receive goods for every other type of social wage; but with CO2e rationing, their consumption would be restricted.  In actuality, there is little to no difference.  This becomes clear upon understanding that climate change has altered human history —future societies must limit carbon emissions if they are to survive.

All goods are limited in quantity because human labor is required to produce them.  (If this were not the case, they would be a “free gift of nature” and there would be no need to either ration or purchase them.)  CO2e rations are unique only because they are the embodiment of the carbon, rather than labor power, required for production.  But CO2e and other social wages are identical in their need to be rationed to ensure that everyone receives enough for a good quality life.

Rationing production

Almost all of Slice It deals with rationing of consumption.  The author provides a glimpse of what rationing by production might look like when discussing medical care.  In the United Kingdom and with Oregon’s Medicaid payments, limitations have been made on expensive procedures with a low level of benefit.  This is discrimination against procedures rather than discrimination based upon age or ethnicity.  By focusing on preventive and community care, Cuba devotes less of its scarce resources on high cost equipment.

More needs to be written on the concept of rationing by producing less of what society determines is less useful.  One of the clearest examples of the intense need for rationing by production is the limitation of arms production, which [some] nations have attempted for a long, long time.  If each country were to have a cap on its arms spending that would be proportional to its population, the US and Israel would need to have a dramatic downscaling.  The only change in individual life styles required by such rationing would be the need to shift jobs from damaging to useful production.

What about food?  Instead of focusing on food eaten by individual consumers, rationing by production would severely limit the amount of resources going into packaging, processing, chemicalizing, storing, transporting and genetically engineering food.

Since this accounts for the vast majority of the food industry, rationing by food production would have a much greater effect on reducing carbon emissions than would targeting consumer choices.  Those who would be annoyed the most would be corporations whose production potential would be lost.  Consumers would lose those things they care about the least.  The challenge would again be to ensure work for those whose income had depended on the production of useless or harmful goods.

Food is intimately connected to water.  As Cox notes, 86% of water goes to agriculture, 9% to industry and only 5% to residential use.   Yet, the majority of discussion of water shortages is directed to homeowners watering their lawns.  Rationing of water in the stage of production would sharply decrease the misplaced focus on consumers.  It would also dovetail perfectly with religious and non-religious inspirations to eat less meat.  Since the most wasteful agricultural use of water is for meat and meat-related products, rationing of agricultural water would decrease the production of meat.

Transportation illustrates how rationing by production can lead to a very different path than rationing by consumption.  The latter results in a variety of schemes that are proven failures.  For example, limits on gas per car lets those with more money buy more cars and travel more.  Ability to travel based on license plate numbers again lets people with more cars change their tags.

In contrast, rationing car use by production would be based on the assumptions that

  1. 80% of trips could be made by bicycle and foot if neighborhoods had essential services available;
  2. 80% of remaining trips could be made by bus or train if they were affordable; and
  3. this would leave only 4% of trips to be made by rent-a-car or car sharing.

Neighborhoods would need to be walkable and mass transit abundant before rationing began.  Only after these preliminary steps were taken, transportation production could be rationed by …

  1. reducing the number of cars produced;
  2. increasing lanes available to buses and emergency and shared cars, reducing lanes available to private cars, and giving buses remote radio control over lights at intersections; and,
  3. reducing parking lots.

Rationing of transportation by consumption would begin with ignoring people’s need to get from here to there and then have complex, unworkable schemes to punish them for doing what they need to do.  Rationing of transportation by production would begin with developing alternative ways to get from here to there and then allow people to drive as much as they wanted to, though there would be no cars to buy [individually], few if any lanes to drive on, and no place to park once they got there.

It may seem that rationing by production is merely the creation of scarcity, which would cause shortages, which would lead to rationing by consumption of the smaller number of goods remaining.  In the case of items like meat production this would be the case, and, a change in social attitudes (such as occurred with meat consumption during WWII) would be necessary for rationing to maintain popularity.

But most rationing by production would differ fundamentally from rationing by consumption:

  1. some rationing by production would be items that consumers do not purchase, such as nuclear weapons; and,
  2. a large portion of rationing by production would be eliminating entire product lines, such as individually owned cars.  The goal would be to build only cars for emergency use and car-sharing.

The most important topic of rationing, whether by consumption or production, is the issue of who determines what items are restricted.  True fairness goes beyond having equal shares to everyone.  It includes equal power in deciding what items are limited and what form that limitation takes.  Slice It cites considerable research showing that a sense of fairness in distribution is essential for rationing to work.  This implies that fairness in making decisions concerning production would strengthen support for rationing even more.


In describing the role of rationing in capitalist society Slice It offers glimpses of contradictions that a post-capitalist society will have to face if it is to have equitable distribution of goods and services.  Clearly, it is environmentally destructive to project a post-capitalist society which maintains a fetish on the individual accumulation of objects.  Instead, it is time to visualize a society which decides democratically how to share (i.e. ration) what humans produce from Earth’s resources.

There is no better way to concretize that vision within capitalism than to oppose the gluttony of the rich, resist all forms of “austerity” programs, and demand fair shares rationing that respect environmental limits.

The use of rationing to create a new society will not begin with a mechanistic formula, but with a change in consciousness.  As Slice It reminds us, previous rationing systems have been based on scarcity while future rationing must be based on restraint in the extraction of natural resources that are in abundance but will cause environmental collapse if removed from the ground.

WWII showed that rationing will be accepted in times of intense crisis.  The issue is: Will enough people believe that environmental damage has reached a state of intense crisis? 

Slice It does not provide the answers to this essential question, but lays out the framework for beginning the discussion.


  • Philip and Jeff bring up issues that are critically important for transitioning from capitalism to an ecologically sane society. Philip’s misunderstanding of a statement of mine is reasonable, since I apparently sowed confusion in the pursuit of brevity.

    When I referred to “democratic control of the economy” as not being a panacea, it would have been more clear to say “democratic control of the economy is necessary but not sufficient” to resolve ecological crises. Abolition of capitalism does not guarantee an end to racism, sexism or gluttonous production; but it is a pre-condition for activists’ realizing their goals.

    I do not mean to separate struggles under capitalism, during a revolutionary transition and in a post-capitalist society as Jeff seems to interpret. One belief which is disturbingly prevalent among anti-capitalists is that we need to “wait until after the revolution” to challenge destructive capitalist production. No! Challenging it right now creates the basis for making transformations when we have to power to.

    In St. Louis [where I live] socialists are noticeable by their absence from struggles against extraction industries. Socialists should be in the front lines, explaining that capitalism is not a little bit wasteful but is enormously destructive in its productive system. Socialists should be the first [but, sadly, are often the last] to realize that this creates the basis to simultaneously decrease production and increase consumption.

    Decreasing production means not only producing less of many things [nukes, dams, luxury resorts] but manufacturing items that last much, much longer. If technology is in existence to create shirts [or electronic devices or whatever] that last for 50 years, but corporations intentionally design them to fall apart or go out of style in 2 years, that is a 96% waste ratio. If my arithmetic is correct, that should allow for a 90% decrease in production simultaneous with an increase in consumption by 2 1/2. This is what is necessary to improve the quality of life of everyone on the globe while attaining environmental sanity.

    This relates directly to the scarcity of water, which is used much more in industry than residentially. Manufacturing a car requires a third of a million liters of water – other wasteful industries are similar.

    Solar power illustrates the illusions created by capitalism. Under capitalism, solar power is merely a new profit source for energy companies, which adds to their profits from fossil fuels. Solar power is NOT replacing fossil fuels. The value of solar is that it prefigureatively shows what could be accomplished in a different world. If AND ONLY IF production is scaled down enormously can solar/wind etc provide enough energy for human welfare.

    Instead of the conservative slogan “More solar!” revolutionaries should inscribe upon their banners “Abolish the fossil fuel system!”

  • The issue of agency that John points out dissolves with a correct understanding that a demand for “fair shares rationing that respect[s] environmental limits” is subsumed under the concept of collective control over the means of production – something Don points out clearly. Yes, a “we’re all in this together” mantra is obfuscating under current power structures, but it is not a myth. We are in fact in a together-or-bust situation. The operative meaning of unity depends on its structural context.

    This leads me to Don’s response to Jeff. Jeff’s suggested “technofixes” show how simple issues of water access, or even climate change, seem through a technology-focused lens. Yet I cannot agree with Don’s dismissal of democratic control of the economy as a means for moving sustainable technology forward. Was this not precisely his point?

    If an elite class is maximizing short-term profits without concern for the long-term effects, then of course certain technology pathways will be chosen that are not socially or ecologically optimal, but only optimal under the logic of the capitalist system. To change the logic of the capitalist system – to recapture control of the means of production through collective governance – is precisely when we decide on a new technology pathway. These are not separate and distinct matters, as Don leads us to believe. Don’t lose track of the system perspective when discussing specific problems.

  • Jeff White and John Riddell raise points often made concerning rationing and connect with the discussion of whether a post-capitalist will be based on limitless production.

    Jeff may very well be correct when challenging statistics on water — I’m not really sure. But whichever data are used point to the fact that far more water is used for agricultural and industrial production than by consumers. This means that limiting water usage at the point of production would make more sense than focusing on how much people water their lawns.

    I am concerned with his statement about the “abundance” of water. The fact that water is abundant does not mean that potable water is abundant. The massive conflicts across the globe — over glaciers’ melting in Peru, gold mining in Central America, fracking in the US, amongst many, many others — are about the diminishing availability of drinkable water. Saying that clean water falls from the sky implies that he has not heard of acid rain or the other ways that water is contaminated.

    Repeating the corporate myth of turning sea water into fresh water via solar ignores the environmental problems that solar power creates as well as the inability of solar to produce the massive amount necessary for a geometrically expanding economy.

    The technofixes that Jeff proposes are basically the same as those hyped by corporations. The difference is that he seems to believe that problems inherent in many forms of production will disappear if there is democratic control of the economy. It is way past time for us to recognize that much of the problem of capitalism is the technology is chooses to employ and not merely its top-down control.

    John’s comments might apply to some article that someone once wrote on rationing, but not to the comments I made on Stan Cox’ book. They show the importance of reading beyond the title before critiquing an article. He does not seem to understand the point that rationing is universal. The choice is between “implicit” rationing by price vs. explicit rationing of products.

    The thrust of the article was that rationing of production is the best way to make necessities of life available to everyone and is very similar to the demand for social wages, which has been made by unions for over 100 years. Pretending that “rationing” is a dirty word to be avoided repeats the mindset of the 1% and supports their argument that rationing by price is not really rationing. This, of course, insures that the rich get far more than their fair share as it contributes to climate change and other forms of environmental destruction.

    • Don seems to see rationing of water as coexisting alongside the very factors that create water shortage under capitalism: acid rain, fracking, mining pollution, excessive agricultural use, etc. In fact, because of those things and many more, we already have rationing of water under capitalism, though not on a basis of equity and human need. But I thought we were talking about rationing in a post-capitalist society. My bad, I guess.

      I’m still left wondering how Don plans to ration water in arid areas of the planet without finding a way to supply them with water in the first place. If he thinks fresh water pipelines are a “technofix”, what’s his low-tech alternative? Does he imagine that a post-capitalist society based on social and climate justice will have no need of technology in order to undo the damage caused by capitalism, and to meet the needs of humanity?

      As for his dismissal of solar power, if he’s correct, we might as well kiss our planet goodbye, because its only viable future in the long term rests on solar energy.

  • Thanks to Climate and Capitalism for publishing this interesting article. Many objections can be raised, but I would like to suggest only one.

    The author compares the type of “rationing” experienced in World Wars with what might be necessary to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental damage. This is a powerful analogy, which I have used myself. Indeed, war efforts tend to be accompanied, at least initially, by a sweeping mood that “we’re all in this together”; an elation that distinctions of class and wealth have been obliterated in the common effort.

    But that does not last. As they say, “it’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” Even the rationing applies to the poor; the rich find ways to evade it. The concept that we are all in it together is revealed as an illusion, a myth. And major wars usually end in upsurges of mass struggle against those in power, if not in outright revolution.

    There’s an issue of agency here. The rationing model suggests that a group of people with foresight and integrity will lay down the law to the rest of us. That simply does not have moral validity — even if (in Canada) Tom Mulcair does the dictating instead of Stephen Harper. The economic transformation requires a different distribution of power.

  • “As Cox notes, 86% of water goes to agriculture, 9% to industry and only 5% to residential use.”

    These figures are highly questionable. The officially accepted figure for freshwater withdrawal for agricultural use is 70% globally, but the UN Food & Agricultural Organization notes:

    At global level, the withdrawal ratios are 70 percent agricultural, 11 percent municipal and 19 percent industrial. These numbers, however, are biased strongly by the few countries which have very high water withdrawals. Averaging the ratios of each individual country, we find that “for any given country” these ratios are 59, 23 and 18 percent respectively.

    As for rationing water, I have some difficulty accepting that it ought to be necessary.

    To an alien observing our planet from afar, the concept is absurd. The Earth is the Blue Planet, because it is the Water Planet. We have an abundance of water. We’ll run out of land before we run out of water.

    We have immense reservoirs of fresh water in some areas of the world, and in most areas fresh water literally falls from the skies on a frequent basis. We have the technology to turn salt water into fresh water, using solar energy. Moreover, as long as the sun shines, nature’s own hydrological cycle will receive the power necessary for the constant purification and recycling of fresh water. Water is the quintessential renewable resource.

    The idea that there could be a shortage of fresh water on Earth is something that could only have come about as a result of capitalism. Only when we accept that an abundant natural resource is going to be commodified, polluted and wasted by industrial agriculture and other forms of commodity production, and privatized for sale to those who can afford to pay the price, does the concept of water shortage arise.

    We can devise rational systems for distributing fresh water to all parts of the globe, even those places where rainfall and groundwater are limited. Instead of fossil fuel pipelines, for example, we could have water pipelines. Naturally, such systems are impossible under capitalism without exploiting the recipients of the water for private profit. But there’s plenty of water to go around. With proper management of the resource, in a world freed from the iron rule of profit, rationing should not be necessary.