Ration Yourself

…because no government is going to do it for you.

There’s more carbon in the atmosphere than ever before in human history, and all I can stand to think about is World War II.

The news says we’re screwed. Glaciers are melting. Thousands of refugees are driven from their homes due in part to the climate. My friends and I in the first world give a shit, and yet we still drive, fly, and buy entirely too much stuff. It’s 1940, the Luftwaffe is overhead, and the human race is pretty much shining a floodlight. Yep, that’s my metaphor. Climate change is the Nazis.

When the war began for England, it was a tiny country stretched thin with colonies and imported supplies. Germany knocked down Poland and France, and England was all set to be crushed like a bug. Everyone could have lived in denial. Everyone could have despaired. Instead, everyone resisted.

Everyone resisted whether they liked it or not. The British government imposed a far-reaching, nitpicking, intrusive, and remarkably effective system of rationing on its entire population. They laid down rules for consumption and conservation and distributed piles of advice on how to follow those rules. They also explained clearly why the rules were the best available option for the most people and promoted a public mood of encouragement and camaraderie, sometimes to comic extremes.FoodsDid people grumble? Hell yeah. Did they hate it? Indubitably. Did they flout the rules using the black market? For sure. Did they still gain meaning and pride at ‘doing their bit,’ even when their actions had no visible influence on the course of the war? Absolutely.

Am I suggesting that rationing is the solution to climate change? No. I’m suggesting that rationing yourself is a tiny bit that you and I can do. It’s better, at least, than imagining those swastika’d planes are just going to go away. Make_Do

And I’m suggesting that we’d better do our bit because god knows we haven’t got a government with a far-reaching plan, not here in the States, not in the UK, not anywhere else. I can’t even find a clear government-endorsed scheme for how to lower your carbon footprint if you just felt like it. There’s a lot of talk about EnergyStar appliances, another Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.

Let me draw a distinction here between ‘austerity’ and rationing. ‘Austerity’ is a system whereby we can afford elephantine militaries but not homeless shelters, veterans’ care, preschools, or unions, and the people who want those things are idle innocents who can’t understand that Times Are Tough.

Rationing, by contrast, is a system that guarantees a certain amount of selected commodities – food, education, health care, whatever – to everyone, but only that certain amount. Rationing isn’t done with things that are hard to get. It’s done with items that are available, yet not infinitely available. Like cheese in 1940s England or water in contemporary California.

Eating for Victory:…Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets describes rationing like this:

Every man, woman, and child had a ration book [limiting their legal consumption], and food prices were pegged at a standard rate so that poorer people could buy the food they needed.

This was a massive experiment on the British public. It would never have been undertaken except by wild extremists or in a time of intense crisis. You’d expect a starved, sad populace as the result. In fact, Eating for Victory claims that

During the war, although there were privations and shortages, people generally had a good diet. When the war ended, it was found that the average food intake was much higher than when it began. This was mostly because many poor people had been too poor to feed themselves properly, but with virtually no unemployment and the rationing system, with its fixed prices, they ate better than in the past….As a whole the population was slimmer and healthier than it is today; people ate less fat and sugar, less meat and many more vegetables.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar claims today.

Because historic rationing required that annoying-yet-up-bucking central authority, you could make the case that one cannot, strictly speaking, ration oneself. Yet we can all choose to use less of something – or of a lot of things – and leave room, however indirectly, for others. In fact, it’s the least we can do.

Then how should you ration yourself? Welcome to the Internet, home of HowDoIGoVegan.com, as well as ten thousand tips for eco-friendly living from these folks, these folks, and even this guy. And remember that these folks went vegan during strict rationing in England, while the war was still very much in the works, when veganism hadn’t even been invented yet.

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This meme dates from World War II – just like veganism!

If you want to learn more about historic rationing, some ideas.

The Imperial War Museum’s What You Need to Know About Rationing. One-stop shopping – but not too much of it – for the basic facts and nifty posters.

1940s Experiment: This blogger shares fascinating things about the (non-vegan) 1940s-style diet she used to regain her health.

Sucking Eggs: What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift and Going Green by Patricia Nicol. This book explains perfectly what worked and didn’t during the war and what it all meant then and could mean today.

And I recommend learning more about World War II’s version of rationing, because if our species is to have any chance at all, then our response to climate change has got to be that old chestnut, the moral equivalent of war. Stand in solidarity with the so-called Greatest Generation – who were great because they rose to a truly dire occasion with no guarantee of success. To inherit their sacrifice, even a bit, is an act of hope.


A version of this essay was originally published in May 2015.