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Ready for Rationing? Why We Should Put the Brakes on Consumption If We Want to Survive

Stan Cox talks about his new book "Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing."

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

It’s not clear whether Stan Cox is a plant breeder with a penchant for politics, or a political provocateur who finds time to do science. Whichever aspect of his personality is dominant, Cox artfully draws on both skill sets to make the case for rationing, perhaps the most important concept that is not being widely discussed these days. The power of his new book, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, comes from his blending of scientific analyses of dire resource trends with a compelling moral argument about the need to reshape politics and economics.

In his day job at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, the country’s premier sustainable agriculture research facility, Cox works to develop perennial sorghum. A member of the editorial board of the magazine Green Social Thought (formerly Synthesis/Regeneration), Cox also has been thinking long and hard about the multiple ecological crises we face. In 2010 he published Losing Our Cool, a sharp-edged examination of the impacts of our society’s obsession with air-conditioning.

In this new book on rationing, he argues that we have to become a society that puts the brakes on consumption—in an egalitarian fashion—if we want to survive. A society dependent on reckless growth that enriches a small minority of people cannot expect to endure and flourish for the long haul. Cox believes that the right kind of rationing can produce a happier and healthier life for everyone.

Robert Jensen: In your book, you mention that some have compared raising the possibility of rationing to “shouting an obscenity in church.” Why is that idea so unacceptable today?

Stan Cox: People have shown a willingness to accept rationing in a broad variety of situations in which society-wide scarcity is obvious—wartime, say, or when governments have a fixed supply of subsidized food to sell, or in a drought when there's only so much water to go around. But if rationing is proposed as a way to preserve resources and ecological life-support systems for the future—for dealing with environmental problems or providing equitable healthcare, for example—then we are talking about limiting consumption when there is no apparent scarcity. In that situation, we all like to believe that we exercise freedom in the marketplace, and to many it seems outrageous to limit that freedom. 

RJ: Before getting to the specifics of how rationing might work, let’s talk about those cultural assumptions about freedom and abundance. We live in a world that routinely tells us there are no limits, that whatever limits we bump up against we can overcome with human creativity and advanced technology. You seem to believe that we live in a physical world with physical limits.

That’s a rather sensible position, of course, but it seems to cast you in the role of Eeyore, always the gloomy one. How do you defend yourself?

SC: OK, you’re getting down to the heart of the matter right away here. When opposing any kind of environmental responsibility, the Right loves to raise the specter of rationing, but it’s really the bigger idea of overall limits to growth that’s at the heart of our anxiety. We face an irresolvable contradiction: We all know intellectually that no kind of growth can go on to infinity, yet if we exist within a capitalist economy, our lives and livelihoods wholly depend on unceasing expansion of economic activity. A year, even a quarter, of slack or negative growth might reduce national carbon emissions but it also triggers widespread human misery. The converse isn’t true; robust growth doesn’t necessarily bring prosperity to all. In recent decades, the benefits of growth have flowed almost exclusively to the top of the economic pyramid.    

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