Emergencies, Rationing and Government Action

We recently got ‘caught short’ with the panic buying of toilet paper in the current coronavirus emergency. Consequently our household is applying pre-abundance ‘outhouse’ solutions and using the Murdoch press. Seriously though I have not had a Murdoch rag in my house for more than 30 years, but I can clearly remember that the Sun (now the Herald Sun) was still being used in our family toilet in the early 1950s.

Wandering around the supermarket today I noticed that the panic buying had spread to the staples – flour, rice, pasta and sugar – which at least made a bit more sense than stockpiling dunny rolls. I joked at the check-out that they should be selling the paper in single rolls. Clearly some form of rationing is required. Climate activist Philip Sutton has been studying war time governments to find what actions will be necessary during the climate emergency. He commented on the current panic buying and the rationing solution in some detail:

“During WW1 many governments stuffed around with no effective rationing and there was massive panic buying and terrible price gouging and dangerous shortages.  Finally they figured out how to run an effective rationing system.  When WW2 started governments knew what to do on rationing* so the system was put in place quickly and early on as the need arose.

To make rationing work people had to be given a right to a fair quantity of supplies.  In the old days before electronic transaction systems/EFTPOS and websites etc. they gave people printed coupons that allowed people to buy a certain quantity of necessities.  When people went to buy stuff that was the subject of rationing they had to hand over the relevant paper coupons or the shop keepers would not sell to them.  When the coupons ran out you had to wait till you were issued with a new ration book (as was done at regular intervals) so there was no need to build up crazy stock levels at home.  These days we could manage the system electronically for most people.

As the retail industry has been saying over and over there is no curtailment currently on production capacity in Australia so there is no objective need to stockpile.  The only reason it is happening is that a small handful of people have been either selfish and/or spooked and then when normal people see the shortages and no effective rationing in place then they very understandably try to create their own stockpile.  Panic buying can only be stopped if effective rationing is put in place – and when it is the craziness will stop.”**

The need for rationing gives us a brief hint of what life will be like in the climate emergency. Our consumer economy will be replaced by a ‘command’ economy where the role of governments will assume a much greater importance.

* I remember finding some WW2 petrol ration coupons in my father’s papers

**group email from Victorian Climate Action Network