Both the United States and the United Kingdom has within living memory gone through a period of very rapid transition in terms of a huge reduction in the consumption of fuel and resources as part of a concerted effort by the whole population. These monumental achievements took place during the Second World War, when the governments successfully rallied their nations behind an effort to support the war effort by rationing resources, both as an act of joint solidarity and in the midst of fuel and food blockades.
In the name of food security for the island nation of Britain, land use changed in a few short years as people took up spades and hoes to till unused land and to grow food in all manner of places, from public parks and gardens to town squares and fountains as part of the “Dig for Victory” campaign. Allotment numbers grew from 850,000 in 1939 to 1,750,000 in 1943 and 10,000 square miles more land was brought into production. Sugar, butter and bacon were rationed from 1940, with tea, meat, cooking fats, cheese and preserves following suit. Vegetables and fruit were grown wherever there was space. It was a vast effort, driven by a war of national survival.
Fuel was effectively nationalised, with all brands lumped together and titled “pool”. Petrol was the first commodity to be rationed. British oil fields in Burma had been lost to the Japanese in 1941 and although supplies from their vast Iranian concession were plentiful, they faced a long and hazardous journey to avoid the Mediterranean which was in the midst of the conflict. The UK became increasingly dependent on the US for supplies, although tankers crossing the Atlantic were also targeted by U-boats. After 1942, vehicle fuel was only available to official users, such as the emergency services, bus companies and farmers. The priority users of fuel were always, of course, the armed forces. Fuel supplied to approved users was dyed, and use of this fuel for non-essential purposes was an offence. Private vehicle use ultimately went down by 95 percent and, even with energy restrictions, public transport rose 13 percent.
Later in the war, clothing and furniture were also rationed. In order to maximize war production and reduce imports, massive schemes were undertaken to recycle as much material as possible. Over-consumption and waste were considered selfish and unpatriotic, a message reinforced by government propaganda posters. Rationing saw health improve as more people had access to a better diet.
Rationing, though seen as a hardship, was also carefully designed as a ‘scientific diet’ and for those on the Home Front, there were strong indicators of broad health improvements. Rationing created the best-nourished generation of pregnant women in history, as poor people received enough nutrients to maintain their health. Between 1937 and 1944 infant mortality (up to age one) fell from 58 to 45 per thousand. And, from being relatively high during the 1930s, suicide rates also fell during the war. People also went out more and had fun in communal activities such as the cinema – spending on amusements went up 10 percent during the war years.
The benefits of the wartime diet were experienced recently by the Hymers family, who volunteered to go back in time and spend nine weeks surviving on austere rations for the current Channel 4 TV series “The 1940s House”. Not only did all the adult Hymers lose weight and show modest health improvements by the end of the experiment but, six months after filming has ended, grandmother Lyn Hymers has stuck with her wartime regime and insists her health has benefited. She walks to the local shops, cooks from scratch, has given up alcohol and coffee and feels better for it.
In the United States so-called victory gardening had been used during the First World War. In the heart of New York parks became high-profile exercises in encouraging a country to come together in shared purpose. In the Second World War it was used again by the Department of Agriculture and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She grew beans and carrots on the White House lawn, and led a national ‘Food Fights for Freedom’ campaign. At one stage 20 million gardeners were producing between 30 and 40 per cent of vegetables consumed. This was seen as an act of international solidarity as much as one of national self-interest too. Spare food from the US farming system went to its allies, Britain and Russia.
Victory gardening evolved beyond an exercise in supplementing the wartime food supply into a celebration of self-reliance and the greening of urban spaces. Even though this predated the massive postwar highways building programme, the ‘dethroning’ of the car as the ‘icon of the American standard of living’ was, according to US historian Mike Davies, remarkable. Individualistic car culture was out, as one poster declared: ‘When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!’
In 1942, America limited gasoline to three gallons per week for ‘non-essential’ vehicles and rationing was seen as both patriotic and about fairness. It was designed to ensure that both citizens and soldiers received a fair distribution of goods. Gasoline entitlements were set by how necessary a person’s vehicle was to them. The same logic was used when, decades later, the USA implemented energy rationing at the time of the first OPEC oil crisis in the early 1970s.
Key manufacturing sectors were not simply charged with aiding the war effort in addition to their usual business – that business was often put on hold until the challenge of winning the war was met. In America Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned the nation’s vehicle manufacturers to come up with production targets for tanks and armoured personnel carriers. When the manufacturers complained that alongside car-making they lacked capacity, he told them famously that this didn’t matter, as for the foreseeable future they wouldn’t be making any cars.
The transformation of such wartime economies provide some important lessons from high politics to household management. It shows the importance of fairness in creating popular support for tough measures – so that rationing and conscription were introduced as much in response to popular pressure from below as it was to a desire for national controls from above. It shows, too, how great the collective gains from individual small actions could be: collecting aluminium pans to melt down to build Spitfires may have been mainly symbolic, but simply collecting household scraps was enough to feed over 200,000 pigs , feeding a lot of people close to home.
When sufficient consensus was generated to go to war, the big question then was how to find the resources to fight industrially resurgent Germany. By the outset of the war, even the fiscally conservative magazine- Economist, argued that government expenditure should be raised to more than three times the contemporary level of revenue. The economist John Maynard Keynes lobbied the Treasury through a series of articles in The Times and through a groundbreaking pamphlet called “How to pay for the war”. Keynes set out to “bring home the true nature of the war-time problems” and pointed out that even a “moderate development of the war effort necessitated a very large cut in general consumption”.
In trying to change the behaviour of consumers, the government deliberately chose rationing over taxation for reasons that were rational and progressive. Taxation alone – apart from disproportionately and unfairly placing a burden on the poor – would be too slow to change behaviour. Rationing was quicker and more equitable. Tradeable rations were rejected through fear of encouraging fraud and inflation and “undermining the moral basis of rationing”. The historian Mark Roodhouse derives specific lessons for policy-making today: if transferred to today, government would need to “convince the public that rationing levels are fair; that the system is administered transparently and fairly; and that evaders are few in number, likely to be detected and liable to stiff penalties if found guilty”.
At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the United Kingdom was importing 20,000,000 long tons of food per year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats. The UK also imported more than half of its meat, and relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production. The country had become used to using its empire to produce food. As import routes began to be cut off by German U-boats and land occupations, the British government realised they had to feed people on less and that some foodstuffs would become scarce because they could not be grown in the UK, such as coffee. A system was needed so that wealthy people could not simply price the poor out. Most people accepted rationing as fair, although of course black and grey markets developed both for barter and for purchase at higher prices.
Rationing worked well and dependence on food imports halved between 1939 and 1945. By 1943 there were 3,000 rabbit clubs and 4,000 pig clubs, the latter producing enough bacon for 150 million breakfasts. Overall food consumption went down 11 percent by 1944 and eating patterns changed too. By 1944, 10 per cent of all food was being eaten in works and school canteens, cafes, and restaurants and 31,000 tonnes of kitchen waste was saved weekly by 1943, enough to feed 210,000 pigs. Eating communally was cheaper and produced less waste. It is interesting to note that fish and chips were not rationed, nor were alcohol or cigarettes, although they were often in short supply. The system did need policing, however, with over 900 inspectors and five years in prison for anyone falling foul of the law.
In addition to rationing, the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class. Rationing was seen not just as restricting supplies, but also as guaranteeing them – preventing price inflation and profiteering. In 1942–43, £145 million was spent on food subsidies, including £35 million on bread, flour and oatmeal, £23 million on meat and the same on potatoes, £11 million on milk, and £13 million on eggs.
Other resources were also reduced, reused and recycled, from cloth to scrap metal – the latter was saved at the rate of 110,000 tonnes per week. Waste paper was collected locally by scout troops and consolidated for recycling. What is often forgotten is that rationing lasted from 1939 to 1954. Bread was not rationed in the war but was added to the list in 1946. Meat was the last item to come off rationing in 1954. Households also changed their energy use: domestic coal use was cut by a quarter between 1938 and 1944 and electrical appliance use dropped by 82 percent from 1938–1944.
The national emergency caused by being at war and the nation’s island position meant that – although being more difficult to invade – its imports could be more easily interrupted. Realising this and understanding that morale at home and a sense of everyone pulling together would be vital, the government chose the rationing route and supported it with a strong communications campaign to keep everyone onside. Some 60% of the British population wanted rationing to be introduced, believing it would prevent unnecessary loss of sailors’ lives by reducing imports of food to the UK – and that it would guarantee everyone a fair share of what was available.
Systems were well organised, which helped speed their rollout across the nation. A National Registration Day was initiated in September 1939 to ensure that all individuals were registered – around 40 million in total. The government then issued every one with an identity card and ration book, with different colours to show children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Shoppers would then register with local shops and suppliers from whom the ration would be bought. These details were stamped in the book and you could only buy your ration from that supplier. The books contained coupons that had to be handed to or signed by the shopkeeper every time rationed goods were bought. This meant that people could only buy the amount they were allowed. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5 had first choice of fruit, a daily pint of milk and a double supply of eggs. Children between 5 and 16 years of age had fruit, the full meat ration and half a pint of milk a day.
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