Ration Books: Reviving A Symbol

By Gardner, Marilyn | The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

Ration Books: Reviving A Symbol


Gardner, Marilyn, The Christian Science Monitor


ALL during my post-World-War-II childhood, two wartime ration books remained tucked away in a drawer of my parents' desk - silent reminders of the sacrifices Americans were called upon to make during the early '40s. The booklets fascinated me. From time to time I would take them out and study the rows of stamps, trying to imagine what it must have been like for my parents - and everyone else - to need this secondary currency for such basics as meat, butter, sugar, coffee, and gasoline.

I've been thinking a lot about those ration books lately as the country engages in another war - one that has so far changed our patterns of TV viewing more than our habits of consumption. For now, the only people forced to ration goods are those living in the war zone. Even oil, the indispensable commodity hanging in the balance in the Persian Gulf, has actually dropped in price since the conflict began, giving Americans little incentive to conserve at the pumps.

Still, I find myself playing an imaginary game, centered around an uncomfortable question: What if, as a precaution, ration books again became a fact of life, at least for gas? How would we cut back?

The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, uses 30 percent of the world's oil. The National Resources Defense Council in New York has calculated that if every driver reduced by 12 percent the number of miles driven, the nation would no longer need the oil it formerly imported from Iraq and Kuwait - 730,000 barrels a day.

During World War II, Americans with "nonessential vehicles" were allotted only four gallons a week, later cut to three gallons. To help drivers stay within those stringent limits, the Office of Defense Transportation promoted a slogan: "Is This Trip Necessary?"

Alas, the 1990s answer to that 1940s question is often "Yes," especially for commuters. Car pools and mass transit, the traditional fuel-saving alternatives, may be worthy solutions for some drivers, but they remain impossible or impractical for others.

Yet for a growing number of workers, a third option now exists: telecommuting. What has been called the 30-second commute - the time it takes to dial a number and hook up a home computer to the one in the office - moves information instead of people.

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