Why and how rationing works – lessons from rapid civic mobilisation

Nothing like the current upheavals around the world in the wake of the novel coronavirus, COVID19, have been experienced in peacetime. But societies have mobilised like this during conflict and mass conflagrations. Are there lessons to be learned, and could it lead to unexpected opportunities for tackling other issues like it has before?

Below is a long extract on the history of the civic and community response to the crisis of World War II from the book Cancel the Apocalypse – the New Path to Prosperity. It was written in an attempt to imagine the economic, political and behavioural rapid transitions needed to tackle the climate and ecological emergency. The book covers most areas of life and sectors of the economy, is global in perspective, mostly focused on now. It includes several other examples of historical rapid transition and what might be learned from them. The government itself has invoked precedents for mobilisation in calling on car makers to re-purpose production for the emergency manufacture of hospital respirators, which the UK has a critical shortage of. Like all historical examples, none of these provide perfect analogies for the present, but they do contain insights and lessons.

Some similar (and some of the same) material is included in two pamphlets commissioned from me by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and they can be found here. The second is a collection of essay by multiple authors:


From Cancel the Apocalypse

On the home front it was the scientific approach of the Ministry of Food to health and nutrition that witnessed one of the war’s most surprising and unexpected outcomes. To win the war, the government knew that huge savings were needed at the household level in the use of food and fuel. The ministry began as part of the Board of Trade just before the war, later disappearing into the Ministry of Agriculture. With the biochemist Jack Drummond as its chief food scientist, a radical rationing system was devised that reduced consumption. This was necessary both because an island nation was vulnerable to isolation during wartime and had to rely on its own, limited, resources, and because the war effort itself had substantial additional needs. After the difficult winter of 1940, and as the ministry’s scientifically planned diet, high in fruit and vegetables, took effect, the health and well-being of the nation improved significantly.

By April 1943, 31,000 tonnes of kitchen waste were being saved every week, enough to feed 210,000 pigs. Food consumption fell 11 per cent by 1944 from before the war, even as health, especially of those more vulnerable in society, broadly improved. The Women’s Institute set up 5,800 food-preservation centres where people learned to make pickles and jams and store food. Alongside these and the Village Produce Associations were more coercive measures. Wasting food was socially demonised and fined. ‘Waste the food and help the Hun,’ said Fougasse’s poster. New eating patterns were helped by a rapid growth in communal eating. By 1944 10 per cent of all food was being eaten in works and school canteens, cafes and restaurants. The so-called British Restaurants that grew out of emergency feeding measures during the Blitz were widespread and their communal eating approach proved popular, with 60 per cent of people wanting them to continue postwar.

As part of the push for greater food self-sufficiency, not only was more land brought into production (10,000 sq miles), but the balance of farming was changed. Land was used more efficiently to feed people by promoting a shift away from livestock. It was calculated that one acre used for grazing animals could feed one or two people, but cultivating wheat it would feed twenty, and potatoes, forty. Accordingly, while the output of sheep, pigs and poultry fell enormously (cattle increased marginally to provide milk), production of cereal, potatoes, wheat and vegetables rose enormously. With his talent for public messaging, and against the background of this wholly pragmatic shift, Churchill appealed to the public to, so to speak, save the nation’s meat and eat it too. The public was called on to rear pigs, rabbits and poultry to compensate.

By 1943 there were 3000 rabbit clubs and 4000 pig clubs, the latter producing enough bacon for 150 million breakfasts. The number of allotments leapt from 850,000 in 1939 to 1,750,000 in 1943. By then, 6 million were growing vegetables. They were Britain’s willing ‘Garden Army’, a little like the Carbon Army we need today. Digging for victory drew on older traditions too, such as the radical Victorian gardeners who transformed neglected scraps of public land, planting them with fruit trees and herb gardens, and the culture of the small ‘guinea’ gardens, so called because their maintenance was cheap. Overall, dependence on food imports halved between 1939 and 1945.

As the changed consumption patterns took hold, history also judged kindly the overall effect on people’s health of the new ways of living. Reminiscing in his memoirs in 1981, Dr Magnus Pyke, a former nutritional adviser at the Ministry of Food, recalled how: ‘The figures for infant mortality and, indeed, virtually all the other indications of nutritional well-being of the community, showed an improvement on the previous standards.’

Mortality rates fell dramatically among both men and women.[i] As a strong indicator of broader health improvements, between 1937 and 1944 infant mortality (up to age one) fell from 58 per 1000 to 45 per 1000.[ii] After being relatively high during the 1930s, suicide rates also fell during the war.[iii]

History suggests then, that the shift to a low-energy economy could create more convivial, and certainly more healthy lifestyles.

Oddly, food science grew in the modern age to be synonymous in the public imagination with turkey twizzlers, additives and types of adulteration and factory farming that have nothing to do with nutrition. Drummond was a hero in his time for weaning the nation onto healthy eating, but a pall hangs over his memory. He was murdered in mysterious circumstances along with his wife and daughter in France in 1952. In The Vitamin Murders, James Ferguson speculates about the involvement of the burgeoning chemical industry. It quickly becomes an investigation into who killed healthy eating in Britain.

A study conducted in 2012 by the nutritionist Amanda Ursell, advised by Marguerite Patten, who worked for the Ministry of Food during the war, found that even allowing for resistance to change, children could in fact rapidly adapt to a rationing-type diet, experiencing a range of benefits. The group of eight-year-old schoolchildren studied were fed on a much lower-calorie diet, similar to what was available during the war. They got 1,800 calories per day compared with a modern equivalent closer to 3000 calories. Compared with fellow pupils eating a modern diet high in sugar and fat, those on the rationed diet had above-average height gain (they grew up, not out). Behavioural improvements were reported too, with children in the study complaining less of feeling hungry. Similar results emerged from a campaign in Britain by the activist celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who fought successfully to improve the quality of school meals.

Ways to actively create health rather than just treat sickness are something that societies seem sporadically to stumble over and then forget. Before and after the war there was an exercise that came to be known as the Peckham Experiment. It was shaped by some of Britain’s experiences and social challenges during the First World War and its long shadow, including the Depression of the 1930s. As with some other activities that happened between 1939 and 1945, it displayed a certain boldness, practical and intellectual curiosity and willingness to experiment.

Between 1926 and 1950 the experimental biologists George Scott-Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse, who were husband and wife, developed a pioneering project that set out to make health ‘more contagious than disease’. The principles of the Peckham Experiment were self-organisation, local empowerment, organic farming and a holistic focus on human relationships, the social connections within a community being fundamental to health.

Early health checks on the Peckham community in South London where Williamson and Pearse worked revealed widespread, and often untreated, disease and ill health among families, but an early insight of their research was to realise that simple health examinations, information and medical treatment were not the answer. The problem was not just one of money. Peckham at the time was peopled mainly by artisanal working families. Their approach was to do with lifestyle and environment, but it also meant asking a different question. Instead of following normal medical practice and saying: What makes us ill?, in the best tradition of simple revolutionary questioning they asked: What are the conditions that make us well?

The Pioneer Health Centre that Williamson and Pearse went on to found became a research project and a living experiment, established to explore new ways to improve health and well-being through meeting people’s needs for ‘physical, mental and social activity’. At its height it received 10,000 visitors a year. Here was the seed of a progressive modern public health movement.

The Centre, a modernist architectural gem in its own right, which still stands, run as a subscription club, provided for a range of activities, including a swimming pool, gym, theatre, nursery, school and cafeteria with food from the Centre farm. Whole families were members, paying a small fee and taking part in annual ‘health overhauls’ and consultations. It operated like a ‘social contract’ pre-dating the National Health Service and perhaps with greater reciprocity between those providing and receiving a service. Asked about their innovative group, one member commented: ‘You use the word “community”. The Centre needs a much warmer word than that, we did feel mutually responsible for each other.’

The families were, in effect, actively creating their own wellness, rather than simply seeking cures for illness.

The Centre was linked to Oakley House in Kent and its surrounding farmland, which provided milk, bread, fruit and vegetables to the Centre’s cafeteria. During the war the farm was used to evacuate twenty-nine member families. Some stayed on even after the bombing stopped and even greater improvements in the health and well-being were noted. In spite of a severe winter, and living in a cold house with few obvious comforts, the biologists were surprised not only by the health and vitality of those who stayed, but also by the quality of the relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives. They were also impressed with how families from a poor urban area had adapted to the hardships and hard work of farm life. Compared with their lives in London, however, they were growing their own food, which was better-quality than that available in Peckham’s shops at the time, and they found new interests and learned new skills. This was in addition to improvements in their quality of life that being involved with the Centre had already produced.

Findings from the Experiment’s research were subsequently hugely influential, informing developments like the World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities Programme and the Healthy Living Centres in the UK. Yet, now, over half a century later, the design of the UK’s economy, food system and health service still lags behind the Peckham Experiment’s successful approach to public health.

Radical in its time, the lessons of the Peckham Experiment still resonate. For all our apparent advancement as a society since, we’re challenged by inequality and poor health. These are themselves to an extent the products of our very progress, of the bad diets and sedentary days of consumer lifestyles, and a food system more interested in profit than nutrition.

The Experiment showed that healthy, equitable, economically resilient and environmentally thriving communities can be cultivated by neighbours working together in their locality. Now, a small steering group has been established to investigate the potential for a New Peckham Experiment. It is built on the understanding that such communities are possible, and can be cultivated alongside environments that increase well-being, revitalise local economies and increase equality.[iv]

It’s a myth that achieving a consensus to mobilize for the war effort was easy in the 1930s, and that this alone rules out useful insights or analogies with our current circumstances. Even as Germany militarized heavily under Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, a powerful part of the British establishment favoured positive engagement and appeasement, a story told in Stephen Poliakoff’s film Glorious 39. Lord Rothermere, one-time owner of the Daily Mail, was close to both Hitler and Mussolini. In 1933 an opinion leader column about the Nazi Youth was published in the Mail under the heading ‘Youth Triumphant’. In November 1936 Winston Churchill took to the floor of the House of Commons to say:

Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of danger . . . The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences . . . It is this lamentable conjunction of events which seems to present the danger of Europe in its most disquieting form. We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now . . .

Two things, I confess, have staggered me, after a long Parliamentary experience, in these Debates. The first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world. Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government’s own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency. I say that unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.

The appeasers, along with the atmosphere of complacency, were defeated, however, and at this point the big question was how to find the resources to fight an industrially resurgent Germany. By the outset, even the fiscally conservative magazine The Economist argued that government expenditure should be raised to more than three times the contemporary level of revenue. John Maynard Keynes lobbied the Treasury through a series of articles in The Times newspaper and through a groundbreaking pamphlet called How to Pay for the War. He 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’.[v]

If taxes, rationing and scarcity were inadequate to reduce consumption, Keynes foresaw the danger of an unbridled inflationary spiral of wages and prices. In that case the ‘spirit and efficiency’ of the nation would be at risk. To avoid it, he proposed a plan of compulsory saving, backed with the promise of a payback at the end of the war. Yet, even with the spectre of Nazism looming, Keynes’s medicine was thought too strong. Opinion was not ready. Keynes lamented: ‘My discomfort comes from the fact, now made obvious, that the general public are not in favour of any plan.’[vi]

He faced problems not dissimilar to those that haunt government officials today, who sooner or later must plan for a re-geared economy to be low-carbon, climate-friendly and resilient in the face of climatic upheaval. Yet Keynes understood that the size of the obstacles was no reason for inaction. His key to unlock official intransigence was agitation. His ‘great service’, wrote The Economist in 1939, ‘has been to impel the so-called “leaders of opinion” to reveal the state of their ignorance on the central economic problem of the war’.

As the war progressed, purchase taxes were introduced as a curb on luxury spending. As time passed, the taxes became more sophisticated. Real luxuries like fur coats, silk dresses and jewellery were hit with the top rate. Essentials such as towels, bed-linen and utility clothing were exempt. Famously, there were collections of pots and pans and the railings from outside houses to provide extra metal to help the war effort. Some believe that the more important purpose of the collections was demonstrative – they were to convince the public of the seriousness of the war situation – and that the metal itself was secondary. They were an advert for collective action and said, unmistakably: ‘We are all in this together.’ The weight of reality in that judgement makes the modern redeployment of the term by politicians selling austerity measures in the wake of banking failures seem disingenuous to the point of insulting history.

There should be no illusion about the hardships that restrictions and rationing led to. Rationing itself was to last from January 1940 until June 1954, and there were celebrations when it ended. But some of the good habits it engendered, such as avoiding waste, were to stay with people for life. It left a generation aghast at modern consumer waste, built-in obsolescence and the disposability of goods.

Agitation from Winston Churchill about the threat of war led in 1936 to the creation of the Shadow Factory plan.[vii] The name was given because new factories to increase the production of aircraft engines were to be built ‘in the shadow’, or ‘under the wing’ of existing ones. Logically the government turned to the growing vehicle industry to help. Morris Motors, based at Cowley in Oxford, was approached by the government about the possibility of making aero-engines. At first there were to be nine new factories. Rover was commissioned to build two of them. The new factories would operate well within capacity to begin with, but if the international situation worsened, the capacity was there to increase output rapidly.

From the early summer of 1940 until after the war, Rover’s only service to cars would be providing spares and maintenance for vehicles considered part of the war effort. Its focus had become making engines for aircraft and tanks, vehicle bodies and aircraft wings. Key manufacturing sectors were not simply charged with aiding the war effort in addition to their usual business – that business was put on hold until the challenge of winning the war was met. In America Franklin D. Roosevelt similarly 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 this didn’t matter, as for the foreseeable future they wouldn’t be making any cars. A modern analogy might be, for example, the manufacture of wind-turbine blades in place of commercial aircraft wings.

To create the climate in which the transition would be possible, the general public were drenched with information about the need for a war effort. Short films in cinemas, public billboard posters, cartoon strips, newspaper advertising, radio programmes – every available means of communication was employed.

The complaint might be raised today that we are far too savvy and cynical to accept what would be, in effect, propaganda. We no longer have the deference and acceptance of authority that we imagine was common back then. But what is the modern industrialized world but drenched in propaganda? It is of a different kind perhaps, in favour of the relentless march of consumerism, but propaganda nevertheless, and perhaps it is even more ubiquitous, both subtly flying beneath the radar of our critical consciousness, and in head-on collision with our senses. Chapter 8 looks into this in more detail.

In an earlier book Ecological Debt, I described how wartime information campaigns were not only conducted officially in a top-down fashion. The messages decorated daily life, cajoling as well as instructing through civic groups, leisure magazines and even in hotel bathrooms. ‘Grow fit not fat on your war diet!’ said ‘Food Facts No 1’, from the Ministry of Food in 1940. ‘Make full use of the fruit and vegetables in season. Cut out “extras”, cut out waste; don’t eat more than you need. You’ll save yourself money . . . and you’ll feel fitter than you ever felt before.’

Good Housekeeping in 1942 suggested that people ‘Learn to regard every type of waste as a crime’ and ‘If you have the will to win, Save your Rubber, Paper, Tin.’ In Feeding Dogs and Cats in Wartime the RSPCA advised: ‘Potatoes are plentiful and if you put in extra tubers when digging for victory you will not have it on your conscience that shipping space is being taken for food for your animals.’[viii]

The government dubbed the need for energy conservation ‘The Battle for Fuel’. If you stayed in a hotel in late 1942 and went to wash away your anxieties, a sign would remind you: ‘As part of your personal share in the Battle for Fuel you are asked NOT to exceed five inches of water in this bath. Make it a point of honour not to fill the bath above this level.’[ix] The rail companies reminded us that: ‘At this most important time, Needless travel is a “crime”.’ And the Ministry of Fuel and Power pointed out that: ‘Britain’s 12,000,000 households are 12,000,000 battle fronts in this great drive to save fuel.’ Such concerted campaigns, focused on changing public attitudes, were successful and dramatically cut waste. Scrap metal was being saved at the rate of 110,000 tonnes per week.[x] In just six years from 1938 British homes cut their coal use by 11 million tonnes, a reduction of 25 per cent.[xi]

While these initiatives were successful in their own terms, there were also several unexpected outcomes. In the process of prosecuting its war effort, Britain almost stumbled into being a more inclusive and socially cohesive society. Soon after the war began, egalitarianism and the idea of community became something to aspire to. They were a new social ideal. ‘The political influence of the ration book seems to me to have been greater than all of the left-wing propaganda of the war years put together,’ wrote the historian Paul Addison.[xii] ‘Fair shares’ was not a Labour propaganda slogan dreamed up in 1945, but drawn from the Board of Trade’s 1941 campaign to popularize clothes rationing.[xiii] Hugh Dalton, head of the Board of Trade, famously put it in 1943: ‘There can be no equality of sacrifice in this war. Some must lose their lives and limbs, others only the turn-ups on their trousers.’ Behind all the schemes to manage demand, the objective was to ‘Secure the fairest possible distribution of whatever supplies are available and to ensure . . . that as far as possible the things that the things that everybody needs shall be within the reach of all’.[xiv] Also worthy of further exploration is the relative success in wartime Britain of efforts explicitly to substitute cultural activity and production – theatre, music, film, art, festivals, sport, and numerous other local entertainments – for material consumption.[xv]

Britain’s wartime experience highlighted critical choices over which economic mechanisms were most likely to achieve key objectives. Where changing behaviour with regard to consumption was concerned, the government deliberately chose rationing over taxation for reasons that were rational and progressive. Taxation alone, it concluded, apart from disproportionately and unfairly placing a burden on the poor, would be too slow to change behaviour. Rationing was quicker and more equitable. Tradable rations were rejected through fear of encouraging fraud and inflation and ‘undermining the moral basis of rationing’.[xvi] The historian Mark Roodhouse derives specific lessons for policymaking. If transferred to now, government, he writes, 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’.[xvii]

In 1940, Mary Adams, one of TVs earliest producers, moved to Whitehall and was given the task of monitoring domestic morale. Inspired by Tom Harrisson’s Mass Observation surveys before the war, from May to September 1940 information was phoned in from the regions daily, and from then on weekly. The reports relayed ordinary conversations – or ‘verbatims’ – providing vital information that quantitative analysis cannot. They revealed that the population were solid in the main; it was the authorities who were perceived to be wavering: ‘we are all anxious to be up and doing’. All people needed was ‘to be told precisely what to do’.[xviii]

Government was not only emboldened by the evidence from these reports, it also included practical proposals:

Not only people in executive positions but also ordinary working classes are demanding that Government should take over and make use of every able-bodied man. It is suggested that Government should order all private gardens to grow at least 50 per cent foodstuffs.[xix]

Information in wartime was sensitive, but: ‘News broadcasts were condemned for being too repetitive, too flippant and – most seriously – for not telling the truth.’[xx]

Neither were people motivated by Britain’s interests alone, but: ‘for a community of interest for the people of Europe’.[xxi] The effect of ‘national unity’ was to open up the political agenda through the experience of collective endeavour.[xxii] Without it, some of the subsequent achievements to do with universal healthcare and the provision of education and social housing might have proved impossible.

Britain’s wartime mobilisation had many dimensions. Political leadership was crucial. There was cultural change based on mass public education, leading to peer pressure and shifts in the social norms for what was considered either decent or antisocial behaviour, to do with waste, among other things. (More recent but less rapid examples of change might include those to do with smoking, drink-driving, racism, football hooliganism and domestic violence.)

In each successful case, explaining why people were being asked to make changes in their lives was critical, and quite different to many modern ‘stealth’ approaches to action on climate change. Change was not tentative and incremental, it was deliberately bold and visible. Signs were hung from public building and parks and gardens were given over to growing fruit and vegetables. There was rationing, perhaps better understood as the distribution of fair entitlements to available resources and key goods. And there were taxes on luxury goods. Altogether this led to reductions in waste and domestic consumption. Crucially there was an active industrial policy and a major reorientation of priorities for production and consumption. It wasn’t left to the whims of the marketplace or to ‘nudges’ from economic policy. Behind it was a major programme of war savings and bonds in which people’s money was invested in securing a better, collective future for all.

Image source: War time information poster by Bert Thomas (1883-1966)


[i] Clare Griffiths and Anita Brock (2003), ‘Twentieth Century Mortality Trends in England and Wales’, Health Statistics Quarterly, Summer 2003, Office for National Statistics, http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_health/HSQ18.pdf

[ii] On the State of Public Health During Six Years of War – Report of the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health, 1939–1945, HMSO 1946.

[iii] Griffiths and Brock, cited above.

[iv] A full history can be found in Alison Stallibrass (1989), Being Me and Also Us: Lessons from the Peckham Experiment (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press). Contacts for the ‘new experiment’ are: ruth.potts@neweconomics.org MConisbee@soilassociation.org or K.McGeevor@psi.org.uk. For more on the Peckham Experiment see: www.thephf.org

[v] Sayers, R. S. (1956), Financial Policy 1939–45 – History of the Second World War (London, HMSO & Longmans).

[vi] ibid.

[vii] National Archives (2010). Shadow factories, World War II: memorandum. Available at: http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Shadow_Factories%2C_World_War_Two [20 October 2010].

[viii] RSPCA, Feeding Dogs and Cats in Wartime, 1941

[ix] Ministry of Fuel, hotel bathroom notice, October 1942.

[x] Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War (London, Hutchinson, 1971, Pimlico edition 2002).

[xi] Hancock and Gowing, (1949), The Lessons of the British War Economy (London, HMSO).

[xii] Addison, P. and Crang, J. A. (ed.) (2010), Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour – May to September 1940 (London, The Bodley Head).

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] Felton, M. (1945), Civilian supplies In wartime Britain, in the series British Achievements of the War Years. Ministry of Information (facsimile reproduction by the Imperial War Museum, London, 2003).

[xv] Simms, A. (2009 2nd edn), Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations (London, Pluto).

[xvi] Roodhouse, M. (March 2007), ‘Rationing returns: a solution to global warming?’, History and Policy. Available at: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-54.html#summ

[xvii] ibid.

[xviii] Potter, B. (2010), ‘We’re not jittery’, review of Addison and Crang (ed.), Listening to Britain: Home intelligence reports on Britain’s finest hour – May to September 1940, in London Review of Books 32(13): 9.

[xix] Addison and Crang (ed.), cited above.

[xx] ibid.

[xxi], Potter, cited above.

[xxii] Addison, A. (1994), The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War, revised edition (London, Pimlico).

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