Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Rational Talk with Children

Let’s see…less than 2 months until Rationing Day. A few weeks ago it became very clear that we needed to start the R Day discussion with our girls, ages 6 and 8. Egads. These girls, thankfully, are not fully stuffed with the buy-this attitude that corporate America is forcing down the throat of their generation. But they are natural consumers. This could turn into a not-so-pretty talk. More than once the husband and I exchanged "we really need to talk to the girls about this" comments, but instead of getting to it we drug our feet. At the end of the conversation would they be like those doe-eyed kids in the WWII posters, lovingly supporting home front limitations? Or demon-eyed banshees set on sabotaging the experiment? In light of these concerns we did what any other parents would do: we headed to our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant to butter them up on chips and salsa before hitting them with the big stuff.

In between savory bites we revisited the (often-discussed in our house) idea that while some people have more than us, many many more people in this world have much less; less access to safe drinking water, less healthy food, less availability of quality jobs, less opportunity for education and so on. This is a fairly consistent discussion in our house and the girls have used that discussion as a springboard for donating to the Heifer Project on more than one occasion. So, they were totally with us on this part of the conversation. Now for the history lesson…

We segued into a lesson about WWII and what a big and important war it was. Again, this was not a completely new concept for the girls because, 1) we’re history nerds and have spoken to the girls about it before and 2) the story of Molly in the American Girl series of book takes place during WWII and the girls have read at least one of Molly’s books. Thanks, Molly. We talked about how people in American tried to use only their share (their “ration”) so that the army and soldiers could use the rest to fight the war. And people did it, mostly willingly, because the cause was just that important. Okay, their eyes may have glazed over at one point during the history lesson but in all the girls did a valiant job staying with the speech.

Finally, it was time to interweave the bits together with our journey. Over melted cheese and refried beans we explained that for one year our family will live on those same WWII rations (or the modern equivalent) to show people that they can live with less, and maybe even should live with less - especially if it means that others who need it can have more. The others may be people trying to scrape together a daily existence or groups of people trying to help right environmental wrongs. Either way, we are going to be making some big changes. Reduced gasoline usage, reduced meat consumption (we’re not a big meat household to begin with), limited processed foods and few purchases of new items. And then we waited…and waited…and waited. The girls said they were fine with the decision. Really. No protests. A few simple questions, but no pouty lips or folded arms. Maybe they were drunk on queso, but they seemed to accept the plan just fine.

Since then we’ve pointed out some things that we will and won’t be during out rationing year; we WILL be walking more and making some certain foods from scratch rather than from a box, we WON'T be eating out more than once (maybe twice) a month and we WON’T be going on extended road-trip vacations. And still, so far, so good. The other day our older daughter, P., declared in a noticeably sour tone, “My birthday will be when we’re rationing!” Ah, someone’s been thinking. Her birthday is in January and will be our first big family event after rationing has begun. I explained that we’ll save up our sugar to make sure we have plenty to make whatever cake or sweets she wants, and that we may be able to make some concessions for gifts others are giving her. After all, we don’t want the girls to feel like they’re being punished. I also pointed out that every one of us will be having a birthday during the rationing year, so fair is fair.

While we plan on upping our charitable giving during the next year, the husband and I have thrown around the idea of using some of the unspent funds from the year of rationing (unspent from less gas usage, less eating out and fewer purchases of new shiny things) to go towards a big, fun family vacation. The kind that requires a week off of work and sunscreen and maybe even hotel rooms. For those of you who know us, you understand what a big deal this would be. Typically, our vacations consist of short camping trips or quick tours through cities were we crash on friends’ floors. As much as we love those types of trips, the idea of a nice family escape might be enough to keep us all (children and adults) in line during the rationing year.

I hope.

--Rational Mama

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rationing is a Gas! Gas! Gas!

...okay, maybe that should just read "Rationing is a gas!" since the whole idea is about using less, not more.

As I type there's around 75 days left until R-Day, the day my family begins living a lifestyle based on WWII rationing, or at least the modern equivalent. And one of the first components of our lives to be limited will be gasoline.

By mid-1942, most family automobiles had an "A" sticker in their window, indicating that their gasoline ration was at the low end of the scale - typically three to four gallons per week during the war. Vehicles driven by personnel considered essential to the war effort were graced with a "B" sticker, earning eight gallons of gasoline per week. Industrial war workers fell within the "B" category. "C" stickers were for physicians, ministers, mail carriers and such whose jobs were considered critical to society. "T" stickers were reserved for trucks and other over-the-road transport while rare "X" stickers were for members of Congress and other elite VIPs. I haven't found specific gasoline allowance figures for the "C" and "T" stickers, but I know that they were higher than the "B" allotment, and "X" stickers earned the owner a basically un-rationed amount of gasoline.

Originally, the aim of gas rationing was to reduce the wear on tire rubber, since this natural resource (which was made from rubber trees now largely under Japanese control) was essential to the war effort. "Victory Speed" campaigns cropped up, touting lower traveling speeds (typically a max of 35 mph) to reduce tire wear and tear. However, most drivers ignored these limits (sounds stereotypically American, huh?).

So gas rationing was originally one prong of a two-pronged effort to redirect rubber away from citizen consumers so that more was available for military vehicles and supplies. How badly the rationing of gasoline effected Americans varied greatly based upon many factors including access to public transportation and proximity to essential locations such as employment and food markets. And while most cars in the 1940s averaged only 15-20 mpg (what we would call a "clunker" today), most individuals were not too far removed from their community centers to feel a dramatic crunch in their lifestyle (remember, this is before the days of urban sprawl and the death of rural towns). In fact, in late 1942 a whopping 95% of workers polled in Wichita, KS still drove their cars to work!

But this sure ain't the 1940s, and urban sprawl is definitely a reality in our modest-sized city (population of approximately 120,000). So, what does gasoline rationing mean for us? Well, first we had to consider some differences between the WWII scenario and today's lifestyle.

The range for miles per gallon in the 1940s was between 15 to 20, or roughly 17.5 mpg on average. Today, in the world of fuel-efficient economy models and hybrids the average is often 30+ mpg, which means our contemporary cars go farther than 1940s cars on the same gallon of gas (okay, not quite the same gallon of gas...ours is unleaded and contains ethanol). That comparison seems to suggest that following the exact same ticket allowances mentioned above might be too generous for our contemporary experiment.

But, you point out (really, I can hear you starting this line of thinking already), modern communities are so much more widespread in their distribution of resources that the sheer sprawl of a city requires one to drive farther for essential functions. For example, an individual in the 1940s typically drove (or walked) less than one or two miles to the grocery store; in today's communities a similar task may require four or five miles worth of travel one way.

So keeping the same amount of rationed gasoline with our more fuel-efficient cars makes sense, no?

Well, this back and for, tit for tat comparison could go on endlessly - or at least until everyone involved has lost interest and chosen to drive 12 miles round trip for a mocha-brownie double scoop to get their minds off of such debate. So I'll spare you much of the conversation (the ice cream is up to you) and let you know the formula we settle upon for our year of rationing. Yup, it's a formula. I'm no math wiz, so hopefully I can explain it to you in a way that actually makes sense.

In our family my car would earn an "A" sticker, which unfortunately does not make me part of the A Team (I pity the fool!) but does mean that my car "earns" three gallons per week.

My husband's vehicle would earn a "B" sticker since his 1940s employment equivalent would have made him part of the war supply chain. Maybe. He works in one of those cavernous retail distribution warehouses that ships consumer goods out to over 60 stores in seven states. While not exactly a war related occupation, in a 1940s scenario his distribution center would most likely be flipped to distribute war goods instead of clothing and home furnishing chotchkes. Thus, another eight gallons of gas per week.

This brings our family total up to 11 gallons per week by WWII standards.

Now, here's a bit of honesty: the idea of going to the gas station each week and filling up each vehicle with its appropriated number of gallons sounds really tedious. I admit it. You're not committed to the experiment, you say. That's not sticking to the 1940s example, I hear. Somewhat true. But if we were in the 1940s there would be at least two gas stations within spitting distance of my house and I'd never have to leave the car to get gasoline because it'd be full service with a cute teenage boy cleaning my windshield to boot. So, yes. We've changed the fine details, but I think we're still within the spirit of the rationing program. As such, here's the first modern deviation from the 1940s model: we're not rationing our number of gallons per week, per se, but instead rationing our number of miles.

Here's how it works: in the 1940s our 11 gallons would have allowed our family approximately 193 miles of travel per week, based on that average of 17.5mpg. Thus, our rationing experiment will allow our family a total of 193 miles per week for the year. Each Sunday we'll reset the trip meters in our vehicles and on Saturday nights we'll record the number of miles traveled that week. We'll have to monitor usage and compare notes during the week to make sure we don't go over. I really hope we don't go over.

On paper, at least, this doesn't look like much of a challenge, since our essential mileage each week (both of us to/from work, girls to/from school, piano lessons, church and routine shopping) totals around 95 miles per week. That leaves us around 100 miles per week for entertainment, socializing and other out-and-about tasks. Sounds pretty easy, right? Right? That's why we're not allowing ourselves any extra miles to accomodate sprawl. But our Quicken records for the past year suggest that our actual usage is closer to 14 or so gallons per week, which is over 300 miles per week. Ugh.

How does this compare to everyone else's gasoline usage? How many gallons per week do you use? How many miles per week do you travel? I have a suspicion that our usage is already a bit lower than many families because we live in a central location in our community - trips for shopping and general errands are relatively short. And, in general, we're pretty decent about trying to make our errand runs as efficient as possible.

But still...Quicken suggest that we'll have to cut a chunk of miles out of our usage to fall within the 193 mile limit. We've already made some changes like walking to work (me - weather permitting) and carpooling (husband) to reduce our usage even further. This is one of those things where our environmental consciousness nicely coincides with the rationing project. I like it when that happens.

On the other hand, out-of-town trips to see family and friends will be challenging, or nearly impossible. Can we save up unused miles from week to week? Maybe so, but I think there would be some sort of limit (after all, during WWII a citizen could only save up as much as their fuel tank would hold). According to Mapquest it is 300 miles round trip to see my mother. The only way that could happen is if we save up gas during the week and head her way on a Saturday, then reset the trip meter the next day (Sunday) for the return trip. Of course, that would leave us with just 43 miles of travel for the remainder of the week if we have exhausted our savings. Hmm...this requires a bit more thought.

So there's your first lesson in WWII rationing and an explanation of how we're working with one of the key rationed resources. We've got to figure out how the "storing" of any extra miles may work and what limitations would be required. Luckily, we still have seventy-some days to figure it out! Let me know if you have any suggestions.

--Rational Mama

P.S. Two really wonderful websites with good information are from the Ames Historical Society and the Plains Humanities Alliance. The latter has links to 1940s newspaper articles highlighting the challenges of rationing in the central plains region.

Monday, October 5, 2009


The date is set: December 26, 2009.

What is so special about that date? The day after Christmas? Yes. The fifth day after the winter solstice? That, too. Our daughters' seventh day of winter break? Yup. All these are correct, but in our household that day will soon be known as R-Day. What's R-Day? Well, let me explain...

Back in my first blog post on Rational Living I eluded to my interest in WWII rationing and how I ponder what it would be like for our family to live within those parameters of discipline and sacrifice. Ponder, ponder, ponder. Pondering is good, it makes you think. A lot. And after years of thinking, our family will finally be making the commitment: for approximately one year we will live, to the best of our abilities, within the guidelines of WWII rationing. And it all begins Dec. 26, 2009.

Don't know much about WWII rationing? Here's your history lesson in a nutshell...Rations were imposed in America once we officially entered the war (after the bombing of Pearl Harbor). While other nations, most notably the UK, began rationing (and fighting) years earlier, the US's delay in entering the war postponed any serious changes in resource management. But once the American industrial complex became focused on supplying the needs of the armed forces and the soldiers fighting for freedom, it became clear that American civilians' gluttonous consumption of goods could not continue if the war effort was to be well-supplied. And thus, rationing was mandated.

At first, only "industrial" materials such as rubber and fuel oil were rationed, beginning in early 1942. But soon such staples as sugar and coffee were only available in restricted amounts. Eventually, a majority of food items (beef, pork, all canned foods, cheese, butter and fats) as well as everyday goods such as shoes, appliances and gasoline, were rationed. Different items were rationed in different ways; points per item or a set amount per person were the most common approaches. Shortages, even of rationed items, became common as the military devoured all kinds of supplies for the war. So even if you had enough ration points for cheeseburger supplies it didn't always mean that those commodities were available for purchase. And while Americans occasionally complained about missing that steak dinner or patching together a pair of worn shoes that would otherwise be replaced, they complied. The majority of Americans understood that the war, a greater good, needed those resources. In a 1944 poll of Americans, 90% responded that food rationing provided all the nutrition their families needed. Needed. And that was good enough.

In this movement to sacrifice wants for needs, Americans did something amazing: they completely reorganized their consumer habits to work towards a common goal. This was, after all, the Greatest Generation.

But my family and I are not part of the Greatest Generation. My husband and I are thirty-something, middle-class, college-educated parents living in the beautiful central plains. Why would we do such a thing? Well, sometimes you just need to stretch beyond your comfort zone; to twist and reach and strain to figure out just how flexible (or crazy) you are. Part of this is a bit of a history experiment: how many of us have read accounts of pioneers or Renaissance poets and wondered if we could have hacked it? Let's be honest - this will be a lifestyle change for sure. But mostly, this experiment is about learning how much you're willing to change to make a change. What if we could somehow cut our energy consumption or carbon footprint by half in a year. AND still have enough. Enough. That would be worth it, right? What if we were forced to learn more about our community and neighbors to find otherwise limited resources? I'm 100% certain that there will be moments of weakness and regret, but all the good adventures have those, right?

My family and I are not part of the Greatest Generation, but I'd like to think that we're part of the Next Greatest Generation.

And yes, some like-minded folks out there have already attempted similar feats - most have lasted less than 3 months. As far as I know, we're the only souls, to commit to a year.

Some of the details of the year's rationing are already solidified (food and gasoline rationing amounts), while other elements are still squishy and up for debate (exact rationing schedule and wonderful sport of a husband is bemoaning the idea of no air-conditioning), but we have a while to dream and plan. But soon we'll need to get the skeleton of this thing put together so that we can discuss it with our daughters. R-Day is less than 3 months away.

So, use your favorite blog management tool to subscribe to Rational Living for plan details as R-Day approaches, and spread the word. There will be plenty of insights, victories and catastrophes as the project progresses.

So...anyone want to join us?

--Rational Mama