Ration Books: Reviving A Symbol

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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.

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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. Thanks to laptops, modems, cellular phones, faxes, and paging devices, telecommuting can take place anywhere the phone company can lay a wire.

Think of the difference it would make in rush hour traffic - not to mention gas consumption - if everyone whose job relies in part on these high-tech umbilical cords were to work at home one day a week. Already, fears of international terrorism have prompted many would-be business travelers to settle for teleconferences and faxes.

To generations raised on easy credit and conspicuous consumption, the prospect of long-term sacrifice is nearly incomprehensible. Most of us dimly remember long lines at the pumps and extra sweaters at home during the oil shortages of the mid-'70s. But in the years since then our thermostats have edged back up. So have the needles on our speedometers, especially now that 65 miles per hour is again the legal speed on interstate highways.

Oil is not the only commodity to be conserved. In California, rationing of a different sort is already under way. As the state enters its fifth year of drought, officials are calling for the tightest water restrictions ever imposed there. Los Angeles residents face mandatory cutbacks of 15 percent from 1986 levels of water use.

Whether the precious liquid is water, as in California, or oil, as in the Middle East, consumption-as-usual may no longer be possible. In the midst of the waste and ravages of war, can there be a fitter moment to resolve on a conserving and caring policy toward planet Earth and all forms of life upon it?

By beginning to practice modest economies, even as the long-range missiles explode their million-dollar fireworks, civilians not only support the war effort more practically than with yellow ribbons or parades, they also set a style for the peace that will follow. Cutting back on gas consumption by 12 percent, cutting back on water by 15 percent, this is the new math for the '90s and after - the steady, piggy-bank savings that can keep the human enterprise solvent.

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