A glimpse into the future of shortages

Michael Johansen
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The Reichseierkarte is a thin sheet of paper, faded and cracked with age. Effective as of Nov. 13, 1944, it was good for 12 months, permitting the holder to buy a total of 50 eggs.

If you wanted more than that you had to buy them on the black market, although they weren’t always available there, either. Also, if you were caught, you could spend years in jail — as long as you managed to escape execution.

What makes the card exceptional today is not only the official Nazi eagle and swastika that adorns it, but that it represents something that was once commonplace all over the world, but is now almost completely forgotten: wholesale rationing.

People on both sides of the Second World War suffered from shortages of all kinds imposed by naval blockades and a general disruption of international trade. In Europe, almost everything was rationed — not only in Germany, Italy and the occupied countries, but in Great Britain as well.

In North America people had to cut back and do without, since everything — the economy, the government and society as a whole — was dedicated to fighting the war. But in Europe, they just couldn’t get the stuff. It wasn’t just eggs that were in short supply. The Hershey bars liberating soldiers handed out to European children were often the first chocolate those kids ever tasted.

Today, however, nobody has to do without anything on either side of the Atlantic. The end of the war brought prosperity for most, and since the 1950s, at least, the western world has been awash in cheap food and a huge variety of consumer goods.

There are few people alive today in Canada who can remember or imagine having to bring a ration card to a store to buy their weekly egg. When all you’ve known is plenty, then plenty is what you come to expect — until the world is turned upside down by something unexpected. Something like 850 dockworkers getting locked out of the Port of Montreal.

This labour dispute has brought the transshipment of cargo containers through the port to a halt — something, as it turns out, that affects fully half of all goods destined for the island of Newfoundland on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. Consumers are being warned to expect shortages in supplies of staple foods, luxuries, building materials and alcohol. The main shipping company involved in the business is scrambling to find alternative routes and other means of transportation.

The lockout will eventually end and things will likely get back to normal, but while it lasts it should be used as an opportunity to spot the grave weaknesses in our current economic system. In the last century, it took a global war to threaten whole populations with general food shortages, but today all it takes is some minor labour strife in a faraway city.

The executive chairman of Oceanex (the island’s current umbilical cord) was quick to say the situation is not a “crisis,” but his shipping company is clearly being pushed to its limits — as are the railway and road systems through Atlantic Canada. The Marine Atlantic ferries were already over-capacity before the problem started, and are unable to help by carrying anything more.

So, we see that a globalized economy favours monopolies with centralized controls. It isn’t flexible enough to deal with even small problems. One spanner brings the whole works to a stop.

The temporary problem will soon be fixed, no doubt, but the permanent one will still need attention: we’ve all become too dependent on getting things from too far away. We need to buy locally or cut back. In this province, the island might also think about opening up new trade routes —  like across the Strait of Belle Isle, for instance.

The government is spending a lot of money building a highway across Labrador, but that road is really only fit to bring wood to the island. If they pave the whole thing (instead of just a little bit), they can bring in almost everything else that’s needed, too.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Oceanex, Marine Atlantic

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Europe, Germany Italy Great Britain North America Port of Montreal.This Island of Newfoundland Labrador

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