Writing a Paper on the 1973-74 Energy Crisis

For my capstone course in the History Department at the University of Rochester, I have chosen to write a research paper exploring the cultural currents of the “energy crisis” in the 1970s. I’ve spent the last two weeks reading far too many newspaper articles about gas lines, the Arab embargo, and the Carter administration, and it’s almost humorous how easy it is to predict the positions of opinion writers from 40 years ago based solely on my impression of their publication’s biases today.

I’ve been starved for time or subject matter to blog about as of late, so simply to get myself back in the habit, I’m going to give you my preliminary thesis for the paper.

The “energy crisis” was an economic, cultural, and political upset in the United states that resulted from drastic short term shocks to the world supply of crude oil. The oil embargo woke Americans up to two realities: first, dependence of foreign oil would inevitably rise and second, world fossil fuel supplies were ultimately finite. Gasoline shortages and brown-outs scared American consumers and made conservation politically salient, which was reflected in the initiatives of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to encourage conservation by consumers as a short term solution to the “crisis”.

However, Jimmy Carter’s reference to domestic efforts towards conservation and energy independence as “the moral equivalent of war” can safely be dismissed as hyperbolic, and this attitude certainly didn’t reflect public opinion. At different points in the 70s, a significant portion of Americans believed the “energy crisis” to be a product of political and corporate machinations. The reality of the “energy crisis” is that this moment of heightened political awareness of conservation, finite-supply, and energy independence issues occurred at a time when all of the ‘easy to extract’ oil was gone. The real solution to the problem was that American consumers would have to pay higher prices for fuel to support more expensive exploration and drilling technologies.

Contrary to the claims of conservation advocates, the supply of future energy did exist, it simply had yet to be developed, and once it was the so-called “energy crisis” evaporated. This period remains of interest for today’s environmentalists, however, because the questions that were raised in the 70s about finite supply of petroleum and the environmental costs of developing hard-to-get sources were accurate, but untimely. Back then, even conservative projections predicted that enough energy resources remained to power the global economy past 2030, and many placed their hopes for the future in the development of futuristic alternative energy sources such as nuclear fusion.

Perhaps today the energy issues we face are more the “moral equivalent of war” than they were when Carter spoke. 40 years later and the basic problems of industrial civilization raised during this period remain unsolved. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have the same luxury afforded previous generations: discounting the future.

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