How We Got Here (15)

June 2, 2014

The oil shocks

However, as I said, the boom came to a sudden crashing halt with the oil embargo of 1973, and nothing was ever the same thereafter. For one thing, the effect on the American economy was immediate and obvious, and every country sharing the planet and resenting American preeminence took notice, and some took hope: The giant wasn’t invulnerable.

Another effect was less immediate but cut deeper, at least in the short term (by which I mean anything from 50 to 100 years after 1973) and was potentially more dangerous. This crisis was a challenge to the assumption that America would always have plenty of whatever it needed, with no need to conserve, and no innate limits to growth. This was going to be the cause of a very deep divide in the American social scene, all the more bitter because the cause was mostly unsuspected by those it divided.

Those who retained their optimism about America’s future – by brute force, if need be, rather than give up this source of their idealism – saw those who argued for limitation as needlessly crippling America by their lack of faith. These optimists, whom the other side called cowboys, saw Jimmy Carter’s energy policy as defeatism; saw attempts to curb oil consumption as subversive; saw rules such as emissions standards, fuel efficiency standards, highway safety limits, as bad-faith efforts to impose needless restrictions on the American way of life using a non-existent energy crisis as an excuse. Foreigners holding us up because we used more than we produced? The obvious answer was to drill! Drill offshore, drill in Alaska, drill anywhere and everywhere that oil might be. Restricting drilling was a betrayal of the traditional American way of life.

Opposing them were those who saw the limits to growth. Accepting the argument that on a finite planet no resource could last forever, these realist, whom the other side called many things, few of them printable, saw attempts to continue the traditional American habits of high production, high consumption as attempts to live in a past that had vanished forever. They saw dependence on foreign oil as a guarantee that we would be embroiled in foreign wars over oil, and they saw the connection between burning oil and polluting air and water. The obvious answer was to develop new sources of energy, and in the meantime control our use of limited resources.

When we talk about the social history of the 20th century, this will be one thread in the tapestry. But all this was un-dreamed of by the America that emerged from World War II as an economic colossus in a ruined world. (In 1950, half the world’s steel was being produced in the United States!) We’ve seen how the war transformed American consumption patterns; let’s jump back to the end of the previous world war to see the boom, bust, and recovery cycle that the nation endured in the two decades before World War II brought it out of its slump.

 

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