The Poverty of Power: Energies, Economies, and the Relevance of Environmental History

Below is a paper I delivered at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Seattle in 2005. It’s drawn predominantly from work I did on Barry Commoner, but it hints at some directions I’d like to revisit. One topic that interests me especially is the American relationship between energy technologies and economic recession. It seems as though rhetoric and enthusiasm for alternative energy technologies increases during periods of economic decline. Witness the 1930s and 1970s, for example. As the economy recovers, optimism for newer energy technologies subsides. This is an issue that deserves more consideration, but here’s an early departure for my interest in the idea. The title of the post was the title that appeared in the program.

My paper plays with the double entendre in our session’s title, “Environmental Matters.”  On the one hand, my subject material is of an intrinsically environmental persuasion.  In keeping with this panel’s focus on the 1970s, I turn my attention to the oil embargo, the energy crisis, the related economic crisis and their cumulative cultural impact on American environmental understanding.  On the other hand, I propose to use my brief account of the energy crisis to demonstrate environmental history’s significance not just within the larger existing historiography, but also outside the academy.  While this second assertion is hardly novel, it warrants our continued attention, particularly with respect to the study of the more recent past like the 1970s.  More specifically, the current debate over American energy production remains mired in the same polluting and wasteful bind that propelled the energy crisis thirty years ago.  Just as environmental  history argues that nature is an actor in the human drama—not just the backdrop—I want to present this paper as a series of different scenes that, combined, provide us with a deeper understanding of our energies, economies, and history.  So this is a paper of many acts, which, I fear, may conclude as more of a sermon.

[Act I]: To many, the 1970s was a period most aptly interpreted by Doonesbury’s characters, who, at decade’s end, toasted “a kidney stone of a decade.”[1]  During the 1970s, the euphoria that followed World War II dissipated into tension, angst, and crisis, punctuated by the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the oil embargo, and severe economic depression.  Noting the popular response to such unsettling events, Tom Wolfe proclaimed the 1970s the “Me Decade,” characterized by self-exploration, fragmentation, and separation; Christopher Lasch called it a “culture of narcissism,” which involved living in the moment and for self, not predecessors or posterity.[2]  “After the political turmoil of the sixties,” wrote Lasch, “Americans … retreated to purely personal preoccupations.”[3]  A sort of spiritual hedonism swept American culture and helped to insulate Americans from the crises that pervaded public and political life.  In a strange sense, it was a perfect and yet impossible condition for the burgeoning environmental consciousness that had progressively become an integral feature of the American mainstream through the 1960s.  On the one hand, the narcissist demanded a clean and beautiful environment; on the other, there existed a disconnect between present, past, and future that rendered almost hopeless efforts for effective, long-term environmental protection.  The perceived immediacy of the crises that struck the 1970s belied their historical origins, and public and policymakers alike exhibited little vision in scrambling for short-term fixes to bigger problems.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the popular response to the energy crisis and the continuing demand for cheap energy, pervasive since the economic boom after the Second World War.

The decade began, of course, with Earth Day and the widespread acceptance of an environmental crisis that demanded public and policy attention.  After the unprecedented success of the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes and other Earth Day organizers targeted “the Dirty Dozen,” the twelve Congressmen with the worst environmental records; during the fall 1970 elections, seven of the twelve lost their seats and the environmental movement presented itself as a legitimate and powerful new force in Washington, D.C.  This victory was followed by strong legislation to clean air and water, control pesticides and pesticide use, and protect endangered species.[4]  The energy crisis in 1973 gave further credence to the importance of the conservation of natural resources as oil shortages caused mass hysteria in the press and at the gas pump, but it also muted the broader environmental agenda and left Americans clamoring for cheap fuel and electricity, not responsible energy use and conservation.  By the middle of the decade, America found itself consumed in a dire economic crisis, and the environmental momentum gained by successes early in the decade was dead.  [End of Act I.  In the interest of time, we’ll forego intermissions between acts and jump straight into Act II, which examines the energy crisis from an economic and socio-political perspective.]

Since the end of World War II, the American economy had been buoyed by unparalleled, rampant prosperity.  Indeed, such was the boom and sense of confidence, during the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson had tried to fight the Vietnam War without raising taxes.  For a time, it seemed as though the bullish economy would sustain Johnson’s efforts, but by the time he left office in 1969, his defiance of economic logic posed difficult problems for the Nixon administration.[5]  After more than two decades of economic growth and prosperity, the bottom fell out in the 1970s and the economy was in an acute state of crisis, which precipitated the onset of stagflation, manifest by a series of related factors: productivity was in decline; unemployment was on the rise and so were interest rates and inflation, in part a result of Johnson’s tax-free war; and trade deficits, unbalanced budgets, and a growing deficit were stalling the national economy.  Sagging productivity, galloping inflation, and stifling unemployment—especially among minorities and the millions of baby boomers now entering the workforce—constituted a difficult challenge for the new Nixon administration, and it proved quickly that it was not up to the challenge.

The socio-economic hazards inherent in the inefficient consumption of energy hit home to Americans with the onset of the 1973 energy crisis.  According to Walter Rosenbaum, “on the eve of the ‘energy crisis’ of 1973, per capita American energy use exceeded the rest of the globe’s per capita consumption by seven times and remained twice the average of that in European nations with comparable living standards.”[6]  In October 1973, Americans experienced a “crude awakening.”  Angered by Nixon’s devaluation of the American dollar—which had already resulted in raised oil prices and contributed to worldwide inflation—and the American support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, Arab leaders of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on shipments of oil to the United States.  In December 1973, OPEC raised the price of oil to $11.65 a barrel, almost four times the cost prior to the Yom Kippur War.  The oil embargo lasted five months—from 16 October 1973 to 18 March 1974—as Americans contended with what Nixon called “a very stark fact: We are heading toward the most acute shortage of energy since World War II.”[7]

Nixon’s statement belied a dire miscalculation of the global economic climate on the part of his administration.  American policy dictated that Arab oil exporters needed American capital and technology more than Americans needed their oil.  After all, an attempted embargo in 1967 had supported this point of view; amid regional instability and embargoes, the oil still got through.[8]  What had changed by 1973?  In short: domestic oil production peaked in 1970.[9]  The strength of domestic wells had allowed the United States to stockpile a surplus capacity of about 4,000,000 barrels of oil a day between 1957 and 1963.  By the 1970s, that surplus had dropped to 1,000,000 barrels a day, and the United States was forced to become a major oil importer.  American demand for oil, extraction at full capacity at home, and growing dependence on an unstable and volatile part of the world for its lifeblood prompted former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson to wryly claim: “Popeye is running out of spinach.”[10]  It certainly seemed the case.  In 1967, 19% of oil for American consumption came from overseas; by 1972, that figure had risen to 30%, and 38% two years later.[11]  Oil imports more than doubled between 1967 and 1973—from 2.2 million barrels a day to 6,000,000 barrels a day—and the increasing importation of Arab oil, not to mention the enormous quantities of dollars held by Arab oil countries contributed markedly to the devaluation of the dollar in 1971 and again in 1973.[12]

As a result, the Nixon administration’s position dramatically underestimated the American dependence on foreign oil.[13]  According to Bruce Schulman, “the world’s great superpower seemed suddenly toothless, helpless, literally and metaphorically out of gas.”[14]  The oil embargo precipitated a series of events that demonstrated the centrality of oil to the American economic system.  The price of gasoline, heating oil, and propane climbed markedly, as did many petrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides that were made from petroleum products.  Gasoline prices, combined with the shortage of gasoline, depressed car sales, and the automotive industry experienced a serious decline.  According to a 1975 issue of Survey of Current Business, a Department of Commerce publication, within a year of the embargo, the $5.3 billion decline in gross auto product during the fourth quarter of 1974 accounted for more than 25% of the decline in real Gross National Product.  In simpler terms, the battered auto industry was pinched by the oil embargo and contributed to the spreading economic alarm by laying off over 100,000 autoworkers.[15]  Increased fuel prices raised transportation costs and the price of agricultural chemicals, both of which contributed to inflated grocery bills.  Costs for heating went through the roof.[16]  Energy problems became problems of inflation and unemployment; energy had become firmly enmeshed in the deepening economic crisis.[17]  The energy crisis brought the country to its knees.  As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Business Week late in 1974—ironically a year after receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace—forceful action against Middle Eastern countries withholding oil might be justifiable in preventing “some actual strangulation of the industrialized world.”[18]  A few weeks earlier, Newsweek had quoted a “top U.S. official” as saying that “if the oil-producing nations drive the world into depression in their greed, the West might be forced into a desperate military adventure.”[19] [Fade to black: End of Act II]

On a recent flight across the country, I took with me Wallace Stegner’s biography of Bernard DeVoto.  On one level, I hoped that both Stegner and DeVoto would rub off on the conference paper I still had to finish (it didn’t work).  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable flight, however, and in preparing my paper, I was reminded of DeVoto’s lesson—one pre-iterated and subsequently re-iterated by countless others—that the past is not something historians actually recover.  “We are chained and pinioned in our moment,” DeVoto instructed.  “What we recover from the past is an image of ourselves, and very likely our search sets out to find nothing other than just that.”[20]  This is a declaration that environmental historians have taken to heart.  It’s become a mantra of sorts, no doubt inspired by the persistence of the conservation and environmental issues they study. Within a couple of decades of the energy crisis that rapt the American consciousness during the mid-1970s, for example, American drivership had pushed gas and oil consumption to per capita levels higher than those prior to the oil crisis of the 1970s.  While the average fuel rate (miles per gallon) for vehicles on American roads has increased substantially since 1973 (from 11.9 miles per gallon in 1973 to 16.9 miles per gallon in 2000), recently there has been a distressing move to larger vehicles.  The ratio of cars to total vehicles declined from 80% in 1977 to 64% in 1995.[21]

[Act IV]: Environmental history is engaged in charting what Worster has called a “path across the levee.”  It’s a multi-faceted levee between nature and society, mind and matter, and, from an academic perspective, the humanities and the sciences.[22]  This is a vital exercise, in which environmental historians find themselves especially well situated contemplate a critical social question: how did we come find ourselves immersed in a global environmental crisis.  As we consider this question, we learn that the nature of the question is complex.  Our societies and our economies are driven by our natural resources.  Their misuse, overuse, or depletion, then, take on grave socio-political implications.  The extraction of, use of, and dependence on fossil fuels and the contemporary concerns about the future of energy production mirror the intellectual and political dilemmas of the 1970s.  This leads us to another path across the levee: between the past and the present.  How can an environmental history of the energy crisis inform our contemporary questions?

Can historians tell the story of the 1970s energy crisis without delving into the environmental perspective?  Yes, but we do so at our own peril.  In addition to increased fuel consumption and the abandonment of serious conservation measures, our elected methods of energy production are particularly polluting.  Coal, for example, constitutes a significant percentage of our national power production, while its pollutants—among them mercury vapors—intoxicate our air and contaminate our waters.  Distinct regions, communities, and peoples bear the brunt of our polluting legacy.  The health and economic well-being—and the two are intimately linked—of the inhabitants industrial areas—like the provocatively nicknamed “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana—are indicative of this.  Our landscapes represent not just our interaction with nature, but also our interactions with race, class, gender, and disability.  This is more than simply an environmental story, but one that offers a peculiar lens into the inner dynamics of the origins of social angst that have been such a pervasive feature of American history.

This is a story we need to learn and one that historians need to teach.  I began this paper by invoking the title of our session; let me conclude by invoking my own title, “The Poverty of Power,” which I have borrowed from Barry Commoner, who was an active and tireless opponent of American energy policy during the 1970s.  Just prior to the energy crisis, Commoner warned: “We are living in a false prosperity.  Our burgeoning industry and agriculture has produced lots of food, many cars, huge amounts of power, and fancy new chemical substitutes.  But for all these goods we have been paying a hidden price.”  That price, Commoner argued, was the destruction of the ecological system that supported not only human existence, but also—ironically—the very industries that threatened it.  “What this tells us,” he surmised, “is that our system of productivity is at the heart of the environmental problem.”[23]  By the 1970s, Commoner was a veteran of social and environmental activism, and he very consciously recognized that government and business needed to have environmental destruction explained in economic terms in order to be swayed by the gravity of the situation.  Even before Earth Day, Commoner was conscious of this, and in a 1969 address at the 11th annual meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, he translated the environmental crisis into economic terms:

“The environment makes up a huge, enormously complex living machine—the ecosphere—and on the integrity and proper functioning of that machine depends every human activity, including technology.  Without the photosynthetic activity of green plants there would be no oxygen for our smelters and furnaces, let alone to support human and animal life.  Without the action of plants and animals in aquatic systems, we can have no pure water to supply agriculture, industry, and the cities.  Without the biological processes that have gone on in the soil for thousands of years, we would have neither food, crops, oil, nor coal.  This machine is our biological capital, the basic apparatus on which our total productivity depends.  If we destroy it, our most advanced technology will come to naught and any economic and political system which depends on it will founder.  Yet the major threat to the integrity of this biological capital is technology itself.”[24]

The message was ecological, but it was also unmistakably and profoundly economic.  And it was a damning indictment of the industrial forces behind the technological revolution.  Commoner summarized these ideas in The Closing Circle.  “Environmental problems seem to have an uncanny way of penetrating to the core of those issues that most gravely burden the modern world,” he told his readers.  “There are powerful links between the environmental crisis and the troublesome, conflicting demands on the earth’s resources and on the wealth created from them by society.”[25]  In this context, environmental history does not directly help us with solving the problem at hand, but it ensures that we ask the right questions.

[1] G. B. Trudeau, The People’s Doonesbury: Notes from Underfoot, 1978-1980 (New York: Henry Holt, 1981).

[2] Tom Wolfe, The Purple Decades (New York: Berkley Books, 1983), 265-296; and Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979).  For Wolfe’s famous essay, see also Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York (23 August 1976), 26-40. For overviews of the 1970s, see Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001); Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in the 1970s (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1982); Arlene S. Skolnick, Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Jim Hougan, Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies (New York: Morrow, 1975); and James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[3] Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 4.

[4] Among the more prominent pieces of legislation were the National Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1970), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

[5] Robert Hargreaves notes: “even at its worst, [the war in Vietnam] never directly accounted for more than 3.5% of the gross national product.  But by dissembling about the true costs of the military involvement and attempting to pay for it out of deficit spending, Johnson and [Robert] McNamara had unleashed forces that would sooner or later—but inevitably—bring America to the reckoning.”  Robert Hargreaves, Superpower: A Portrait of America in the 1970s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), 111.

[6] Rosenbaum, The Politics of Environmental Concern, 38.

[7] Richard Nixon’s speech was published in the New York Times, 8 November 1973, 32.  Also cited Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 118.  For a good overview of the American energy crisis in relation to the embargo, see Martin V. Melosi, Coping with Abundance: Energy and Environment in Industrial America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 277-293.

[8] For the oil crisis of 1967, see Yergin, The Prize, 554-558.

[9] In the spring of 1971, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a cryptic one-sentence announcement: “The Texas Railroad Commission announced a 100 percent allowable for next month.”[9]  [Cited in Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 4].  The Texas Railroad Commission was effectively a government-sanctioned cartel that matched domestic oil production to demand.  In 1971, Texas wells began pumping oil at full capacity and domestic oil fields could no longer keep up with American demand.  In 1960, Americans consumed 9,700,000 barrels of oil a day; by 1970, that number had grown to 14,400,000, and had climbed to 16,200,000 in 1974.  [Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 119].  Said Byron Tunnell, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, after it reached the decision to pump at full capacity: “We feel this to be an historic occasion.  Damned historic, and a sad one.  Texas oil fields have been like a reliable old warrior that could rise to the task, when needed.  That old warrior can’t rise anymore.”  [Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.  Also cited in Yergin, The Prize, 567].

[10] Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 121.  Also cited in Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.

[11] Patterson, Grand Expectations, 785; and Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 119.  Too, the energy crunch extended beyond oil to natural gas.  Indeed, to make matters worse, Martin Melosi notes that “in 1968, for the first time in U.S. history, more natural gas was sold than was discovered.”  Melosi, Coping with Abundance, 282.

[12] Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.  For oil importation numbers, see Yergin, The Prize, 567.  In addition to the limitations of domestic oil, Yergin also stresses the importance of OPEC’s growing strength and its ability to dictate oil prices on the global market as contributing to the severity of the 1973 oil embargo.  See Yergin, The Prize, 554-612.

[13] See Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 117-118.

[14] Schulman, The Seventies,125.

[15] United States Department of Commerce, Survey of Current Business 55 (February 1975), 2.

[16] Between January 1973 and January 1974, the average monthly residential bill for #2 fuel oil, for example, increased between 59% to 90%.  Gas heating prices rose by as much as 25% and electricity prices by as much as 63% over the same period.  See Foster Associates, Energy Prices, 1960-1973 (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1974), 5-7.

[17] Commoner, The Poverty of Power, 34.

[18] Cited in Commoner, The Poverty of Power, 265.

[19] “Thinking the Unthinkable,” Newsweek (7 October 1974), 50-51.  Quotation is from page 51.  In addition to such dire language, the article was accompanied by sketches of an airborne attack on oil fields.

[20] Bernard DeVoto, “What’s the Matter with History?,” Harper’s 179 (June 1939), 109, 110.

[21] See George Martin, “Grounding Social Ecology: Landscape, Settlement, and Right of Way,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 13 (March 2002), 3-30.  Bigger vehicles invariably mean greater fuel consumption, so while cars have continued to become more fuel-efficient the average fuel rate for all vehicles has only fluctuated mildly since 1991.  See the Department of Energy website statistics:  Further, while per vehicle fuel consumption is lower than the pre-oil crisis rate, it has climbed back up to the 1980 rate, a disturbing rise associated with the increasing popularity of sport utility vehicles.  See John Cloud & Amanda Bower, “Why SUV is all the Rage,” Time 161 (24 February 2003).  See also Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).

[22] See Donald Worster, “Paths Across the Levee,” in The Wealth of nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 16-29.

[23] Barry Commoner, “Untitled Talk,” Harvard University, 21 April 1970 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 36), 5.  In 1973, E. F. Schumacher reiterated this general premise in his surprisingly successful book, Small is Beautiful, an economic tract that defied the maxims of growth and bigness, both perceived as integral to the free market.  E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[24] Commoner, “The Social Significance of Environmental Pollution,” 11th annual meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, Chicago, 26 September 1969 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 130), 4.

[25] Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 250.

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