Connections: Electric Shock and Awe

Appliances got bigger, the electronic devices we considered essential to our households grew in type, number, and sophistication, and air-conditioning became near-universal

Remember the gas crisis of the mid-1970s and the long lines at filling stations? If you aren’t old enough to have been there, you aren’t likely to recall the nationwide energy-conservation effort that followed. 

The United States was already largely reliant on foreign oil, and in particular Saudi Arabia’s. Our own oil production was relatively high, but oil reserves were low. What caused the crisis was that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries slipped us, and a number of other countries, a Mickey Finn in 1974 by embargoing the sale of oil in retaliation for support of Israel in its 1973 war with Arab countries (the Yom Kippur war).

The result was not only unhappy drivers in aggravating queues at gas stations, but inflation, unemployment, and a nationwide 55-mile-an-hour speed limit on the highways. The embargo also had a global impact, with European countries and Japan needing U.S. assistance to secure energy sources.

But this crisis had a positive side, too, sparking a broad energy-conservation movement in the United States. Fuel scarcity prompted the first federal fuel-economy standards for vehicles. Americans were encouraged to conserve energy in every way possible — unplugging electronic devices when not in use, and thinking small when it came to cars. 

As we all know, that long-ago movement didn’t last long. Instead, we went wild in the following decades with no-holds-barred energy wasting. Appliances got bigger, the electronic devices we considered essential to our households grew in type, number, and sophistication, and air-conditioning became near-universal. The S.U.V. became our defining American vehicle, replacing the cute little “economy cars” of the 1970s.

The general public was not concerned about what fossil fuels were doing to the environment, and only a few voices in the wilderness were heard raising the alarm when domestic oil production soared and conservation foundered. Shale oil and natural gas boomed as sources of energy, and we as a culture were satisfied: We could have it all. 

It wasn’t until 1992 that a nationwide program to cut back on the household use of electricity, Energy Star, was adopted, and that was largely promoted as a way for consumers to save money rather than as good for the planet.

Because I thought it the right thing to do, and because, I guess, I haven’t forgotten the first energy-conservation movement, I was for the longest time scrupulous about unplugging my computer and various other devices. I bought cars with good mileage per gallon. My husband went around turning off the house lights (he still does) if no one was in the room. 

But, in general, and like most Americans, I think, we have become complacent. I am writing this in bed at night right now, lights blazing from the TV, two computers, a printer, a clock, and various other household devices whose use has become so routine I can’t think of what they even are.

Something is wrong with this picture.

We now live with an overarching imperative to curb the use of all fossil fuels: Global warming is a five-alarm emergency. But we do almost nothing. We do even less than we did back in the gas crisis of the 1970s, when an individual’s average energy consumption was considerably less than it is today.

Although our reliance on foreign oil has lessened, Saudi Arabia still provides 40 percent of the world’s oil. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the good news is that in five years, 80 percent of our oil is expected to come from North and South America, and we may be able to loosen the bonds that tie us to a country known for horrendous human rights abuses. On a more local note, we have wind farms in our near future.

What the developed nations will do to preserve their land and protect their people from the effects of climate change, however, remains a giant question mark. In this country, we have a seesaw with global-warming deniers in the Trump administration on one end and private, public, and corporate efforts to fight global warming on the other. My question is: Why are we not, as individuals, in the cocoons of our own homes — in the ember glow of our ever-buzzing electronics — yet panicking? Nobody even seems to talk about gas-guzzlers anymore.