On failure (or, “a denial of waste”)

An urban automotive history reflection

Prepared 20 March 2009 for Prof. Steve Penfold (HIS484H1S, University of Toronto).

————— —— —————

We established during the energy crisis seminar that perceived shortages of global energy reserves were neither a problem nor a cause for the energy crises of the 1970s, nor did these shortages impact everyone evenly. Rather, North America’s appetite for energy consumption kept escalating, and it strained readily accessible global sources to keep up. Policymakers — Jimmy Carter included — failed in their collective hesitance to tersely and unambiguously explain that the way people consumed energy was a mistake. Manufacturers, especially those in the automotive industry, had long failed to design for optimal efficiency in their products, and this came back to hurt revenue as cheaper, more efficient imports proliferated after the 1950s. Combined with price-fixing policies on petroleum and a longstanding energy doctrine to maintain an American status quo on cheap oil supplies, this troublesome trinity avalanched into a denial of waste first challenged in 1973, then once again in 1979. It would return as a recurring theme for the coming decades.

The 1970s were primed for a hard intervention on consumer overuse. Instead, political action was diluted, half-baked. As with any addiction, this enabled further an assigning of blame toward something else entirely: supply-side bottlenecks. This was easier to do than to address systemic problems of ever-escalating demand and consumption. Even the idea of “conservation” itself was problematic, since the very meaning of “conserving” had long been twisted and skewed out of context by American petroleum concerns whose principal interest was to preserve levels of consumption. They advocated an oil imperialism from the end of World War I as a means to “conserve” American reserves and to assure that an international supply chain would thwart any possible threat of running domestic supplies dry (Olien and Olien: 55). The oil companies upended America’s pre-WWI isolationist doctrine with one of resource empire building. This doctrine continued throughout the twentieth century, and it was later manifest by the U.S.’s sovereign disruption over oil-producing countries for securing that imperial control.

Presented with perpetually low energy prices, American consumers cheaply used energy, bought appliances, and bought products which appealed to senses of comfort, relief, and indulgence rather than of efficiency (or of using only that which was necessary). Taking into account the Great Depression and World War II, the working class’s collective memory of trying to get ahead economically appeared to be rewarded by accessible creature comforts delivered during the 1950s. It also meant that decades of perennially low oil prices, exacerbated into the 1970s by President Nixon’s policy of fixing prices to remain low, dwindled dry the number of active U.S. wells (Nye: 218). Supply guarantees had long been procured from oil-exporting states whose national interests increasingly diverged from what the U.S. demanded, and as resistance increased, global supplies were strained.

So when President Carter spoke on television in July 1979, Americans were experiencing this supply bottleneck in very personal ways. Inflation stemming from higher commodity prices meant that the cost to buy everything from gas to groceries escalated and demand for American products took a back seat to cheaper (and high quality) imports, and wages stalled. This “stagflationary” mix halted an “American Dream” built around stability and the idyll of an urban periphery made for cars. Levittown, PA, was long a symbolic project to advance this ideal (Anderson: 54–5). Its early founding by working class household heads — settlers in their own right — was sold on an assurance of prosperity: new houses, new appliances, new architecture, and ample space to raise families. It became a prototype for other planned subdivisions across North America — all subsidized by access to cheap oil imports.

Levittown was notable for its location within the manufacturing “Rust Belt”: many of its households were headed by blue-collar workers from the manufacturing sector. By the 1970s, when manufacturing began to decline, the strain of higher oil prices hit two-car households harder than most (which by then were fairly common) (Anderson: 59). The 1979 gas line riots of Levvittown were a visceral response to this vise-like grip on livelihoods which could no longer enjoy the sense of prosperity they once had. It was a collective frustration felt among the working classes who strained harder to survive in the only place they had known for a generation — a place which required heavy energy consumption to maintain. Levittowners grew into this rhythm of high consumption because it was built into the DNA of their planned community.

For this reason, high energy use was never mentioned in any kind of primer which could have been handed to residents from the 1950s onward: the high-energy implications of building and occupying such unsustainable neighbourhoods were not advanced by developers (or by other business sectors), because these would work against their own interests. In the same stroke, this made Levittowners and their peers elsewhere both victims and unwitting accomplices to the energy crisis.

As I argued during seminar, American consumers were ill-educated on how their consumption impacted supply procurement. Their hand in the energy crisis, while substantial, did not originate from a place of malice or poor intent. Consumers were sold a promise of boundless supply — enabled by developers who continued building these monocultured subdivisions; in part by American oil companies going out of their way to secure supply overseas; and by a U.S. government which propped up oil-rich proxy governments to assure that they continued having access to those reserves. The Shah’s overthrow in Iran was one such reaction to this American doctrine.

Anecdotally, the strain of survival was not as problematic for suburbs in Sun Belt cities like Houston (or regions like Alberta), much as Nye briefly noted. This is because Houstonian residents disproportionately worked for the energy sector. At the time, Houston was feverishly catching up with infrastructure development as oil prices spiked and American-sourced crude oil demanded labour for new drilling, refining, banking, and construction. (This frenetic atmosphere was well-depicted by the 1980 film Urban Cowboy). Inflation that meant prices here higher everywhere, but wages locally were better able keep up.

Supply shortages resulted in three unforgettable observations. One, “odd/even days” rationed gas availability based on the last digit of a car’s licence plate (our two-car household had license plates ending with 180 and 269). Another was the “flag” indicators: a green flag flying outside the service station meant that gas was available; yellow meant no gas, but other services were open; and red meant the station was entirely closed. The third was a necessity to park cars in a driveway so close to one another (or against a garage door) so as to make it impossible for fuel siphoning to occur. Never mind that both of our family’s cars then were equipped with big V-8 engines.

So when Carter spoke on television, he went for a sermon approach of the jeremiad. It was ill-suited to the mass medium. I vaguely remember its original airing. Carter’s speech meandered and dragged on for what felt like an eternity. What he ambiguously tried to explain in a half-hour could have — in crisp, easily understood terms — been summarized in ten minutes. In this speech, he hinted at but failed to explain exactly why the shortage happened (oil imperialism). Instead, he only explained that the shortage had happened based on a dependency on “foreign oil”, and the country needed to find a way out (Carter: ¶52).

The president pressed for active conservational habits (like adjusting thermostats) instead of proposing a platform for congressional legislation to radically require manufactured products to be substantially less energy-consumptive — well beyond the CAFE standards had set in 1975. Carter failed to explain what the U.S. had historically been doing since World War I to find themselves in this predicament — how it was not the fault of an ill-informed public, but as consumers it was their problem. Rather, he failed to hold American petroleum companies accountable for their longstanding policy to source so heavily on cheap supplies from other countries. This was probably because confronting the oil companies was political suicide.

As the chief executive for a nation whose energy doctrine was premised on imperial control for sourcing its global supplies cheaply — a doctrine which by then had tampered with the internal affairs of secveral other states to maintain those supplies — Carter would have had to admit complicity on behalf of his predecessors. Admitting that kind of blame would, as with challenging the oil companies, been an act of political suicide.

Related readings

Anderson, David M. 2005. Levittown is burning! The 1979 Levittown, Pennsylvania, Gas Line riot and the decline of the blue-collar American dream. Labor, 2(3): 47–66.

Nye, David. 1998. Consuming power: A social history of American energies. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.

Olien, Roger M. and Oiien, Diana Davids. 2000. Oil and ideology: the cultural creation of the American petroleum industry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.