When Americans fought over gasoline, and missed a big opportunity

Story highlights

  • Earth Day is a good time to look at the energy crisis of the 1970s and to make amends, says Meg Jacobs
  • We don't have a sense of impending crisis now, but signs are clear we must take major steps, she says

Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, "Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s" (Hill and Wang). The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Friday is Earth Day and there is a lot to celebrate. Schoolchildren across the country will be honoring our natural environment and learning about what steps we need to take to preserve our resources, just as they did when the holiday started on April 22, 1970. According to the Energy Information Administration, since 1970, the United States has become more efficient for each dollar of GDP in how it uses energy.

Meg Jacobs
Numerous companies understand the importance of the environment and are investing more of their resources in developing products like hybrid cars and solar power. A massive, global environmental movement is working hard to keep up the pressure to deal with this issue. President Obama has used his executive authority to introduce a series of historic measures that will help curb emissions. The Senate just passed a bipartisan energy bill that includes incentives for conservation, renewable energy and improved efficiency.
    But with all the progress, we are still a long way from success. The goals of those who created Earth Day to protect the environment and prevent degradation have not been achieved and since that time we have come to discover the problems are even worse than they originally suspected.
    OPEC's failure to agree on oil production curbs at this week's meeting of oil ministers likely means lower prices, more driving, and greater emissions. For all the progress at last year's Paris climate conference and for all Obama's executive actions, which have been substantial, history shows the cheaper the prices, the more fossil fuels we use.
    Among our national shortcomings, our failure to seriously curb our use of oil ranks high. While our cars get more miles per gallon, with prices so cheap, we drive more and commute longer distances.
    For much of the 20th century and 21st, oil has been at the heart of the economy. Oil fuels our cars, heats our homes and drives our industry.
    While we have done a better job finding alternative sources of energy, oil still remains a central commodity in our current world. While our military presence in the Middle East has continued to guarantee access to foreign markets, fracking has taken some of the pressure off by providing for new domestic sources of this black gold. Currently fracking produces half of U.S. oil output.
    And relying on oil that is tougher to extract increases emissions. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "oil — the main ingredient in gasoline — has steadily become dirtier. The pollution associated with extracting and refining a barrel of oil has increased by nearly a third over the last decade. ... Ultimately, we need to use less oil — a lot less."
    This fundamental problem dates back to the 1970s, when American policymakers, facing an energy crisis of historic proportions, failed to tackle our dependence on energy.

    Huge gas lines and fistfights

    In 1973 and 1979, trouble in the Middle East, first an Arab embargo and then the Iranian Revolution, led to huge gas lines and turmoil across the United States as citizens realized how dependent they had become on this commodity and how little control the nation had over it.
    In response to these oil shocks, the price of a gallon broke the dollar mark for the first time. As Americans waited for hours in long lines, fistfights broke out, people stole gas from each others' tanks, and the nation's truckers went on violent strikes demanding relief. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, there were explosive riots, with protesters setting cars on fire and chanting, "More gas! More gas!" The result was a full-scale panic at the pump.
    At the height of the Watergate scandal in 1973, Americans told pollsters that the oil crisis was a much greater concern than Richard Nixon's wrongdoing. As they stood in line to fill up their tanks and watched ominous stories about the economic ramifications of the crisis throughout the nation, they understood that this was one of the worst economic challenges the nation had faced since the Great Depression.
    This was the best and last political opportunity to deal with our dependence on oil and we failed to live up to the challenge. Today, it is difficult to build support for environmental action, because the threat of global warming does not feel immediate to Americans. But the energy crisis was so severe in the 1970s that it was impossible for almost any citizen to ignore the problem the nation faced.
    Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, D-Washington, a domestic liberal who was hawkish on foreign policy, warned about the danger of doing nothing and called on the United States to deal with the energy crisis that had emerged. "We need to ask whether we must put ourselves in hock to Middle Eastern sheikdoms to keep roads clogged with gas-hungry automobiles," Jackson said
    But doing nothing is exactly what happened.
    As Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter tried to deal with the crisis, lowering our use of oil found almost no political support. Most American consumers, who had become used to living with abundance, showed no interest in changing their patterns of consumption. They wanted their cars, they wanted their homes, and they wanted to continue living a life that would require lots of oil.

    No appetite for conservation

    Northeastern Democrats in Congress like Tip O'Neill showed no appetite for conservation. Their main goal was to call for government programs that would protect consumers and provide federal assistance so struggling Americans could pay their bills. Republicans in the Ford administration were intent on opening up the energy markets through deregulation. This was their priority, not finding incentives to pressure Americans to use less.
    When President Carter delivered his famous "Malaise" speech in July 1979, he addressed this problem head on. He spoke directly to Americans saying they had to look inward to resolve this crisis and not just expect their leaders to do this for them. "It's clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper — deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession." He continued: "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption."
    The problem for Carter was that there was no political coalition that supported his basic message. The goal of American policy would primarily be to secure enough oil to satisfy American demand rather than to curb that demand. Over the following decades, the nation used its military muscle in the Persian Gulf to make sure the spigots in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait never closed.
    At home we pushed for aggressive drilling and introduced new methods such as fracking, which had terrible environmental consequences, to make sure Americans had everything they needed.
    Today, with low oil and gas prices, Americans don't feel the same sense of crisis as in the 1970s, so there is no sense of urgency to deal with our addiction to oil. But it is clearly not sustainable and depends on tactics that are costly and are causing huge environmental and human damage.
    We can't afford to make the same mistake that we did four decades ago. We have been paying the price ever since. It's time to get to the heart of our energy problem, not continuing with our endless search for more of it, but finding serious ways to encourage us to use less.