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MIT Better World

Meg Jacobs has been exploring what happened when gasoline costs last exploded, in the mid- and late-1970s.


By Richard Anthony

That was the U.S.’s first energy crisis, triggered by the October 1973 Arab oil embargo. Today’s energy situation differs in many ways, including the fact that gasoline isn’t in short supply. But there’s also been a big difference in the way the public reacted when high prices hit this time, says MIT historian Meg Jacobs.

The first crisis “really was a shock,” she says. “It just seemed to come out of nowhere.” Most Americans didn’t know their country was increasingly dependent on foreign oil. “This had been in the works for a long time,” says Jacobs, “but it was almost imperceptible.”

Other factors exacerbated the problem: the U.S.’s Vietnam efforts were faltering, the country was experiencing the early effects of “stagflation” — inflation combined with an economic slowdown — and the Watergate scandal was picking up momentum.

The overall result was to undermine the country’s self-image — an image intimately bound up with its automobile culture. “The idea that how big your car was, and how fast it could go, was very much linked to America’s sense of its strength as a nation,” she says.

Predictably, many were angry when they learned the U.S. wasn’t invulnerable after all. But their rage didn’t focus on those who instigated the embargo, says Jacobs, an associate professor of history. “People blamed the oil companies,” she adds, “and along with them, they blamed the government officials they saw as conspiring with ‘Big Oil.’” The unhappiness led to calls to punish these presumed villains.

Though it’s commonplace to say the country didn’t learn its lesson from the early ’70s oil crunch or it’s late ’70s counterpart, that’s not wholly true, says Jacobs, who’s writing a book on the era called Panic at the Pump. Both government and industry took steps to forestall future crises.

In the mid-’70s, the Gerald Ford Administration created the CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) system to regulate vehicle mileage. “It’s no coincidence we reached the peak of efficiency for automobiles in 1985,” she says. And while that achievement faded, partly because car companies were able to find loopholes in the CAFE standards, many industries introduced efficiencies that survive to this day.

Jacobs, who says her earliest recollections of either crisis were “a few lines that my mother wrote to me at camp,” says Americans today have a different perspective on rising fuel costs from that in the ’70s. “There’s a feeling this is less about America’s vulnerability,” she notes, “and more about the law of supply and demand.” She also says resistance to a strong regulatory role for government — which emerged in part due to the actions of now Vice President Richard Cheney when he was on President Ford’s staff — has limited any push for dramatic federal mandates.

“No one’s talked about setting price ceilings on gasoline,” notes Jacobs. “Ideas like that are off the table.”

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