Energy bind, but no cardigan-sweater ethic
US is far more efficient than in '70s - but also more determined to consume.
HOUSTON — Reminiscent of the 1970s, the line of cars stretched down the street at a west side gas station last week. Customers were waiting for 10 free gallons, compliments of a local radio station.
Because the promotion would go to the first 200 cars only, people began queuing up at 9 the night before. One woman burned up an entire tank of gas waiting for a free half tank. "People are confused about why prices are rising so rapidly," says Tim Sutherland of KHMX 96.5, the Houston station giving away 2,000 gallons of gas. "They say it's absurd to be paying $2 a gallon for regular. But nobody wants to stop driving."
While there are signs that today's record high gasoline prices are causing some consumers to reevaluate their energy use (witness the slowdown in SUV sales), for the most part people continue to burn fuel at the same rate they did last year.
In fact, AAA, the nation's largest organization for motorists, predicts drivers will hit the road in record numbers this summer. After more than a decade of prosperity, it seems the concept of energy conservation has vanished from the nation's consciousness - Jimmy Carter donning a sweater instead of turning up the thermostat a distant, almost amusing, memory.
"The same urgency that was given to fuel conservation in the '70s is not apparent in our society anymore, even with these high prices," says Geoff Sundstrom, AAA spokesman. "Some of the drastic steps taken 30 years ago are not even being discussed right now."
Lowering the national speed limit to 55 miles per hour and tightening the fuel-economy standards are two examples of laws enacted after gas shortages shocked the nation. Some believe steps like these will occur only if gas shortages return.
Indeed, many economists contend that gasoline as a percentage of household expenditure is less today than it was 25 years ago, and people simply haven't been inconvenienced to the same degree.
But others say the nation has continued to make progress on energy conservation, primarily on the technology side. While gains were faster in the 1970s and '80s, spurred on by persistently high energy prices, everything from automobiles to light bulbs is more efficient today than they were even 10 years ago, says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.
By 1990, for instance, the average American car got 40 percent more miles per gallon than it did in 1973. In the past decade, the country has saved $50 billion from the dozen or more products that have been subject to stricter federal standards. "In the 1970s, there was a limited number of choices when it came to energy efficiency," says Bill Prindle of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington. "We were so accustomed to cheap energy, there was no need to find alternatives. Now there are a lot more choices."
But efficiency by itself may not be enough. Research shows that if the cost of driving or running an air conditioner is cheap enough, people will simply use more energy. The size of homes has doubled in the past century, commutes have quadrupled, and electronic gadgets have proliferated. "The general ethic of consumption has increased over the last 30 years," says Mr. Prindle. But that does not mean consumers do not want to conserve energy, he adds. They simply expect manufacturers to give them the best and most efficient product.
It also does not mean that consumers aren't willing to cut back when it's necessary. The most recent example was the 2000 California energy crisis when residents lowered their electricity use by almost 10 percent in one year.
"When push comes to shove, people show they can conserve and get into that conservation mind-set," says Jeff Deyette, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. "But it's got to really hit them in the wallet before they're willing to make some lifestyle changes."
Prices may be reaching the point where consumers are starting to make at least some adjustments. A new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that 59 percent of Americans said the high pump prices will cause them to drive less this summer than they normally would.
One reason consumers don't conserve more, some suggest, is that they don't have enough choices. American car manufacturers tell consumers that they must choose between fuel efficiency and size - when the technology allows for both, says David Friedman, research director for the clean-vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "You can't blame the consumer until the consumer really has a role to play," says Mr. Friedman. He adds that the current energy bill does nothing to cut the country's oil dependency and to improve fuel economy.
Experts speculate that part of the skepticism about energy conservation has to do with the constant barrage of gloom-and-doom news about the environment in the 1970s.
"Back then, the newspapers and academic press were full of accounts that the world was running out of oil and that we couldn't count on this energy source for much longer," says Mr. Sundstrom with AAA. "Well, that didn't happen and many of the older population are somewhat skeptical about anybody ringing alarm bells today."
Others go even further. "I don't think the culture has ever really embraced the true conservation ethic promoted in the 1970s," says Michael Marsden, a professor of American studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. "Sure, a lot of us learned to recycle, but we won't go out and buy a smaller hybrid car. We're not that committed."
While short-term attitudes may have changed in the 1970s, it often takes much longer for cultural shifts. "It takes about a century to see real change," says Dr. Marsden. "We've still got a ways to go.