The 1973 oil embargo affected not just the United States but other oil-dependent nations. I lived in London at the time at an international youth hostel and worked for a British construction firm that built oil pipelines. At every petrol station, cars lined up for hours (as in the United States), but the English immediately cut their dependency through conservation in a way that Americans never did. The government stipulated that the people should go without heat for half of each week and without lights for the other half. Individuals and businesses that did not comply were fined heavily and written up in the next day’s news. These measures affected every home and workplace. I had urged our office supervisor to buy an electric typewriter to increase productivity, which she did, trading in the old manual. Suddenly we couldn’t use the new productive typewriter for half the week.
It was strange to enter a stately building, Her Majesty’s this or that, at midday and see workers toiling by candlelight or kerosene lamp. The subway reduced its hours of operation too. When my boyfriend and I would come out of a frigid theater or concert hall after some performance and find no subway running, we would walk the four or five miles home.
Without heat Londoners dressed warmly, but the winter nights in our student hostel were bitter. I slept fully clothed, including socks and a hat. On evenings with lights but no heat, we English-speakers would crowd the television room to watch the Watergate hearings. They were gripping and we were raucous, warming the room with our own hot air.
At the hostel, run by a Socialist Indian family, I shared with five other females a high-ceilinged room with three bunk-beds. One evening it was empty, so I pulled a straight-backed chair in front of the room’s single coin-operated space heater, rolled up a towel upon which to rest my feet, filled the heater with Italian 5 lira pieces (instead of the required 5 pence), and turned on the BBC. Chopin piano preludes wafted my way. Quickly I covered my legs with newspapers and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. As long as that piano played and I had lira, I sat alone in the darkness, toasty in my paper tent, transported by the musicbliss amid scarcity.
Contrast that episode in 1973 with events two years ago in the United States, when the northeast regional power grid broke down.
Here in the city that never sleeps, New Yorkers reached for their candles, wind-up radios and flashlights. Several friends spent the night camped out on the floor where I live, just four flights up, friends whose other choices were to sleep in their offices or, after walking down 45 flights of stairs in total darkness, to spend hours more trying to reach their homes outside the city. Bus and train stations were overcrowded and off schedule.
Residents and businesses reached out to commuters, but some cab drivers charged outrageous fares (a practice London forbade in 1973). In high-rise buildings where a roof pump is required, the plumbing backed up, worsening by the day.
Unlike the long-term power outages caused by Hurricane Katrina (or the 1973 oil embargo), the power grid problem lasted only a few days. Still, it was striking to learn firsthand how even a brief loss of power causes the elderly, ailing and poor to suffer disproportionately. When I and thousands of other workers left the office for home on foot, we hastened by others who appeared barely able to walk along.
In a high-rise publicly subsidized housing complex near where I live, some elderly persons slept outside on park benches; without elevators they could not reach their apartments. They had no cell phones with which to make quick arrangements and no friends to take them in. Many went without prescription medicines, which brought discomfort to some, but posed serious health hazards for those with diabetes, respiratory illness and heart disease.
If all this upheaval takes place when oil is cut back or electricity is unavailable for a few days, what would an extended period of less oil mean day by day for the people in the United States? Hospitals have emergency generators and other critical backup procedures are in place, but are there truly any alternatives for the long-term, any short of conservation and new fuels?
Why are we still waiting for that new oil discovery in the Gulf (or Alaska or Venezuela) to spare us any inconvenience? Why aren’t we instead doing all we can personally and demanding from our government and businesses sweeping conservation measures, serious research into alternative sources of fuel and smaller, more efficient cars?
Thirty years separate these two sets of observations, yet the United States is still oil dependent and in that respect still sitting in the dark.