Does Anybody Take the Energy ‘Crisis’ Seriously?

By Russell Kirk

Although America’s sources of energy have not increased since we began to hear about the “energy crisis” a few years ago, our population goes on consuming fuels and other sources of energy as if thermal units, like dollar bills, came off a Washington press. There is energy inflation just as there is currency inflation. Consider this fact, more than half of all the single-family houses built recently have central air-conditioning installed, nationwide. Now air-conditioning systems are tremendous consumers of electrical energy—and nearly everybody got along well enough without such gadgets until after World War II.

High ceilings, large windows, fans, and cooling of houses by letting in the night air—such measures used to suffice us, even along the Gulf coast and in the Southwestern deserts. Air conditioning is a tremendous luxury.

¥et on my frequent trips to Alabama, say, I find that nearly all new houses there are constructed with low ceilings, tiny windows—and complete dependence upon air-conditioning systems. If restrictions are placed upon the consuming of electrical current, which is quite conceivable in this decade, those new houses will become virtually uninhabitable much of the year.

In Arizona, the vast prevalence of air conditioning adds heavily to problems of smog and general high temperatures outdoors. Even in Michigan, the popularity of air conditioning is a serious drain upon electrical energy. When, a few years ago, I built a tall addition to my ancestral house, I specified high ceilings (despite the cold winters) and no air conditioning; for I suspect that a day is not many years distant when air conditioning will be forbidden.

Dr. Edward Teller, the atomic physicist, says that proper development of nuclear energy could serve our needs for decades or even generations to come. But we haven’t yet really harnessed those nuclear sources for heating, lighting, transportation, and all our gadgets. Even if we succeed eventually in utilizing that source of power, how are we supposed to maintain our present consumption of energy—let alone increase it—during the long interval between present methods and possible new methods?

Some people hope to escape the natural-gas shortage, for instance, through heating their houses by electricity. This is a fallacy, for it requires more costly insulation of houses, and even then the long-run cost of electrical heat is greater than that of other means. And the price per kilowatt hour moves up steadily.

Another war in the Levant might break out any day. That would so reduce our supplies of oil that the consequences to American transportation, heating, and industrial production would be nearly ruinous. Yet little is done to prepare us for such a contingency.

Until we learn to manage without a big freezer in most houses, superheated homes in winter, supercooled homes in summer, and our multitudinous electrical gadgets—not to mention our passion for two or three cars per family—we must spend an inordinate proportion of our incomes upon consumption of energy. And then, without warning may come massive blackouts, empty filling stations, and rigorous rationing of energy.

Public facilities should set the example for private economy. Yet our cities and even our villages continue to turn night into day by costly mercury-vapor lighting. Most air terminals still are grossly overheated, and so are many other public buildings. Some folk have been persuaded to reduce the number of lights on their Christmas trees: it’s easier to part with religious symbolism than with one’s creature comforts.

When the air conditioning ceases to function all summer in Manhattan, friends; when the winter thermostat has to be turned down below 60; when your electric bill is enormous; when you can’t get gas enough, for love or money, to drive to work—why, don’t blame wicked conspirators or profiteers.

The real culprit is, and will be, the average American—who continues to live like the proverbial grasshopper, in the illusion that he always will have plenty of warmth and food. Then comes the winter of our discontent.