Turn Down Your Thermostat and Throw Away Your Gadgets

By Russell Kirk

Strict rationing of fuel oil and perhaps of gasoline is an immediate prospect. Even were not America’s supplies of petroleum threatened by the war in the Levant, we still would be short of oil for this winter—and short of natural gas, too, and of electrical current.

President Nixon’s lieutenant for oil policy beseeches us to turn down our thermostats three degrees—which would save 12 percent of our fuel oil and 14 percent of our natural gas. I applaud—and suggest that we ought to forget about air conditioners altogether. (After all, very few houses had air conditioning two decades ago, and fewer cars.) Wastefully, we have sweltered in winter at temperatures we would curse in summer, and have shivered before our air-conditioners in summer at temperatures we would lament in winter. How I suffer in those overheated airport terminals!

Then must we shiver miserably in home and office this approaching winter? Nay, not so. One need only wear warm underwear and substantial outer clothing—something the British have done from time out of mind. Why try ta live as if New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis were tropical cities?

Abstain from that idle day-long drive on Sunday, the Nixon Administration suggests. (This might help to revive the almost-lost art of conversation in families.) Airlines, reduce and consolidate your flights. Will we see before long the return of the coal-burning locomotive?

Within a year, Mr. Nixon says, private consumption of energy should be reduced by 5 percent; he has ordered a reduction of 7 percent by the federal government. But this retrenchment is a beginning only. Don’t delude yourselves, friends: the energy crisis is real, for ever since World War II we have squandered energy shamelessly. We can transmute energy from one form to another, but it is an immutable law of thermodynamics that man cannot create new energy. In the long run, the earth will be forever frozen and lifeless, its sources of energy exhausted. Let us not hasten that consummation.

What will become of us, with these painful economies? Nothing very dreadful, really, if we are prudent. After all, 80 years ago nobody drove an automobile. A century ago, nobody had electric lights. A thousand years ago, nobody burnt coal.

In the old house which I inhabit, until after World War II there was no furnace, no electric lights, no running water, no bathtub, no refrigerator, no washing machine, no electric or gas stove, no toilet, not even a coal cellar. (We still don’t have a deep-freeze or air conditioning; we don’t plan to.) My family had no automobile so long as there was any other way of being transported.

We burnt wood in cast-iron stoves, read by kerosene lamp, pumped water by hand in back of the house, scrubbed ourselves in a tin tub in the kitchen, rejoiced in an icebox or winter window box for milk, used scrub-board and wringer for clothes, cooked on a wood range, tramped out to the privy (which still stands) and made our ice cream by hand freezer (as we still do). Were we miserable? Lord, no; we thought ourselves very snug. Our energy was mostly home produced.

Something like those ways will return to this land—though many people will be spared the more rigorous austerities for some time yet. More and more of us will travel by public transportation, giving up those two or three cars that many families now own. Our meals may be less sumptuous—which will do our waistlines good, perhaps, We will learn to live more nearly, in America, as the immense majority of human beings elsewhere ever since civilization began. A civilized human being, incidentally, isn’t one who surrounds himself with gadgets: he’s one who thinks and knows something of arts and crafts.

What, will Uncle Sam deprive us of all our marvelous devices, bought on the installment plan, that make up the American Standard of Living? No, Uncle Sam won’t; but Mother Nature will. We’ve been abusing her long enough, and now she will retaliate. We’ve even slaughtered nearly all her whales, so depriving ourselves of the possibility of returning to whale-oil illumination. Be done by as you did.

At snowy Avila, in wintry Spain, I have kept tolerably warm despite very low temperatures by a little charcoal brazier under the dining-room table (the only heat in the house) and a bottle of brandy; in the Hebrides of Scotland, with thick January fog all round the old stone cottage, I have worked by a little peat fire on the hearth, with a glass of whisky (for energetic purposes merely) as supplement. That wasn’t the way you were brought up? No; but that’s the way you may be brought down. Love it or leave it.

Most vacation cottages or “second homes” may get little fuel allocation this winter, and none next winter; so think twice about buying that lake lot. Automobiles urgently required for business will get gasoline; pleasure cars may not, within a few years or sooner; after all, that was what happened during World War II. Life in the suburbs may become increasingly difficult, what with shortages and stoppages; the cities may begin to revive, commercially and domestically. In time, outlying shopping malls may be abandoned to squirrels and rats. Calculate your investments and place of residence accordingly.

Don’t blame the king of Arabia or the president of Libya: the fundamental reason for the energy deficit is our own wastefulness and love of luxury. We, and our children, and our children’s children, must live with this fact. Nuclear reactors will not save us: nuclear fission is the total and final dissipation of energy, never to be replenished. But why lament inconsolably the vanishing of the power mower? The hand mower or the scythe will keep you trim; or the sheep that nibbles your lawn will feed you and clothe you later.