It did not take long for this new way of viewing the human condition to become focused on the ethic behind Americans’ high-energy lifestyle. The thinker most often given credit for making this transition in thought is E. F. Schumacher, a British economist who, beginning in 1973, wrote a series of books titled Small is Beautiful. One of these books, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, became a bestseller. Like all the books in the series, this one emphasized the need to consider a different view of progress than the expansive, energy-intensive American approach. Building from the idea of limits that the embargo had reinforced, Schumacher emphasized a philosophy he called “enoughness,” in which Americans designed their desires around basic human needs and a limited, appropriate use of technology. Later, this approach was termed “Buddhist Economics.”
Schumacher particularly faults the conventional economic thinking that failed to consider sustainability and, instead, emphasized growth at all costs and a basic trust in the idea that bigger is better. The key, he argues, was in the conception of new technologies—when inventors and engineers were literally choosing why they pursued an innovation. He writes:
Strange to say, technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop. Greater even than the mystery of natural growth is the mystery of the natural cessation of growth. There is measure in all natural things—in their size, speed, or violence. As a result, the system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology, or perhaps I should say: not so with man dominated by technology and specialization. Technology recognizes no selflimiting principle—in terms, for instance, of size, speed, or violence. It therefore does not possess the virtues of being self-balancing, self-adjusting, and self-cleans-mg. In the subtle system of nature, technology, and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.
Suddenly, if not altogether surprisingly, the modern world, shaped by modern technology, finds itself involved in three crises simultaneously. First, human nature revolts against inhuman technological, organizational, and political patterns, which it experiences as suffocating and debilitating; second, the living environment which supports human life aches and groans and gives signs of partial breakdown; and, third, it is clear to anyone fully knowledgeable in the subject matter that the inroads being made into the world’s non-renewable resources, particularly those of fossil fuels, are such that serious bottlenecks and virtual exhaustion loom ahead in the quite foreseeable future.
Any one of these three crises or illnesses can turn out to be deadly. I do not know which of the three is the most likely to be the direct cause of collapse. What is quite clear is that a way of life that bases itself on materialism, i. e. on permanent, limitless expansionism in a finite environment, cannot last long, and that its life expectation is the shorter the more successfully it pursues its expansionist objectives. (Schumacher, Technology with a Human Face, n. d.)
Although Schumacher’s points may have been extreme, they presented a new paradigm in energy management that appealed to some intellectuals.
One of the most noticeable spokespeople of this alternative energy paradigm was economist Amory Lovins. In a 1976 Foreign Affairs article titled “Soft Energy Paths” and in his subsequent book, Lovins contrasted the “hard energy path,” as forecast at that time by most electrical utilities, with the “soft energy path,” as advocated by Lovins and other utility critics. He writes:
The energy problem, according to conventional wisdom, is how to increase energy supplies. . . to meet projected demands. . . . But how much energy we use to accomplish our social goals could instead be considered a measure less of our success than of our failure. . . . [A] soft [energy] path simultaneously offers jobs for the unemployed, capital for businesspeople, environmental protection for conservationists, enhanced national security for the military, opportunities for small business to innovate and for big business to recycle itself, exciting technologies for the secular, a rebirth of spiritual values for the religious, traditional virtues for the old, radical reforms for the young, world order and equity for globalists, energy independence for isolationists. . . . Thus, though present policy is consistent with the perceived short-term interests of a few powerful institutions, a soft path is consistent with far more strands of convergent social change at the grass roots. (102)
Lovins’ ideas moved among intellectuals, but found immediate acceptance with neither political leaders nor the general public. The shift, though, seemed to arrive in the form of President Jimmy Carter.
With additional instability in the Middle East by the later 1970s, Carter elected to take the ethic of energy conservation directly to the American people (Horowitz, 2005, 20—25). Carter attempted to steer the nation toward a future of energy conservation and independence. In a 1977 speech, Carter urged the nation:
Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.
It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.
We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.
We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us. . . .
Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the “moral equivalent of war”—except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy. (2005, 42-46)
In a risky political move, Carter attempted to steer Americans down a path less trodden—in fact, a path of severe difficulty and radical social and cultural transition. It was a path of resource management inspired by the concept of restraint and conservation. It was a lonely argument, when Carter first presented it. However, Americans did respond with some new awareness of conservation and new attention for alternative modes of generating power.
Of energy production in the late 1970s, policy historian Richard N. L. Andrews writes that all previous policies were based on two underlying assumptions:
One was that cheap energy was essential to economic progress, and the other was that government policies should therefore be used to assure abundant supplies at low prices. Implicit in these principles was the assumption that energy resources would themselves continue to be abundant. . . . That is, these principles were designed to assure and manage energy surplus rather than scarcity. (1999, 295)
Although by the 1970s some policies had begun to address pollution and other implications of the use of fossil fuels, regulations forced energy markets to reflect neither the full environmental nor the full economic costs of energy production. Andrews writes that the 1973 embargo initiated three types of policy change related to energy: first, an emphasis on tapping domestic supplies for energy; second, a new recognition that energy conservation was an essential element of any solution; and third, electric utility companies were forced to accept and pay fair wholesale rates for electricity created by any producer.
The Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 opened the electric grid to independent producers, including that generated from renewable sources. Eventually, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 expanded these possibilities nationally by allowing both the utilities and other producers to operate wholesale generating plants outside each utility’s distribution region. Andrews writes that “in effect, it thus severed power generation from the ‘natural monopoly’ of electric transmission and distribution.” Although this offered great promise for the development of electricity generation from renewable sources, “by restructuring the utilities to make power production independent of distribution,” continues Andrews, “the policy change also removed incentives that had led the utilities to promote demand-side energy conservation” (1999, 301-2).
Therefore, although Carter and others offered a clear vision of our limited future based on increasingly scarce extracted energy resources during the 1970s, by the 1980s, many Americans were returning to business as usual—or worse. However, during the 1970s there were strong initiatives toward alternative energy. Although they did not immediately succeed, it is likely an oversimplification to refer to them as failures.