Caleb Wellum, Energizing Neoliberalism: The 1970s Energy Crisis and the Making of Modern America (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023).
Fossil fuels are pretty unpopular at the moment. Many people across the world now support a shift from oil and gas to cleaner renewable energies. Even oil and gas companies (like Shell) are predicting the decline of their core products. The transition will be difficult, they say. But with the right technological and economic policy innovations, it can be done.
My new book is about the last time fossil fuels faced serious doubts about their future, during the 1970s energy crisis in the United States.
My new book is about the last time fossil fuels faced serious doubts about their future, during the 1970s energy crisis in the United States. That crisis was less about burning too many fossil fuels than it was about running out of them. Peaking US oil production and an oil embargo, among other factors, revealed the depth of US dependence on imported oil. But there was significant division over how to respond. President Jimmy Carter talked about energy conservation and framed the energy issue as the “moral equivalent of war.” Critics lampooned his approach as a weak, cat-like “MEOW.” Carter lost his re-election bid to a candidate who promised to use more fossil fuels to ensure national self-sufficiency. When oil prices dropped in the 1980s, energy anxieties subsided and the memories of the crisis faded.
One of my hopes for this book is that it will help readers understand:
- Why the 1970s energy crisis failed to spark an energy transition.
- How it catalyzed a deeper, cultural transition to neoliberalism.
- Why culture is just as important to energy history, and to the energy future, as technology and economic policy.
I aim to do this by framing the energy crisis through the lens of cultural history. I focus on the discourses and narratives of crisis that comprised and tried to make sense of it. Readers will learn about economic and geopolitical dimensions of the crisis, but they will also see how oil futures markets, expert debates, scenario studies, and petro-populist car films together embodied an emergent neoliberal culture. That culture presupposed and insisted upon high levels of energy consumption and mobility. Its central role in the history of the seventies energy crisis also suggests the inadequacy of markets and technology to achieve a truly sustainable and just energy future
The book shows that the neoliberal turn prevented an energy transition in the 1970s. Neoliberalism also stands in the way of the radical energy transformation that we need today. One key challenge of neoliberalism as a cultural formation is its role in fanning the flames of petro-populism. The 2022 trucker convoy in Ottawa wasn’t the first time that big rigs have rumbled in protest of big government, as my chapter on convoys and car films makes clear!
Neoliberalism is about more than trade policies and globalization. It is also a social imaginary of a particular kind of freedom that thrives on crisis and presupposes cheap and abundant energy.
The rise of Donald Trump, and his attacks on free trade and globalization, has led some observers to announce the end of the neoliberal era. The awful return of twentieth-century crises, such as ethno-nationalist conflict, seems to support this diagnosis. But neoliberalism is about more than trade policies and globalization. It is also a social imaginary of a particular kind of freedom that thrives on crisis and presupposes cheap and abundant energy. Energizing Neoliberalism will help readers see these connections and understand our current challenges in light of a complex and ever-present past.
Feature Image: “‘Your Petrol and You’ by Norman Harris, Sunday Times Magazine, 3 November 1974” by Dan Lockton is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Latest posts by Caleb Wellum (see all)
- New Book – Energizing Neoliberalism: The 1970s Energy Crisis and the Making of Modern America - November 15, 2023
- Book Launch – Energizing Neoliberalism - September 29, 2023
- Event – Energy History and the World that Carbon Made - September 15, 2023
- Review of Sandwell, ed., Powering Up Canada - June 6, 2018