Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World

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International Conference

with a public talk by J.R. McNeill (details below)

Calgary and Banff, Alberta
14-17 March 2024

The oil crises of the 1970s played a central role in the transformation of the global order in the late twentieth century. The crises reflected and intensified the larger crisis of US/Western hegemony in the decade, highlighting the North-South dimension of the Global Cold War. They also set in motion changes in the global system that played an important role in the collapse of communism, altered relations between the Global North and Global South and between countries in the Global South, and had a significant impact on the environment. While focused on the supply and price of a single energy source, the oil shocks of the 1970s highlighted the political – domestic and geopolitical – importance of oil and other energy sources and led to the emergence of “energy” as an issue area in national and international decision-making. In addition to restructuring the global energy order, the crises also led to significant changes in national economies and the global economy, especially the international monetary order. Understanding the causes, course, and consequences of the energy crises of the 1970s is crucial to understanding the transformation of the international order in the late twentieth century and provides key insights into the forces that continue to shape the contemporary world.

Scholarship on the oil crises of the 1970s has traditionally focused on the impact on oil markets, especially oil prices, and neglected environmental and equity issues, including the differential impact of the crisis on peoples as well as nations, especially as they relate to the Global South. Although most studies recognize the inter-connections between the energy crises and Middle East politics, the impact of the crises on the Global Cold War has only recently begun to attract scholarly study. With this conference we aim to highlight some of the lesser-known aspects and impacts of the 1970s energy crises. This also includes a focus on Canada, which has so far received little attention, even though it found itself in a unique position during the oil crises as one of the few Western and NATO countries with ample domestic energy resources. One of the main purposes of this conference is to feature historical research on environmental and equity issues, the Global Cold War, and Canada. We hope to both deepen and broaden our knowledge of the 1970s oil crises and encourage a dialogue among scholars from diverse perspectives.

Public Keynote Address by J.R. McNeill:
The Oil Crises and the Global Environment, 1973-2023

Thursday, 14 March, 7pm, Calgary Central Library

50 years after the 1973 oil crisis, this talk provides an environmental history of the 1970s oil shocks. It considers the direct consequences of oil price hikes for the atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere as well as the indirect impacts, which, as will be argued, were more significant and lasting. Elevated oil prices encouraged expanded offshore oil exploration, with its attendant oil spills, in places such as the North Sea, the Arctic, and the Gulf of Mexico. High prices directed investment towards nuclear power, hydropower, and coal, each with its own implications. Brazil, for example, chose to develop a series of giant hydropower dams, flooding broad landscapes. The rate at which nuclear reactor construction was approved peaked in the mid-1970s, only to slow after accidents in 1979 and 1986. Coal mining intensified in dozens of countries. And, even if high oil prices had little to do with oil shortage, the crisis convinced millions of the importance of environmental conservation.

J.R. McNeill, Distinguished University Professor at Georgetown University, has authored or edited more than 20 books, including Something New Under the Sun, listed by the London Times among the 10 best science books ever written (despite being a history book); and Mosquito Empires, which won the Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association; and most recently The Webs of Humankind (2 vols.). He is former president of both the American Society for Environmental History and the American Historical Association; a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Europaea, and the Académie Royale du Maroc; and recipient of the Heineken Award for History from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.