10 Jun 2008
Book Review: ’1973: Sorry Out of Gas’.
It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. As we stand on the collective precipice presented by peak oil and its many companion challenges (recession, runaway food prices, climate change and so on), it is easy to think that we are the first generation to have to face these issues, indeed, for many of us, anything else has not really happened within our lifespans. However, we have been here before, and the idea that rampant oil prices will necessitate a major rethink of society is not a new one. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979, although politically rather than geologically imposed, focused the mind in much the same way that peak oil is starting to now, and there is a great deal that we can learn from the experience of that time. “1973, Sorry out of gas” is not strictly speaking a book, yet I think it is one of the best and most essential publications on peak oil and responses to it yet to emerge. It is actually the catalogue of what was clearly an amazing exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which explored architecture’s response to the oil crises of the 70s.
It opens with a wonderful short introduction, done in a charming and engaging cartoon style, by Harriet Russell, called ‘An Endangered Species’, which offers the best, most concise and most accessible introduction to our dependence on oil, and the concept of oil depletion, that I have ever seen. It would be a wonderful tool for introducing these issues to children, and is good enough, with a bit of expansion, to be a publication all of its own.
Rather than focusing purely on architecture, the exhibition went much deeper, offering an astonishingly varied and detailed overview of this most fascinating period in history. The book ‘proper’ opens with a very well written overview of the events surrounding the 1973 oil crisis. In October 1973, in response to the support the US and other Western nations had given to Israel in the fourth Arab-Israeli war, OPEC introduced a cut on oil exports of 5% per month. This soon became, at least in the case of the US, a total embargo.
As a result, the price of oil rose from $2.59 a barrel in October 1973 to $11.65 in January, rising at one point as far as $22.60. Motorways were shut on Sundays, Western economies experienced ‘stagflation’ (a recession combined with inflation), long queues appeared at petrol stations, Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House (see right), factories cut their hours, and Time magazine announced the need for a ‘new austerity’. There are some great photos of hikers and cyclists with 4 lane autobahns all to themselves, and a great one of some terribly hip dudes riding horses down the streets of Amsterdam. Also revealing are the speeches made at the time by Carter, Richard Nixon, Edward Heath and other Prime Ministers, a worthwhile study in how to break such news to people (our present day leaders could learn a lot from them).
Then in 1979, the revolution in Iran led to the same thing happening again. What wasn’t commented on much at the time was that one of the reasons the US had become so vulnerable to the embargoes was that its own production had peaked in 1970, and entered a terminal decline. One could argue however, that the US peak had more of an impact on US foreign policy than any other event since the 1950s.
However, despite the severity of the shocks they brought, did the oil shocks lead to a collapse, or to civil disorder? No. What actually happened was the most extraordinary flowering of creativity, much of which is documented in this exhibition. Many of the books on my bookshelves come from that period of time. The concept of permaculture which, ironically, is beginning to flourish again as we enter the next great oil shock, was born out of the first one, as were great leaps forward in solar, wind and other renewables, alongside all kinds of green building and unconventional living arrangements, which mushroomed both in terms of interest and the quality of research into them.
While pioneers such as Michael Reynolds, Buckminster Fuller, Edward Mazria and John Todd are still current and have gone on to develop their ideas deeper and with a more established interface with the mainstream in the intervening years, many others such as Steve Baer, Mark Mack, George Lof and Ted Bakewell III have largely been lost to history, yet they, and many other innovative types able to think outside the box, drove forward many innovations to which we today have reason to be deeply grateful.
Alongisde all the ideas that caught on, some didn’t, and they are featured too. Wind turbines with cloth sails, th e”water twister space heating system” and spraying caravans with polyeurathane insulation… none of them really caught on. Much of the innovation featured here, in spite of its ‘retro’ feel and the preponderance of beards, could actually be today. The wonderful 519 East 1th Street project in Manhattan which set out to see how much energy they could generate from the roof of a building on the Lower East Side, is an inspiration. Solar and wind bedecked the roof and much was learnt, until 1979 when the generator broke down and the housing co-op who owned the building couldn’t afford to get it fixed.
Some of the ideas here seem ahead of the curve even today. The New Alchemy Institute’s integration of aquaculture and housing, the concept of the “Integral Urban House” which promised “self-reliant living in the city” and books with titles such as “Wind Power for City People” are only just starting to re-emerge now.
I particularly liked some of the more unusual exhibits, such as the oil crash-related board games, mostly Monopoly-style games, which flourished at that time, with names such as “Oil: the slickest game in town”, “Offshore Oil Strike” and “Energy Crisis”. Given that so few of us actually play board games anymore, I wonder what the modern counterparts of these games might look like? Lara Croft and the Loft Insulation of Doom? Mario Lags His Tank? Grand Theft Pushbike?
The book is beautifully designed, easy to read, visually engaging, and endlessly fascinating. At present, I think it is only available from, the Canadian Centre for Architecture bookshop, which is a shame, as it is deservant of a wider readership. I think the best way to conclude this review is with the final couple of sentences from the first chapter;
“In the present day, we must ask if we can still afford to continue to prolong the existing trends? If the future is indeed the past, we could at least choose the past we want to have as our future. We could start by retrieving those experiments that a large group of people who “thought differently” produced over three decades ago, and that were once so hastily and thoughtlessly cast aside”.