David Falconer

The energy crises of the 1970s changed the way we think about natural resources, inspired environmental advocacy, and laid the ground work for government oversight with the establishment of the Department of Energy in August 1977.

But seeds of environmental awareness had already taken root. Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring raised public awareness about the environment, and the first U.S. Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. Twenty million Americans rallied from coast-to-coast demonstrating for a clean environment. Earth Day 1970 also pushed the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The same year, the federal Clean Air Act of 1963 was amended, giving the EPA the authority to set air quality standards and control emissions.

But it was the Energy Crisis of 1973–74 that served as the real wake-up call for most Americans. On Oct. 17, 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) instituted an embargo that reduced the amount of oil produced and sold to the United States. Up to that point, Americans had been used to abundant access to cheap resources such as gasoline—even though U.S. domestic oil production had been in decline, imports had increased to maintain the low prices. The embargo, however, created gas shortages, led to rationing and long lines at gas stations, and made gasoline more expensive. Although the embargo was finally lifted in March 1974, oil prices remained high. The crisis also resulted in the establishment of a national speed limit as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 and the creation of the Department of Energy by the Carter administration. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Iranian Revolution led to a second oil crisis in 1979. Instability in the Middle East led to decreased oil output and world supply.

David Falconer

The energy crises also impacted the way spaces were designed and lit. Prior to the 1973 oil embargo, commercial interiors were typically illuminated with bright ceilings and fluorescent lamps. But as electricity prices increased, facility managers removed lamps, disrupting lighting layouts and damaging ballasts and fixtures. The result was unevenly lit spaces. Designers countered by utilizing more tasklighting and returning to daylighting strategies.

Manufacturers introduced products that were more energy efficient with names that spoke to a more energy-conscious population. General Electric introduced the “Watt-Miser,” Philips introduced the “Econowatt,” and Sylvania debuted the “SuperSaver.” These energy-saving lamps reduced the wattage of a 4-foot linear fluorescent from 40W to 34W.

Electric and utility companies also introduced incentive programs to encourage customers to install and use more efficient equipment and lamps as a move toward reducing overall electricity consumption.

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