It is February 1974. Grown men strut about in plaid polyester pants that flare over high-heeled boots. Lawmakers take the first steps toward impeaching President Nixon. Cher dumps Sonny.

Worst of all, with gasoline selling for the outrageously high price of 50 cents a gallon, Americans are coping with an energy crisis.

Like millions of others, Joseph and Sally Miller of Akron decide they can no longer subsidize their gas-guzzlers. Sally parks her Cadillac and rides the bus to her teaching job. Joseph, a lawyer, abandons his Buick Riviera for two high-mileage Honda Civics. One, he explains, will shuttle clients to court if they cannot afford to fill their own tanks.

“People are running scared,” observes auto dealer Rick Case, who has watched demand for the fuel-efficient Hondas increase fourfold in a matter of months.

The crisis began in October 1973, when Egypt and Syria went to war against Israel. Arab oil-exporting nations punished the United States for backing Israel by shutting off the oil supply. The 1973-74 embargo foreshadowed another energy shock, in 1979, when a revolution in Iran led to short supplies and long lines at gas pumps.

That one-two punch during the disco decade taught Americans some lasting lessons about the benefits of energy conservation, says Kateri Callahan, president of the bipartisan Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C.

Without the energy-saving advances of the past 30 years – more efficient homes, appliances and cars – we would be using 40 percent more energy today, she said.

But over the years, the country has squandered opportunities to cut even deeper into consumption, she believes.

As energy became cheap again in the 1980s, consumers moved into bigger houses and parked SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans, not economy cars, in their driveways.

Today home air-conditioning is much more common, and we use many more energy-gobbling gadgets and tools at home and at work.

Even Joseph and Sally Miller, both now deceased, eventually went back to driving big Buicks, says their son, Tom, of suburban Akron.

The lesson not learned, Callahan believes, is that another ’70s-style energy crisis could easily happen in a country that holds only about 2 percent of known global oil reserves but gorges on a quarter of the energy used worldwide.

“Do the math,” she says. “It’s simply not sustainable.”

Before the October 1973 embargo, gasoline sold for about 38 cents a gallon. In today’s money, that’s $1.66.

By June 1974, the average price had soared 45 percent to 55 cents a gallon, equal to $2.17 today.

That is, when you could find it. Lines formed, and stations cut back business hours to conserve supplies.

In some places, license plates with odd or even numbers determined on which days drivers could buy a limited quantity of gas.

The federal government lowered the speed limit on interstate highways from 70 or 75 mph to 55.

David Garman, now the third-ranking official in the Energy Department, remembers well. He was in high school, just starting to drive.

After years of anticipating freedom at the turn of an ignition key, he found himself imprisoned in gas lines.

Except for short-term spikes like those in the ’70s, energy prices, adjusted for inflation, have trended lower through the years, Garman notes. Now, he believes, the days of declining prices are over.

Government made a mistake in the 1970s, he argues, by trying to allocate scarce energy supplies to the states.

In a free market, consumers can deal with higher prices by driving less or by choosing fuel-efficient vehicles like the gas- electric hybrid Toyota Prius that Garman drives to work.

He figures it burns about three gallons of gasoline a week.

Government’s job, he says, is to push technological advances, like hydrogen fuel cell cars and houses that make their own energy, so that consumers have attractive and affordable energy-saving options.

Yet “fickle support from government” is precisely the reason the country is behind where it could be in developing alternative energy sources, says Alan Nogee, clean energy program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In the late ’70s, as the government encouraged researchers to explore turning the sun’s rays into useable energy, President Carter had a $28,000 solar water- heating system installed on the White House roof.

The solar collectors were removed during the Reagan administration for roof repairs and not replaced.

“Putting them back up would be very unwise, based on cost,” a spokesman for President Reagan had told the Associated Press. The administration slashed the solar energy research budget by 85 percent from 1980 to 1987.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the states, seeing little progress at the federal level, took a crack at energy policy themselves, Nogee says.

A dozen states, including Ohio, have set up loan funds to encourage development of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require that a certain portion of the electricity sold within their borders come from renewable sources. Ohio does not, says Shana Eiselstein, spokeswoman for the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Ohio’s Office of Energy Efficiency recently sponsored focus group discussions around the state to gauge Ohioans’ interest in renewable energy. Participants said they would be willing to pay about 10 percent more for solar, wind or hydro energy if they were sure it would benefit their families and the environment.

Even so, it will be years before renewable energy makes a dent. Meantime, “We need ever more power,” says Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy. “We’re simply finding new ways to use it.”

Microwave ovens, VCRs and personal computers were rare in the 1970s. DVD players, cell phones, digital music players, home fax machines and a raft of other gadgets that we simply can’t live without today were unheard of. Houses were smaller and usually lacked central air conditioning. We owned fewer cars and drove them less.

“The choices aren’t pretty,” Callahan says. Build more power plants. Import more high-priced oil. Or become much more energy-efficient than we already are.

“It’s the cheapest, quickest plan,” she says. “It’s not going to get us everything we need, of course. But it can be a major contributor.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
[email protected], 216-999-4446