There are often parallels between the past and the present. This occurred to me as I mulled over Greenbelt, in particular the communion service which looked back over the last 40 years of the festival. Which year would I be talking about 1973 or 2013 in the following description? A year in which there was a middle eastern war which led to tensions between Russia and USA (and other countries on either side), the price of oil soared and there was the threat of power cuts in the UK with a dire economic situation. In fact parallels between the two years mean it could be either.
There are course some differences as well as parallels. In 1973 the miners in the UK helpfully went on strike (the mining industry was state owned, although there had been national strikes when it was in the private sector) during an oil crisis caused by the Yom Kippar war. Since coal provided more than 40% of our electricity plus a lot of heating this led to power rationing in the UK, along with petrol rationing caused by the Arab oil embargo. We call this the 3 day week. I can remember some aspects of the 3 day week well even though I was quite young, since we were off school (hurrah), we had lots of homework (boo). My mum worked part time as a teacher and parents looked after each others children. I went round to my friend Adrian’s house. He had both a Scale electric set and a Hornby OO permanently set-up on huge boards that lent against a wall. We had a go at the Scale electric but I’ve always been more interested in trains than cars so I persuaded him to get the other board into place. It was fully landscaped with trees and hills, station, tunnels etc and we started putting the trains out and people on platforms, then the power went out. What I can only vaguely remember is the huge queues of cars at filling stations and don’t remember shops lit by candles (although they were). I do remember my mum lighting the oven opening its door to let the heat out and us all sitting there by candle light around it. With the electricity off it was the only source of heat.
The energy crisis had a huge effect on me. In fact its probably part of the reason that I wanted to write our book. But its effects were far wider than that. For the first time people started thinking seriously about energy in general and oil dependency in particular. Research in alternative energy started and a few years later the first early wind turbines and solar panels started appearing. In the UK along with the advent of cheap north sea natural gas, individuals, government and businesses started quietly reducing their dependency on coal. The coal heaps we played on at School until we were chased off, unnoticed by us, disappeared. Governments forced car manufacturers to make their cars more fuel efficient and overall Western countries gradually cut their energy consumption per head.
2013 is not the same, despite the parallels. There are no unions ready to go on strike. With concern about climate change cars have been made an order of magnitude more efficient. There are multitude of different ways to generate electricity apart from hydro, coal, nuclear, oil and gas and these renewable methods have costs that are plunging. Nevertheless the spectre of a wider middle eastern conflict loams. A worrying proportion of the world’s gas and oil passes through the strait of Hormuz. Iran, Syria’s friend could try to disrupt it, but even without some analysts say the price of oil could reach a record high. There is another final difference compared to 1973, conventional oil production has almost certainly peaked and last year conventional gas reserves showed their first ever fall. We are however still very dependent on oil. This leaves us with another set of parallels between ’73 and ’13, the energy challenge posed by 1973 is not over. In fact it maybe just be beginning.