5 Parts of Everyday Life We Owe to the Energy Crisis

5 Parts of Everyday Life We Owe to the Energy Crisis

Oil companies are now disappointing investors by admitting oil demand will probably peak by the end of this decade. That’s big news. People have been throwing around the phrase “peak oil” for generations, but they were always talking about the supply of oil peaking. Everyone predicted we’d run short of oil, perhaps ending society and forcing us all to become raiders and slavers. Instead, it looks like we’re shifting toward cheaper alternative energy forms while still leaving a few oceans of oil untapped. 

So, we’re still going to run into a few energy shocks in the next few years — a nation shutting production here, an Arctic wildlife reserve getting drilled there — but the real terrors of oil shortages are behind us. And boy, did we have a few painful shortages in the past.

The big one came in 1973. America had been cutting production for some time, and then Arab exporters set up an embargo. Oil prices exploded. This led to all kinds of strange temporary measures, from gas stations just shutting down on some days to the Daytona 500 reducing its length to only 450 miles. It also led to measures that lasted much longer than they needed to — or never went away at all. 

The 55 MPH Speed Limit

Depending on how old you are, you may well consider 55 miles per hour to be the traditional speed limit. States raised the limit in the 1990s, but it used to be 55 nationwide, it remains 55 in plenty of places and we can all picture highway signs with 55 painted on them. 

Speed limit 55 mph signs along the southbound outer loop of the Capital Beltway

Famartin/Wiki Commons

“Of course, 55 means 65, so we can get away with 70.”

Speed limits, you’d assume, are purely a safety measure. If the limit rose sometime over the past 50 years, it must have something to do with how cars are vastly safer now than they were half a century ago, so we can drive faster with no added danger. But we didn’t originally get a nationwide speed limit because of safety, or at least not primarily because of safety.

It was about saving gasoline. Richard Nixon implemented the limit (or forced states to implement it, on penalty of losing all federal funding) in response to the oil crisis, to make cars use less fuel. However, the rule didn’t end up saving nearly as much gasoline as the government had hoped. When the federal government later backed off, states raised their limits back up. For a while, the most fun was to be found in Montana, which abolished limits altogether, replacing them with signs that simply read, “Drive prudently.” 

Action Figures

Before the 1970s, toys like G.I. Joe were big and doll-sized, since that’s fun. You could change your G.I. Joe doll into pretty dresses, brush his long blond ringlets, seat him on chairs for tea parties and do all the other stuff that kids do with their toys. This 1960s toy was a doll in all but the name, as it was instead advertised as an “action figure” called “America’s movable fighting man.”

Original G.I. Joe lineup


The hair thing was a joke. He had a strictly military ’do. 

Today, you picture action figures as smaller, and perhaps with fewer flexible joints. The shrinkage was a cost-saving measure, which started in the 1970s with the rise in the cost of plastic. The change began with a 1974 toy action figure called Microman, which advertised its small size as a gimmick feature rather than a necessity. Soon, all action figures shrank down. It was a monumental shake-up to the world of action figures. Though, it wasn’t the biggest 1970s toy shakeup — this was also the decade Star Wars came out. 

Women Wearing Pants

Women obviously wore trousers before the 1970s, but the practice was officially banned in many professional settings. Plenty of offices mandated that women wear skirts or dresses, and perhaps the highest ban came from the White House, which formally had a no-pants policy for all women.

Such bans have had various explanations across time — sometimes in the name of modesty because trousers accentuate a woman’s derriere, sometimes in the name of protection because trousers enable dangerous physical activity — but they’ve never really made much sense. In reality, men are the ones who must be protected from pants, as pants are cruelly constricting, with the biggest-balled affected the most. 

The White House removed its no-pants rule in 1973. The reason? They turned the temperature down on the thermostat that winter, thanks to the energy crisis, and now that it was so chilly indoors, women had a new and inarguable reason to want to cover their calves. Nixon was not a fan of the change. Around the time of the switch, he chided reporter Helen Thomas, as he preferred her in a dress. 

Helen Thomas, George Christian, two unidentified men, President Lyndon B. Johnson

Yoichi Okamoto 

Here’s Thomas without pants, and LBJ, probably also without pants.


A while before the Oil Crisis hit, DuPont anticipated it. Is that because DuPont is a member of the shadowy secret society that runs the entire world behind-the-scenes? We cannot comment on that, but regardless of the source of their knowledge, they set engineers researching new materials that could produce lighter tires. Lighter tires meant lower fuel consumption, and people might be desperate for efficiency soon, if DuPont were reading the signals right. 

DuPont wanted some material that could make tires lighter and stiffer, a substitute for the steel that otherwise reinforces rubber. One chemist at the company, Stephanie Kwolek, came up with a substance that was nine times stiffer than any previous polymer formed from liquid crystal solutions. We would describe the exact stiffness for you in numerical terms, but we don’t have the official standard unit of stiffness handy. 

Ball and stick model of a single layer of the Kevlar crystal structure

Ben Mills

Let’s say it was nine stiffies. 

That material became Kevlar. Today, it’s used in tires, but you might know it more for stopping bullets, because when a material is five times stronger than the same weight of steel, it can take a beating. So, Kevlar saves lives on the battlefield and during riots. It also saves lives in certain other situations, like New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, when paramedics wear Kevlar helmets to guard against celebratory bullets falling after people shoot their guns skyward. 

The Fall (and Return) of Daylight Saving

Clocks moved forward this week, despite a plan last year that seemed set to get rid of the system once and for all. Yet again, we grumbled about this most uninteresting form of time travel, talking among ourselves about what a terrible system Daylight Saving Time is and how we just need to choose one time and stick with it

The U.S. actually tried that once. After spending most of the 20th century enforcing the system randomly using Wild West rules, and then standardizing the system federally, America officially dropped time changes in 1973. They were going to make the time known as Daylight Saving Time last all year. By shifting daylight from the early morning to the evening, they aimed to reduce electricity usage, since fuel had become so expensive. 

A hand holding a tiny white alarm clock

Lukas Blazek

“Okay, but what about all the additional morning energy that — "

People liked the idea, right up until they had to spend a winter experiencing it. Darker mornings weren’t fun for anyone. Plus, the country experienced some high-profile morning school bus accidents that they blamed on the darkness, and while the total number of fatalities wasn’t really more than usual, people took notice. Oh, and making Daylight Saving Time permanent didn’t save on power costs after all. So, although they’d originally inked in permanent DST as a two-year “experiment,” they didn’t wait for the two years to finish up. In 1974, we went back to clocks springing forward and falling back. 

This whole failed project made it that much harder for any later campaign to fix time to succeed in the decades that followed. Will the latest push to make DST permanent actually work? It might, but we don’t know. Maybe the activists are just wasting their energy. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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