On April 18, 1977, in a televised speech from the White House, President Jimmy Carter delivered sobering news to the nation: “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.”
Using the phrase “the moral equivalent of war” to describe the nation’s needed response to the impending energy crisis, Carter asked his fellow Americans to “make sacrifices and changes in our lives.”
Not everyone was happy with the president’s proposals that evening. For instance, “the citizens who insist on driving large, unnecessarily powerful cars,” as Carter put it quite plainly, were unwilling “to pay more for that luxury.” But the fact that the United States needed to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels was inescapable—as the energy crisis of 1979 made abundantly clear.
The Smithsonian immediately took advantage of the national attention on energy. The 1977 Smithsonian Folklife Festival included a small program called Appetite for Energy, which explored traditional methods of food production and brought participants from across the country to demonstrate apple-butter making, clam baking, cider pressing, corn milling, salmon roasting, and more. The program was produced in partnership with the Energy Research and Development Administration, which formed the core of the newly established U.S. Department of Energy later that year.
For the 1978 Folklife Festival, we produced a more in-depth program titled Energy and Community, also in partnership with the Department of Energy. This time the participants were coal miners from West Virginia and oil workers from Texas. According to Folklife Festival founding director Ralph Rinzler, the goal of the program was “to elevate the level of public consciousness about the nature of the work involved in extracting [coal and oil] from the earth.” Presentations focused not only on the skills required and physical environment, but social atmosphere of this work (“group solidarity, joking, initiatory practices, etc.”).
Energy and Community was part of the Festival’s longtime efforts to highlight occupational groups, each with their own distinctive occupational culture. All occupational groups—including actuaries, biologists, coal miners, dishwashers, engineers, firefighters, gaffers, haberdashers, ironworkers, and journalists (to take only the first ten letters of the alphabet)—have their own set of skills, specialized knowledge, and codes of behavior that not only distinguish them from other occupational groups, but which also meet their needs as a community.
The coal miners and oil workers at the 1978 Festival were two of these exemplary groups, thanks in large part to a 130-foot-high oil drilling rig on the grounds of the Washington Monument and a simulated coal mine that visitors could crawl through. One six-year old visitor told the Washington Post, “Going through the coal mine was the most fun. My brother thought there’d be witches and ghosts inside, but it wasn’t scary. It was fun.”
Not long afterwards, the experiences of oil riggers, coal miners, and other energy workers took on increased significance due to the Iranian Revolution and suspension of oil exports (late 1978–early 1979), the Three Mile Island meltdown (March 28, 1979), and a spike in the price of a barrel of crude oil from $14 in 1978 to $35 in 1981. As Jimmy Carter had anticipated, Americans would need to make sacrifices and change some of their habits.
James Deutsch sold his beloved 200,000-mile-old Volkswagen bus in 1979—largely in response to the energy crisis—and hasn’t owned a car since. He is now a program curator with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who rides a bicycle to work every day.