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  • Unnatural Resources: Energy and Environmental Politics in Appalachia after the 1973 Oil Embargo by Michael Camp
  • Anthony N. Stranges (bio)
Unnatural Resources: Energy and Environmental Politics in Appalachia after the 1973 Oil Embargo By Michael Camp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. Pp. viii + 192.

In Unnatural Resources, Michael Camp focuses on two issues: how the United States' presidents, politicians, and public responded to the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s and how they dealt with environmental concerns during this same period. In thoroughly documented chapters, he argues that energy is a historical concept rooted in specific times and places, and if we want to understand the history of energy during this time, we must look at its intersection with economic, political, and intellectual history. Camp examines the presidencies of Jimmy Carter (1977–81), former governor of Georgia, and Ronald Reagan (1981–89), former governor of California.

Looking first at Carter's presidency, Camp says that many of Carter's energy policies stalled or failed because the intersecting energy-environmental-economic-political-intellectual policies sometimes conflicted. Labor unrest and conflicts between railroad operators and carriers slowed attempts to increase domestic coal production as an alternative to petroleum imported from the Middle East. Efforts to reduce funding for the proposed Tennessee Clinch River plutonium breeder reactor (1977) failed because politicians kept funding what reactor critics called "an outdated project." The 1979–81 Iranian hostage crisis ended the Clinch River Project. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) residents resisted Carter's proposal to use the TVA's resources to promote energy conservation and alternative technologies and insisted that their subsidized electric energy flow uninterrupted.

Carter's greatest success in energy policy came early in his presidency, when in August, 1977, he signed into law the Energy Organization Act that created the Department of Energy, and Congress passed a comprehensive energy plan that promoted energy conservation. Carter's energy policy [End Page 274] appeared to have public support because of the petroleum crisis, brought on by the 1973–74 embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, which fueled petroleum's price increase from $2 to $10 per barrel. Carter also established the Synfuels Corporation as part of the Energy Security Act in 1980 in order to promote domestic petroleum production by converting the county's abundant coal resources into petroleum. Still, the 1979–81 Iranian hostage crisis resulted in another petroleum price increase from $10 to roughly $40 per barrel, undermining Carter's energy policy.

The 1970s and early 1980s petroleum crises significantly contributed to the public's loss of trust in Carter and his administration's promises of future abundance, turning them instead towards Reagan and the power of the free market. The public embraced Reagan's deregulation and free market trickledown economics.

Reagan's 1980 election win also significantly strengthened the anti-environment movement. Camp notes that the anti-environment movement of the 1970s did not begin with Reagan but that Reagan amplified existing rhetoric about environmentalism's overreach. He ignored and sometimes mocked environmentalists and their issues. Nevertheless, the historical record shows that environmentalism has thrived in the United States when economic opportunity and comfort reach a relatively high level, and that citizens will readily give up economic benefits to preserve natural resources after satisfying all other needs. The petroleum shocks of 1973–74 and 1979–81, however, clearly curbed environmentalism's political power and brought Reagan and economics back to the forefront of public policy issues. The Endangered Species Act saw its powers diminished, and Congress dissolved the Synfuels Corporation in 1986.

Environmentalism remained a powerful special interest but never lacked detractors and skeptics. Americans continued to express reverence for the environment, but the strength of their commitment lacked clarity. The conservation movement never again achieved the status it enjoyed at its inauguration in 1970, when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005) led the drive to establish Earth Day. Other significant environmental measures followed, including the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but Camp cites a 2003 scholarly analysis of public opinion that showed 83 percent of Americans agreeing with the broadest goals of the environmental movement while ranking environmentalism...


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pp. 274-276
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