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Steve Barnes | Creature comforts mean a great deal

We installed a new water heater the other day. Suddenly foreign policy came home again to Arkansas, sending me back to an afternoon in Washington some 40 years ago, in the mid-1970s.

The energy crisis was upon us. Long resentful of American support for Israel and angered by U.S. military aid to the Jewish state during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the Arab oil producing nations decided to teach us a lesson. They cut production and embargoed shipments to the oil-drunk West, the U.S. in particular.

Arkansans of a certain age well remember the impact. Gasoline and diesel costs skyrocketed, reflecting the jump in Middle Eastern crude from $4 to $12 per barrel. (Now traded on a global basis, a barrel these days cruises at about $112 per barrel). There were long lines at service stations, farmers wanted for ag fuel, the airlines jacked up fares. The impact on the larger U.S. business community was profound; inflation continued for much of the following decade.

So I’m in Washington, sitting opposite newly elected Sen. Dale Bumpers, who as governor had taken the energy situation more seriously, and much earlier, than many of his countrymen, policymakers included. Our conversation, which centered on the embargo and the broader implications for energy policy, was interrupted when Bumpers took a call from John Sawhill, President Ford’s energy czar. “Those farmers are hurting, Jack,” I heard Bumpers say. The freshman senator implored Sawhill to do what he could to free up additional diesel for spring planting. As satisfied with Sawhill’s reply as he could be under the circumstances (the czar was taking a lot of calls from farm state lawmakers) he turned back to our interview.

Throughout his political career Bumpers not infrequently proposed while pretending to merely muse. As on that afternoon, when he veered from my question about — I honestly don’t remember what — to consider America’s profligate consumption of energy, much of it generated from fossil fuels: oil, coal, natural gas. Our living standard was the envy of the world, Bumpers acknowledged, but the amount of energy we used to create it, and the disregard we exhibited for serious energy efficiency, caused hard feelings even among our NATO allies. We Americans constituted a fraction of the world’s population and yet we swallowed a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s resources. You could see it in even the most modest American homes.

“Did you know that we’re one of the few nations that have hot water on demand?” Bumpers asked me. That in much of Europe, for example, the water heater has to be turned on well before anyone steps into the shower? Well, no. And did I know that residents in many much warmer climes pay a surtax on air conditioning? Uh, no.

Fast forward to 2014, early summer, temperatures in the 90s. The upstairs central cooling system is on the blink. (The American standard again: one for the first floor and another for the second). The serviceman comes and, fortunately, it’s not a major repair, just a shortage of freon, quickly replaced. “But let’s make sure,” the fellow advises, so up the stairs we go, to stand beneath the vents until cold air pushes aside the heat. Not quite satisfied, the tech wants a look at the vents in the walk-in attic.

No sooner had we stepped inside before the service guy stopped in his tracks. “Did you know you have water standing in your overflow?” he asked, pointing to the water heater, which the architecture of our home demanded be positioned in the attic. Why, no.

The bottom line is more than the $1,000-plus that our standard of living demanded that day. It’s the realization that we’re not prepared to do without it, not willing to delay a bath for a half-hour while the water heats, not willing to throw open the window and use the oscillating fan that an earlier generation thought just dandy. Our creature comforts mean a great deal to us.

The technician assured me that our new water heater, fully a generation newer than the old, is immeasurably more energy efficient, as will be the new upstairs air conditioning system when it is installed “not later than next spring.” What makes me feel even better is that the U.S., Arkansas included, is now extracting energy — oil, natural gas — previously considered beyond reach.

I remain a little nervous, though. Coal may be plentiful but it’s filthy and thus under legal and political assault. Frack, baby, frack? For now.

I want my shower when I want it. But I hope we’re not getting too comfortable.

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