In the past, decisions about building codes, highways, and the like were usually made without energy being considered explicitly. The decisions were governed by the interests of developers, lending institutions, labor unions, industries, prospective home buyers, suburban motorists, and so forth. Energy was cheap and the interests of energy users as a group were rarely represented. It remains to be seen whether these conditions have changed enough over the last decade to significantly alter the politics of local decisions that make subtle but important choices for energy users. It is certainly still the case that energy costs to individuals are not a major concern of those interests that have traditionally shaped local decisions about public goods.
The technical experts who create buildings and machines do not always have energy use as their main concern, but their decisions build energy-using characteristics into their products. In the design of refrigerators, for example, considerations of energy efficiency conflict with a desire to produce a product with the greatest possible food storage area given the outside dimensions of the appliance. That is, goals of good engineering conflict with marketing goals. The manufacturer makes the final decision, and in the past often chose marketing goals over engineering goals, leaving engineers to design relatively energy-inefficient products. In building design, an esthetic decision must be made about whether building occupants should be insulated from weather or should experience it. Until fairly recently, architects always made this choice one way, and, as a result, energy inefficiency was built into glass-enclosed buildings.
Costs of energy are, of course, involved in design decisions concerning appliances, buildings, and automobiles. Past decisions were predicated on low costs, and higher costs are a force for change. But other influences also operate within the design and engineering professions. Architecture, for example, has always had vogues, epochs, waves, and so forth. The entry of energy efficiency into architecture can be described in the language of art history: it was embraced initially by an avant-garde (generally young), mocked and repudiated by an establishment, but gradually penetrated the profession. This history ran parallel to rising energy prices, but had a dynamic of its own: the rapid adoption of energy conservation by architects was probably aided by the fact that it was a new objective for a profession that values innovation.
Similarly, it is arguable that the history of energy efficiency in automobiles and appliances partly reflects status distinctions within the engineering profession. In the United States, high technology has had most of the status and has attracted a large share of the most creative engineers. The engineers in lower-technology and therefore lower-status jobs, such