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Energy Use: The Human Dimension
when an event is viewed as rising from within—due, for example, to a failure of leadership—social turbulence usually occurs. Thus, high unemployment often leads to political change. The widespread suspicion that seems to have accompanied recent energy crises in the United States suggests that oil shortages fit in this latter category.
Differing economic self-interests can add to the strains of an energy emergency. Some individuals and groups will see each other as rivals for scarce resources—the violence in gasoline lines is an example—and groups that gain in the crisis will probably receive blame for the emergency itself or for the area’s lack of preparedness for it. And other conflicts will arise. For example, in an oil shortage, a firm may find it more attractive to shut down for the duration than to install an alternative heating system that will not be needed when the emergency is over. To employees and customers, however, this may seem to be an unacceptably disruptive strategy. Some categories of energy users may appeal to government for protection from price or quantity impacts of an emergency, but the more categories that are protected, the more severe will be the impacts on the remainder. Giving agricultural users or car rental firms extra gasoline allocations, as in the recent federal allocation plan, reduces the gasoline available for other users who believe they are equally, or more, deserving.
Additional sources of friction can be found in limitations inherent in economic markets. For example, an emergency is likely to lead energy users to seek substitutes for scarce commodities—emergency housing or warm clothing for heating fuel, wood for fuel oil, electricity for natural gas, and so forth. Because of lags in market responses to such changes in demand which can take shape rapidly as people rush to copy the responses of others, sudden price increases and further scarcities could occur, aggravating concerns about equity and increasing the tendency to look for scapegoats.
Conflict may also arise from sharp and seemingly mysterious fluctuations in energy conditions. For instance, although oil storage is a stabilizing factor in the event of an import cutoff, unused storage capacity is destabilizing, because it encourages rapid private stockpiling if there is the threat of an emergency. If the unused capacity is substantial, prices could rise very rapidly as supplies available for sale disappear. This could occur even when enough oil is available at the start of a crisis to meet needs for use without a large price increase. When storage capacity is filled, the crisis may appear to ease; private stockpilers would be inclined to sell oil from inventories, causing prices to drop. A further threat could send prices back up again. In this way, a period of uncertainty could create a repeated “boom and bust” pattern in the oil supply system (see Forrester, 1961), raising questions about the motives of key parties and creating confusion and distrust among energy users.