Remembering Abbott Fay and Western’s National Energy Conservation Challenge

There’s the sense in the valley, and the world, that thanks to Al Gore and several thousand climate scientists we are finally waking up to the realization that the world has some energy problems. But the recent death of former Western history professor Abbott Fay reminded me again that we have really known about this situation for more than thirty years, and that Western State College students, with guidance from Professor Fay, made a valiant effort in the 1977-78 school year to awaken not just the valley but the whole nation to the emerging energy crisis.
That was Western’s National Energy Conservation Challenge (NECC): a handful of Western students – from the college in the place often “celebrated” as coldest on the continent – challenged every college and university in the United States to try to conserve more energy than Western would conserve during the 1977-78 school year. Through the fall and winter of that year, 181 institutions, from the Universities of Wisconsin and New Hampshire to the Universities of Southern Mississippi and Southern Louisiana, embraced the challenge to one degree or another. And probably none of them had more plain fun doing it than the participating students at Western.
Context is important. In the mid-1970s, America’s oil production peaked and went into its ongoing irreversible decline (even if we do ANWR, offshore drilling and shale oil), the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and elsewhere formed OPEC, and the price of gasoline doubled and redoubled several times.
For Abbott Fay, it was what educators call a “teaching moment.” As a historian he had authored “Mountain Academia,” a history of the college up to 1960 – “a history of experiences and emotions rather than a chronological account of occurrences,” in his words, and he went on to say that “what was to happen in the next half century (which we are just completing) would be the true measure” of the college and its “wisdom or folly.” He believed that jumping on the emerging energy situation was a positive way for the college to take a leadership role in helping the nation move in an important new direction.
But he was a teacher first, and approached the task by raising student awareness and inspiration. He told a “Top O’the World” reporter in April 1977, “I want the students to be able to use this when they leave the college. Instead of talking about what they are going to do, I want them to have done something.” This is an “experiential learning” model more at home in today’s Environmental Studies program at Western than it was in the 1970s when the college was still playing “in loco parentis” and having bed check for co-eds.
NECC emerged in the fall semester of 1977 as a creative mix of the sensible, outrageous and downright silly. The students got Governor Richard Lamm to come speak at their opening rally; later in the year they organized an Energy Seminar that brought speakers like population growth analyst Albert Bartlett from the University of Colorado; a Mobil Oil executive who said – in 1978! – that, much as he loved oil, solar energy was going to be the way of the future; Dr. Jerry Kowal, still at Western, on ways to get real about energy efficiency at home; and a lawyer and a legislator from Colorado advocating a General Assembly bill affirming an individuals’ property right to access to sunlight.
But NECC also had an “Absurdity Committee” that probably did more to get the college on the national map than anything before or since. Underwear were frequently featured in the “Top” that year – long underwear. NECC hosted a “Human Powered Dance” in February 1978 that featured a “Long Johns and Sweaters Fashion Show” and creative attempts to produce enough electricity to power a rock band. A playground merry-go-round that required six pushers was hitched to a generator that was supposed to crank out the kilowatt of electricty the band needed, while another six people rode bicycles in shifts to power the lights for the dance. The bicycles worked; the merry-go-round didn’t and the band had to plug in. But the fashion show was a success.
Two NECC students tried to address the affordable-energy-and-housing problem by wintering in a tipi pitched in front of Quigley Hall, through what turned out to be typically rough Gunnison winter. They prevailed, although they lamented “the long dash to the Quigley bathrooms.”
Predictably, these shenanigans got state and even national (CBS) television coverage while the serious events didn’t; even radio commentator Paul Harvey picked up on a NECC idea involving roosters for alarm clocks, and something about “Buckminster Beaver” that never did get properly explained in the “Top.”
Did NECC achieve its goal? The short answer is “no”. Western got off to a good start in 1977, reducing campus energy consumption from the previous year by 20 percent in August and September, but after that they were hampered by the fact that it was a much rougher winter than 1976-77 had been, and ended up in pretty much a wash – probably a modest victory considering the weather.
Worse, probably no more than 10 percent of the student body had really gotten involved in the process of consciousness-raising; most remained typically impervious to the challenge. A “Top” story checking in with some of the major universities that had accepted the challenge found similar problems with involvement.
Basically, NECC was ahead of the times – along with President Jimmy Carter, and Professor Abbott Fay – a Western figure worth remembering, along with Western’s National Energy Conservation Challenge of 1977-78, which set an early benchmark at the college for creative investment in a future we are just now getting back to.
- from George Sibley, longtime friend and admirer of Abbott