Can you legislate behaviour? Dave Barrett’s take on peak oil and energy conservation, March 8, 1974

During the oil crisis of 1973-1974, triggered by OPEC nations in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, NDP Premier Dave Barrett made the following remarks to Liberal MLA Allan Williams during debate on estimates.

In retrospect, regrettably, they seem as relevant today as they did nearly 40 years ago, when a doubling in the price of oil meant it was still under $10 a barrel:

Mr. Member, in quieter moments of my life, I asked myself the question as to where are we going in North America? I admit that I don’t have the answers, but the question frightens me. You asked today, what do we do when we reach the point when it’s the last quart of oil, or the last gallon of gas? I’ll tell you, we don’t have any answers. We have absolutely no planning in any jurisdiction in North America for that cataclysmic end that will be here unless we have energy alternatives.
It is my opinion that the only way we can coordinate energy alternatives is again through government action – grants to private research, grants to private foundations, stimulation of university experiments – not the continuation of the standard things, but new exciting programes. That’s a hope.
But even if you double or triple the time frame to extend the existing resources through prudence, through control, and through conservation, there’s still that inevitable end. When you think of the billions of years it’s taken to create all those energy reserves, and how rapidly we’re finishing them now, man has to be considered to be living in the golden age, because it simply can’t last another 100 or 150 years at the rate we’re going now.
We can take some moves in conservation. The Land Commission Act was part of that. I know that your side and our side disagreed on the method of the land Act. But basically rational people did not disagree with the concept and that was an important ingredient of that whole debate aside from a small percentage of people who went off on a highly hysterical kick. The basic ingredient of the debate of the Land Commission was on method rather than purpose.
How do we do it with non-renewable things? Can we ration gasoline? Can we force people to share cars instead of one car driving across the Lions Gate Bridge and politicians having to respond to that problem by saying, “Build another bridge.” Can we ask people, “For goodness’ sake, travel in car pools”?
HON. MR. BARRETT: Take the pollution devices off the cars. It’s self-defeating, Mr. Member. It might be okay in Cariboo, but in a heavily-populated urban area it’s self-defeating.
I don’t know. Can you tell people to park and ride? Can you ask somebody who spent $20,000 for a Mercedes Benz and lives in West Vancouver, to keep it parked there all week and come into town on the bus?
HON. MR. BARRETT: You can, eh? How about those of us who own Volvos?
But the point is, Mr. Member, I don’t think you can legislate people’s behaviour. If you tried it, you’d be thrown out of office. Yet you know and I know that it makes sense that there should be four and five people in that car going into Vancouver and coming back every day. But it makes sense for whom? It makes sense for my neighbour; it doesn’t make sense for me. When a decision comes down to us, we can’t give up those creature comforts we’ve been really spoiled to accept.

Hansard, March 8, 1974, p. 962