How the Left rejects cheap energy for the Third World and the poor

The TVA provided huge amounts of cheap power to people and transformed lives. Credit:
The TVA provided huge amounts of cheap power to people and transformed lives. Credit:

Progressives used to believe that big projects, like TVA electrification, would help society at large and the disadvantaged in particular by supplying cheap power. Much of that trend has been reversed by environmentalists embracing “small is beautiful” claptrap. Worse, they sanctimoniously preach the Third World must not bother with electrification, running water, and air conditioning because, darn it, it’s just bad for the planet. Therefore, the Third World should be happy with little microgrids, waving at tour buses of ecotravelers, and supplying the West was cheap labor. For their own good of course. As dictated by someone writing his screed on a laptop in a Starbucks.

“Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

What a snobby, nasty, elitist way to look at humankind. And just why would cheap, abundant energy be bad? Presumably Ehrlich took advantage of it himself, yet wanted to deny it to others.

Elaborate justifications were offered as to why poor people in other countries wouldn’t benefit from cheap electricity, fertilizer and roads in the same way the good people of the Tennessee Valley had.

By the time of the United Nations Rio environment conference in 1992, the model for “sustainable development” was of small co-ops in the Amazon forest where peasant farmers and Indians would pick nuts and berries to sell to Ben and Jerry’s for their “Rainforest Crunch” flavor.

Sounds like colonization, doesn’t it? How did environmentalism and progressivism get so twisted and perverted that it champions keeping the boot on the backs of the poor?

When challenged as to why poor nations should not have what we have, green leaders respond that we should become more like poor nations. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that developed economies should adopt “appropriate technology” like those used in poor countries and return to small-scale agriculture. One “bonus” that comes with climate change, Naomi Klein says, is that it will require in the rich world a “type of farming [that] is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture.”

Ah, no. Going back to small-scale farming is no solution at all for a society as a whole. First off, millions would go hungry because small farms don’t have the output per acre that agribusiness does. They just don’t. Naomi Klein apparently wants us to move back to the country and labor twelve hours a day. Sounds like serfdom to me. Is she volunteering to go too? Didn’t think so.

Climate change is a reason to accelerate rather than slow energy transitions. The 1.3 billion who lack electricity should get it. It will dramatically improve their lives, reduce deforestation, and make them more resilient to climate impacts. The rest of us should move to cleaner sources of energy — from coal to natural gas, from natural gas to nuclear and renewables, and from gasoline to electric cars — as quickly as we can. This is not a low-energy program, it is a high-energy one. Any effort worthy of being called progressive, liberal, or environmental, must embrace a high-energy planet.


  1. It used to be that many western projects in third world countries failed. Large water and sanitation systems quickly became abandoned by the communities they were supposed to serve. At the same time, massive hydropower projects and factory districts promoted huge migrations, exacerbating internal stresses and in some cases creating war. The result: people in the west became skeptical of the ability to help people in undeveloped countries. Perhaps it is this experience that prompted Erlich’s 1975 comment.

    In 1959, science teacher A. T. Ariyaratne came up with a then-unique idea: why not go to the villages you propose to help, and *ask* them how they would like to be helped. The idea caught on, and for two decades (until the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution) became the norm for development projects. Funny thing though: villagers want running water, but they don’t want to have to become engineers to have it. Gravity feed or hand pumped water systems have replaced large-scale water systems as the water source of choice. Sanitary latrines have replaced large sewer system proposals. Dendro and solar have in many places brought power to communities far off the grid. And no, on the whole villagers *don’t* want to move to the city and work in factories at wages that barely keep them alive. Governments love that, because a factory worker typically makes triple what a small farmer makes, so it helps GDP. But without the supports of a farm, tripling wages is far from enough – many folks become even poorer than they were before.

    As the United States burns fossil fuels at an astounding rate, seemingly obsessed with frying the planet, while at the same time experiencing a societal meltdown that sees more corruption, less democracy, more addiction, and more mass shootings, it is worth asking ourselves whether ours is really the best model, and what business we have promoting it throughout the world. One of the key things Ariyaratne found was this: most people would rather be happy than wealthy. That’s something in which we Americans as a society lag behind most of the world.

    • I’m totally in favor of asking people what they want!

      One big challenge now is literally billions of people in rapidly developing countries will need increasing amounts of electricity and fuel. Where will it come from? I’m increasingly convinced that renewables won’t be able to do it all. Thus the vast bulk of the new power will either come from fossil fuels or nuclear.

      • Yes, they will need more than they have now, which is about 1/10 of what we Americans use, per capita. Yet many estimates of future needs are based on bringing the rest of the world up to our egregious level of consumption. That’s not only unrealistic and deadly to our survival as a species, it’s unnecessary. We could do far more with far less, but we choose not to. Moreover, our religion of consumption has failed to make us happy. Despite having the most voracious appetites on earth, we are as a society increasingly miserable, increasingly violent, and increasingly insane. We need to question whether this is really the best model to promote – for ourselves or anyone else!

        Lastly, if high-tech Japan can’t run a nuke plant safely, do we really want to see Nigeria or Guatamala (for example) trying it? Remember, all of us live downwind of someone else.

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