Another Way to Think about Energy Poverty

The look of true energy innovation
When this civilization falls… the old folk crouching by their peat fires will tell their disbelieving children of standing naked mid-winter under jet streams of hot clean water, lozenges of scented soaps and of viscous amber and vermilion liquids they rubbed into their hair to make it glossy and more voluminous than it really was, and of thick white towels as big as togas, waiting on warming racks.
Ian McEwan

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is worried about the billion people on the planet who live in “energy poverty.” An interesting thing about this figure is that it hasn’t changed much in 200 years. In 1813, the world population is estimated to have been about a billion. In 1913, it was about 1.8 billion. Two hundred years ago, no one had electricity and the only industrial form of energy was steam produced from burning coal and wood. One hundred years ago, the first electrical grids were being built and a few hundred million people were gaining access to electricity. Thus the really interesting trend in energy poverty is that the numbers, in a sense, have not improved at all. We now have a global population of about 7 billion, with six billion people not in energy poverty, and thanks to this fantastic achievement we live with toxic pollution and an ecological crisis. We could say it might have been better if the human race had focused on stabilizing the population at a couple billion, rather than trying to provide an unlimited amount of energy to whatever number of people the world population rose to. The historical trend reveals that the real problem has not been a shortage of energy, but rather over-consumption, over-population and unequal distribution of resources.

Population growth projections
And what is the IEA anyway? When you read media reports about it based on the agency’s press releases, it seems like it is a high-level, humanitarian UN agency. Perhaps it has a function similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the WHO. However, there is no UN affiliation at all, nor, apparently, even an indirect connection to democratically elected governments. After spending some time on its website, I found it hard to fathom why it exists and whose interests it serves.

The IEA was founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis in order to help countries [28 first-world countries] co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks to the markets.

This sounds suspiciously like a fine way to say, in bureaucratese, the agency was founded in order to make sure that the rich nations of the world would never again get screwed over by a group of uppity second tier nations that decided to form an oil cartel.
Since its founding, the agency seems to have succeeded in its purpose. OPEC never again managed to disrupt the world economy, and the IEA has polished and greenwashed its image so well that it now gives the appearance of being among the best international organizations fighting poverty and taking on global warming.
In spite of its best efforts, the IEA has a few policy positions that would alienate environmental groups and other NGOs fighting poverty. Firstly, it recommends that nuclear energy be vastly expanded so that it makes up 24% of world energy supply by 2050. This conforms with the original goal of limiting the power of oil producing countries, but it is not the policy of any of the world’s major environmental groups. While no environmental group supports the expansion of nuclear, Ecowatch does give the IEA credit for advocating for a reduction in fossil fuel subsidies.
Lately, the agency has put much effort into bringing electricity to the last billion who don’t have it, and of course, on the surface, this seems like a wonderful idea. Everyone knows that electricity is the juice of a modern economy. We benefit from it, so why shouldn’t they? The trouble with this reasoning is that it considers only proximate causes of poverty. The poor look like they need electricity because their native cultures and lands have been wiped out by the ultimate causes - colonization and resource extraction. If they hadn’t been reduced to such poverty, the “need” for electricity would be much less apparent. It is unlikely they would ask for it if they knew the implications of what comes with it.
Towel warmer.
Electricity production brings a massive disruption of the environment and way of life, so there is great arrogance in the assumption that it always improves lives and is always wanted. Usually, it comes with the requirement to go along with the world system of enslavement by debt (a point which Lee Camp makes quite effectively here.) Five hundred years ago, the lives of Africans and Americans might have been nasty, brutish and short, but perhaps they were fine with that, especially when they could see that that the lives of newcomers from Europe weren’t much different.
It’s ironic that across the ideological spectrum in advanced countries there is agreement that we must preserve cultural diversity and recognize the contributions of pre-industrial and pre-agricultural ways of life, but many of those who pay this respect are also saying that everyone needs electricity now. They insist that everyone must be brought out of energy poverty, whether they asked for it or not.
This seemingly fine endeavor to bring electricity to the poor reeks of a more nefarious plan to bring nuclear plants and mega-dams to developing countries. India, for example, is going along for the ride in spite of the massive popular rejection of nuclear energy projects in every rural area where the government proposes building them. The IEA just seems to be working in conjunction with other forces that want to bring outdated concepts of national progress to the developing world.
The IEA is committed to countering global warming, but the goal of bringing electricity to a billion more people, plus the billion to be added soon to the population, cannot possibly be compatible with this goal. If they talk of a hypothetical future of tremendous gains in efficiency and problem-free nuclear energy for all, it might seem like a nifty idea on the website. The obvious problem is population growth and ecological destruction. The historical record shows that increasing the energy supply does not fix these problems. It might be the cause of both, and there is no reason to believe the future trend will be different.
I’ll be accused of being indifferent to the suffering of people who, in their present circumstances, obviously could benefit from having electricity. I don’t want anyone to go hungry, but in a more abstract sense, there is some comfort in knowing there are still people in this world who live without electricity, just as everyone did before the 19th century. Somehow, our species survived until that point without air conditioning, yet it is now considered to be a necessity and a right. Perhaps there is hope for the energy-poor in the likelihood that when the present system has exhausted itself, those who know how to live off the grid will inherit the world. 

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