Growing up on a goat farm in Wisconsin, my family cooked and heated our home exclusively with wood fires. We had electricity but used little of it, which meant lighting with kerosene lamps or candles and hanging our clothes to dry over the wood stove in the winter.
We did all of this not for lack of resources but out of a concern for the environment and a commitment to voluntary simplicity. Like many in the environmental community today, we believed that modern, high-energy living was ruining the planet and that we would all be better off if we lived more like our ancestors did.
My views started to change after I lived and traveled in Peru after college in the 1990s. At the time, only about 60 percent of Peruvians had access to electricity, and those who did were largely people in the city. Most in the countryside relied on wood or charcoal for energy, which had to be chopped and hauled regularly. Peruvian women and girls cooked over open fires, breathing smoke for many hours of the day.
Whatever romantic views one has of wood-burning, the sheer health consequences of breathing smoke are terrifying. Two million people around the world die prematurely from breathing smoke each year and half of all of pneumonia deaths among children under the age of five are from breathing indoor smoke.
Thankfully, today nearly 86 percent of Peruvians have access to electricity, and over the last 20 years life expectancy rose from 67 to 73. Like billions of others around the world who gained electricity in the last two decades, their lives have improved dramatically.
The United Nations, President Obama, Bill Gates, Bono’s ONE Campaign, and others have brought needed attention to the importance of energy access and the unnecessary tragedy of continuing energy poverty, defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as a lack of access to modern energy services. More than 1.3 billion people across the globe live without any access to electricity, while 2.6 billion people still cook over open fires of wood, dung, and charcoal.
Smoke inhalation is just one example of the dramatic effects energy poverty has on people’s lives. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between energy use and human development: Access to modern energy services is vital for everything, including clean water, health care, reliable lighting, transport, and telecommunications services. This is especially true for women and girls, as increased energy access corresponds to improved school attendance, better maternal health, and access to information through media and telecommunications.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, no nation in the modern era has substantially reduced poverty without a dramatic increase in its energy use, and over the past decade the global community has begun taking energy poverty more seriously. In the last year alone, the Obama administration launched its Power Africa initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, and a United Nations High Level Panel of Eminent Persons has recommended that universal access to modern energy services be included in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Yet despite the clear and urgent need to increase access to modern energy services for people in the developing world, climate concerns—often mixed with idealistic pastoral notions about how people in the developing world should live—have led many in government and in the environmental and international development communities to block real progress on this issue.
Some argue that as the poor develop, they can leapfrog past the fossil fuels that power our own lives and go straight to solar panels, even though solar would provide only modest amounts of intermittent energy. While this may be enough to meet the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative’s definition of energy access—a level of consumption that provides for household use of a fan, two light bulbs, and a radio—solar currently has little capacity to scale up to meet the full needs of a modern society.
In a series of infographics about energy poverty, the Center for Global Development’s Todd Moss demonstrates the tradeoff between true energy access and a strict focus on renewable energy sources, showing that if one US agency invested in natural gas rather than renewables, more than 60 million additional people in Africa would have access to electricity. He also illustrates the hypocrisy of limiting US policy and financial support in developing economies for the very energy sources we Americans use the most.
I understand from my childhood the discomfort many have with modernity, and their well-intentioned desire to protect the planet and the global poor from its excesses. Yet I also recognize that even as my family chose to live more simply, we still benefitted from the centralized energy-intensive infrastructure of modern life, such as plumbing, roads, schools, and hospitals—infrastructure that requires magnitudes of energy more than solar and wind power will be able to provide any time soon.
We in the developed world are extraordinarily fortunate to have abundant, reliable, affordable energy at our disposal. We should not take this good fortune for granted, nor deny it to others who aspire to the standard of living we so enjoy.
It is time to begin a robust conversation in the social sector on squaring our concern about global poverty with our concern about climate change. Ending poverty will require massive amounts of energy, and I believe it is possible to meet the energy demands of seven to nine billion people living modern lives without destroying the planet. But we won’t get there without a fundamentally new approach to these issues.