How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two


Progressives once championed state-led projects to advance human and economic development like FDR's (left) Tennessee Valley Authority. Today, despite enjoying the fruits of a modernity created in many ways through such public efforts, they urge a return to low-energy lifestyles and promote decentralized, market-driven proposals. A true progressive vision for the 21st century should — and will — be shaped more by leaders in the developing world who have no illusions about energy poverty, like Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (right), than by Western environmentalists.

June 10, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

Hope came in the form of World War I. Congress authorized the construction of the Wilson dam on the Tennessee River to power an ammunition factory. But the war ended shortly after the project was completed.

Henry Ford declared he would invest millions of dollars, employ one million men, and build a city 75 miles long in the region if the government would only give him the whole complex for $5 million. Though taxpayers had already sunk more than $40 million into the project, President Harding and Congress, believing the government should not be in the business of economic development, were inclined to accept.

George Norris, a progressive senator, attacked the deal and proposed instead that it become a public power utility. Though he was from Nebraska, he was on the agriculture committee and regularly visited the Tennessee Valley. Staying in the unlit shacks of its poor residents, he became sympathetic to their situation. Knowing that Ford was looking to produce electricity and fertilizer that were profitable, not cheap, Norris believed Ford would behave as a monopolist. If approved, Norris warned, the project would be the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.” Three years later Norris had defeated Ford in the realms of public opinion and in Congress.

Over the next 10 years, Norris mobilized the progressive movement to support his sweeping vision of agricultural modernization by the federal government. In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

The Rejection of the State and Cheap Energy

Just a decade later, as Vietnam descended into quagmire, left-leaning intellectuals started denouncing TVA-type projects as part of the American neocolonial war machine. The TVA’s fertilizer factories had previously produced ammunition; its nuclear power stations came from bomb making. The TVA wasn’t ploughshares from swords, it was a sword in a new scabbard. In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described modern agriculture as a war on nature. The World Bank, USAID, and even the Peace Corps with its TVA-type efforts were, in the writings of Noam Chomsky, mere fig leaves for an imperialistic resource grab. 

Where Marx and Marxists had long viewed industrial capitalism, however terrible, as an improvement over agrarian feudalism, the New Left embraced a more romantic view. Before the arrival of “progress” and “development,” they argued, small farmers lived in harmony with their surroundings. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, economist E.F. Schumacher dismissed the soil erosion caused by peasant farmers as “trifling in comparison with the devastations caused by gigantic groups motivated by greed, envy, and the lust for power.” Anthropologists like Yale University’s James Scott narrated irrigation, road-building, and electrification efforts as sinister, Foucauldian impositions of modernity on local innocents. 

With most rivers in the West already dammed, US and European environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the International Rivers Network tried to stop, with some success, the expansion of hydroelectricity in India, Brazil and elsewhere. It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear. “Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” 

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. Biomass (eg, wood burning), solar and efficiency “do not carry with them inappropriate cultural patterns or values.” In a 1977 interview, Amory Lovins added: “The whole point of thinking along soft path lines is to do whatever it is you want to do using as little energy — and other resources — as possible.” 

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. A year later, in Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote, “Power grids themselves are no longer necessarily desirable.” Citing Schumacher, he suggested they might even be “inappropriate” for the Third World.

Over the next 20 years environmental groups constructed economic analyses and models purporting to show that expensive intermittent renewables like solar panels and biomass-burners were in fact cheaper than grid electricity. The catch, of course, was that they were cheaper because they didn’t actually deliver much electricity. Greenpeace and WWF hired educated and upper-middle class professionals in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg to explain why their countrymen did not need new power plants but could just be more efficient instead.

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.” 

And so the Left went from viewing cheap energy as a fundamental human right and key to environmental restoration to a threat to the planet and harmful to the poor. In the name of “appropriate technology” the revamped Left rejected cheap fertilizers and energy. In the name of democracy it now offers the global poor not what they want — cheap electricity — but more of what they don’t want, namely intermittent and expensive power. 

From Anti-Statism to Neo-Liberalism

At the heart of this reversal was the Left’s growing suspicion of both centralized energy and centralized government. Libertarian conservatives have long concocted elaborate counterfactuals to suggest that the TVA and other public electrification efforts actually slowed the expansion of access to electricity. By the early 1980s, progressives were making the same claim. In 1984, William Chandler of the WorldWatch Institute would publish the “The Myth of the TVA,” which claimed that 50 years of public investment had never provided any development benefit whatsoever. In fact, a new analysis by economists at Stanford and Berkeley, Patrick Klein and Enrico Moretti, find that the "TVA boosted national manufacturing productivity by roughly 0.3 percent and that the dollar value of these productivity gains exceeded the program's cost."

Even so, today's progressives signal their sophistication by dismissing statist solutions. Environmentalists demand that we make carbon-based energy more expensive, in order to "harness market forces" to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Global development agencies increasingly reject state-sponsored projects to build dams and large power plants in favor of offering financing to private firms promising to bring solar panels and low-power "microgrids" to the global poor — solutions that might help run a few light bulbs and power cell phones but offer the poor no path to the kinds of high-energy lifestyles Western environmentalists take for granted.

Where senators Norris and Gore Sr. understood that only the government could guarantee cheap energy and fertilizers for poor farmers, environmental leaders today seek policy solutions that give an outsized role to investment banks and private utilities. If the great leap backward was from statist progressivism to anarcho-primitivism, it was but a short step sideways to green neoliberalism.

But if developed-world progressives, comfortably ensconced in their own modernity, today reject the old progressive vision of cheap, abundant, grid electricity for everyone, progressive modernizers in the developing world are under no such illusion. Whether socialists, state capitalists, or, mostly, some combination of the two, developing world leaders like Brazil’s Lula da Silva understand that cheap grid electricity is good for people and good for the environment. That modern energy and fertilizers increase crop yields and allow forests to grow back. That energy poverty causes more harm to the poor than global warming. They view cheap energy as a public good and a human right, and they are well on their way to providing electricity to every one of their citizens. 

The TVA and all modernization efforts bring side effects along with progress. Building dams requires evicting people from their land and putting ecosystems underwater. Burning coal saves trees but causes air pollution and global warming. Fracking for gas prevents coal burning but it can pollute the water. Nuclear energy produces not emissions but toxic waste and can result in major industrial accidents. Nevertheless, these are problems that must be dealt with through more modernization and progress, not less.

Viewed through this lens, 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.

This article first appeared on AlterNet.



Part 1: It's Not About the Climate

Part 2: How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

Part 3: End of the World – or Decline of the West?

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons (right); Blog do Planalto (left)


  • Very well said.  I for one have felt the benefit of cheap abundant energy.  I was born on a hot July night in a home with no AC, no fan, no running water, and the only light was from the flicker of a flame from a kerosene lamp wicker.  The spring of my first grade year I came home from school to find men with horse teams standing a pole in our field.  We soon had electricity for the first time. Light to study by, a refrigerator, an iron.  Life became a lot better for my mother.

    I find my views slightly to the left of moderate, but I will never forget from which I came and where I am today.  Thanks for a great article.

    By Alex Crawley on 2013 06 11

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  • A good important piece. The absence of any discussion of the importance of public power in current debates about Hetch Hetchy in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Aqueduct in southern California are both examples of the historical amnesia that has accompanied and made this shift possible.

    Way back in 1989, I wrote an op-ed after reporting for a year from the Brazilian Amazon making an argument along similar lines that was widely reprinted in newspapers around the United States. The argument bears repeating. Keep up the great work.

    By Jon Christensen on 2013 06 11

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  • Thank you.  I’ve said for years now that “green” politics is little more than a form of species self-loathing—an Anglo-Saxon guilt-complex transferred onto the very idea of progress itself.

    By Chris Dixon on 2013 06 11

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  • Then again, it might be as crude and simple as the money government makes on fossil fuels.

    By G.R.L. Cowan on 2013 06 12

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  • Excuse me, but highlighting a few quotes from leftist thinkers is a far cry from the reality of “the left” rejecting anything, let alone cheap power.

    Crude attacks and sensational headlines may grab you page-views but it isn’t going to win you many friends and certainly not change any minds.

    Try again.

    By george on 2013 06 12

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  • With nuclear we really can have it all.  Spent fuel may be ‘toxic’ but there is very little of it and disposing of it has never been a technical issue (a hole in the ground is not high tech).  On the other hand it will be seen in the future as a resource anyway, as it can be ‘burned’ in fast (neutron) reactors and, along with the depleted U from the original enrichment can provide 100X the energy from the first use.

    It’s worth keeping in mind that the ‘accident’ at Fukushima killed no one and will kill no one (WHO, UNSCEAR), and could easily have been avoided (the reactor nearest the quake, Onagawa, suffered no damage at all, simply because it was built on higher ground).

    As the article makes clear, the developing world, lead by China, are determined to give their people a better life.  They are very likely to provide the lead in a move to a world powered by fission.

    By Stephen J. Kennedy on 2013 06 12

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  • The article makes many good an valid points.  However, it does overlook something.

    It will be many years, or many decades, before people in poor countries can be connected to a grid.  Meanwhile, limited amounts of electricity from PV panels can improve their quality of life.  Two or three small LED lamps in a house can make it easier for children to study and reduce dependency on kerosene.  Cell phones and notebook computers require very little power.  And if the power isn’t 100% reliable, they are still better off than if they had no power.

    That said, there really is no substitute for power grids, hydro power, and nuclear power.  But for many years, and perhaps forever, there is a place for PV power and perhaps wind power.  Meanwhile, we should be spending large amounts of money to develop a better nuclear power technology.

    By F. R. Eggers on 2013 06 27

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  • A thought-provoking, well done article.

    The statement that fracking “can cause water pollution” seems like a rosary bead prayer incantation.  I believe that it remains true that the number of well-documented fracking-related water pollution cases remains no more than a handful, and only from known rogue or bad actor drilling companies.

    I feel safe in asserting that there is more water pollution every year from the BEST municipal water treatment plants than from the entire practice of fracking in the US.

    By William Bowen on 2013 06 28

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  • Regarding fracking, I am not convinced that we know what the risk is.

    During the Bush administration, a law was passed forbidding the EPA to monitor fracking.  Before deciding that the risk of fracking is acceptably low, the EPA should be given the power to monitor fracking.  Moreover, companies which do fracking should be required to reveal the composition of the fracking fluids else the risks cannot be adequately evaluated.

    Even if fracking can be safe, it can also be dangerous if used carelessly.  So if it is demonstrated to be safe when done carefully, then we need means to ensure that it is done carefully since there is more than adequate evidence indicating that companies often use insufficient care regardless of the business or industry in which they operate.  The consequences of contaminating ground water are sufficiently great to require very careful monitoring.

    Here in Albuquerque, we have, because of the drought, reverted to getting much of our water from an aquifer.  If that aquifer became contaminated we would be in exceedingly serious trouble and there would be no quick solution.  Surely there are other cities in the same situation.

    By F. R. Eggers on 2013 06 28

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  • Well, until you accept the reality that progressives oppose any sort of progress toward modernity for anyone on the planet except for themselves personally…..Then you are going to keep being confused about how, from one five year period to the next, these control freaks swap out what they want and don’t want everyone else on the planet to do on any given day. Biofuels - yeah!!! save the world…...ooooppsss sorry biofuels bad models didn’t pan out. Now, everyone just buy a bicycle and demand to live in a urban cesspool with mass transit in a 300 sq ft box.

    There would be no need for governments to build a wide array of large scale energy and infrastructure projects if progressives didn’t make it unbearably expensive and a regulatory impossibility to do so in the first place. We have so many cleaner energy options and technologies now to use to address this issue, it is truly sad what “environmentalists” do the credibility of those who truly care about ecosystems and all the biota, including the human species, that live in those environments.

    Just one example: With extraordinarily clean arc plasma technologies we now have the technology to make landfills and junkyards a thing of the past while producing a low emission, clean syn gas, piped heat, and a “green” infrastructure material and no fly ash. But “progressives” hear incineration and they are automatically transported back to Dicken’s hated and despised industrial 18th century and the freak out and act like the non-scientific command and control freaks they truly are.

    Yet, this new technology is clean, produces energy, produces a usable infrastructure base product (like cement or concrete in use) and eliminates landfills. These facilities are about the size of a modern American supermarket (so very little landmass footprint) and they can be built on site at municipal landfills and mine that old garbage for recyclables and then produce clean syn gas energy that feeds right into the grid. But this solution that could be employed nation wide very economically does not force people to change their evil consuming ways - damn that modernity and desire on the part of humans to keep innovating new useable and desirable ‘things’.

    By CDA on 2013 11 15

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    • CDA, you wrote, “...until you accept the reality that progressives oppose any sort of progress toward modernity for anyone on the planet except for themselves personally…”

      By definition, those who oppose progress are not progressives.

      By F. R. Eggers on 2014 02 09

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  • this article is yet more nonsense, based on the usual phony premise that looking beyond nuclear power and the centralized grid model is somehow….what?...a threat to corporate interests?  perish the thought. 

    every left social progressive i’ve ever met wants cheap energy which is truly cheap, ie can be gotten without destroying the earth.  in other words it needs to be cheap in both price & cost.

    that can’t be done with fossil fuels and nuclear power.  it CAN be done with renewables and an increasingly decentralized grid, otherwise known as distributed generation. 

    in this, we are supported by, of all things, the market!  remove the insurance liability cap for nukes and the free-ride given coal, oil and gas as they destroy our planet and renewables can throw in all the government subsidies it gets and still come out very far on top.

    forcing the nukes shut before the next Fukushima, and driving down the fossil fuel industry before it completely unbalances the climate…and bringing on renewables to replace them….that is what the “left” seems to be about these days. 

    impractical, you say?  we say quite the opposite. 

    energy that’s cheap, clean, safe, job-producing, quick to install, community-controlled….those are the core goals of the green power movement. 

    our survival depends on winning them all.  so we’ll see you in solartopia. 

    By harvey wasserman on 2014 02 09

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    • Harvey,

      You are assuming that there is only one type of nuclear reactor and that it is impossible to make nuclear power less expensive, safer, and greatly reduce nuclear waste.

      When steamboats became common, there were many people killed by boiler explosions.  Fortunately, eliminating steam power was not seen as the solution.  Instead, through legislation and improved technology, steam power was made safe and boiler explosions became exceedingly rare.  Similarly, nuclear power can be made safer and more economical.

      I suggest that before commenting on nuclear power, people spend many hours studying the Rankine (steam) cycle to understand how power is generated from steam.  Then, study exactly how our current nuclear technology works and study alternative nuclear reactor designs, especially the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) and the integral fast reactor (IFR).  Do not blindly accept what the critics of the LFTR say.  Instead, carefully examine what they have written to determine whether it is based on facts and a clear understanding of LFTR technology.

      After spending at least 40 hours studying various sources of information on nuclear technology, then you will be qualified to make comments on it.  And, before commenting on renewable energy systems, do careful research to determine whether it can actually provide adequate reliable power for most large prosperous countries.  Pay careful attention to the fact that wind and solar power are intermittent sources of power.  Carefully examine claims that wind and solar power can be reliable.  Are the claims made as the result of careful credible quantize studies, or are they simply wishful thinking?

      There are entirely too many comments made by people who have not done their homework.

      By F. R. Eggers on 2014 09 30

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  • The article, written in 2013, does not reflect the dangerous populism behind Brazilian energy policy. Artificial prices, high subsidies to fossil fuels, incentives to wasteful energy consumption in outdated appliances and vehicles are now showing their other side. More recent and accurate information can be seen below (from WSJ).
    Brazil Electric Bills Poised to Rise. Industry Subsidies Likely to Be Cut, Rate Increases in the Pipeline, Officials Say. By LUCIANA MAGALHAES Jan. 13, 2015 3:43 p.m. ET

    SÃO PAULO—Brazilians are facing potential hefty increases in electricity rates in 2015 that could crimp consumer budgets and further fuel the country’s already stubbornly high inflation.

    Brazil will likely cut subsidies to utilities and allow energy companies to raise consumer rates during the year, government officials said. The measures are part of the government’s efforts to shore up its deteriorating finances.

    Since last year, the government of President Dilma Rousseff has lent billions of Brazilian reais to electricity distributors to help them weather the impact of higher generating costs and government-mandated rate cuts. The government had been looking to contribute an additional 9 billion reais ($3.4 billion) this year, but Finance Minister Joaquim Levy said Tuesday that the subsidies were very high and consumers will likely have to pick up the slack.

    The government’s decision to end industry subsidies and allow rate increases will hit consumers hard. Some Brazilians could see electricity rates rise as much as 30% this year, said Adriano Pires, director of the Brazilian Center for Infrastructure, an energy-focused consulting firm based in Rio de Janeiro.

    “And the price increases won’t stop in 2015,” Mr. Pires said.

    Brazil’s electricity sector has been roiled in recent years by pricing constraints and rising costs.

    In 2012, responding to complaints by big industrial power users, Ms. Rousseff cut some taxes and forced power companies operating generating plants under government concessions to cut their prices as well, in return for an extension of the concessions.

    That weakened the finances of some power companies. That situation was exacerbated in 2014 by the worst drought in more than 80 years in São Paulo and Minas Gerais states.

    A dearth of rain last year left many reservoirs that feed hydroelectric plants at or near record-low levels, forcing electric utilities to fire up more-expensive gas-burning plants to make up for the shortfall.

    At the same time, the government didn’t let companies raise rates, to control inflation. Instead, the government arranged to lend the companies money, which would be paid back later with the higher power rates allowed after the October 2014 elections.

    Mr. Levy, who was sworn in as finance minister early this month, has called for government spending cuts and possible tax increases.

    Brazil’s energy costs rank among the most expensive in the world and are a chronic target of complaints by manufacturers. The country’s inflation rate ended 2014 at 6.41%, just below the 6.5% ceiling of the government’s target range.

    By Oswaldo Lucon on 2015 06 22

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    By on 2015 09 03

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  •   LED作为一个发光器件,有下列一些优点:
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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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