Lightbulbs, Refrigerators, Factories, and Cities

New CGD Report Calls for Clearer, More Ambitious Energy Access Targets

How much energy do people need to rise out of subsistence poverty? What do we mean by the phrase ‘modern levels of energy consumption?’ The answers to these questions have important consequences not just for human development, but also climate change, infrastructure investment, and governance. 

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Frequently Asked Questions About Population

Global Population in the 21st Century

Q: Why is population relevant to the environment?

Human economic activities impact the environment through land use, freshwater consumption, pollution, and so on. A larger population can increase these pressures, but not always in a linear manner. Environmental impacts depend not only on the size of the population, but also how wealthy those people are, the nature of their consumption, and how those products are produced.

For example, the average Northern European consumes more food and a larger variety of foods than the average West African. However, those two regions actually require a similar amount of cropland, per capita, for food production, because they use very different agricultural technologies.3 Ultimately, population size is an important, but not the only, factor determining human impacts on the environment.

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India — Re-Energized

Samir Saran Argues that India Must Hold Fast Against Western Climate Change Demands

What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?

Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”

Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?

Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.

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A Good Anthropocene?

Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future

Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.

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Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

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Who Cares About Wild Nature?

The Practical Realities of a Rewilded World

As wildlife populations rebound with reforestation in rich countries, including Europe and the United States, a question is increasingly being raised — do people really care about wild nature? Or do they view it as more of a nuisance than a blessing?

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Can Ecomodernism Contribute to the “Rise of the Rest”?

Poor Countries Need Modern Energy for Development

The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.

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To Protect the Gorillas, Protect Humans Too

An Interview with Primatologist Annette Lanjouw

How did you get involved in this field?

I started doing work in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo], in the early 1980s working at the Lomako Forest Bonobo Research Station of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Later, between 1987 and 1990, I ran a project to conserve chimpanzees, using tourism as a way to generate support for conservation. What was unique about the project was that we habituated the chimps for research and tourism without providing them with food. That worked well, but then war broke out with rebellion against [then-president] Mobutu, and all tourism was put on hold. Eventually I became Director of Programs for the International Gorilla Conservation Program, IGCP, a collaboration of three conservation NGOs, in partnership with the park authorities of the three countries.

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Leapfrog or Backfire?

Wharton Economist on the Rebound Effect in Developing Economies

Arthur van Benthem is an Assistant Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at Wharton. His research specializes in environmental and energy economics. His recent work focuses on unintended consequences of environmental legislation and natural resource taxation.

What motivated you to write your article “Has Leapfrogging Occurred on a Large Scale?”

I worked for a couple of years in the long-term energy scenarios team at Shell in my home country of the Netherlands. We made assumptions on tech leap-frogging occurring. The assumption was energy-efficient technologies would result in China’s future growth in energy consumption being lower than that of rich countries during their development.

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Electrify to Adapt

Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty

Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.

The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.

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The Low-Energy Club

Sierra Club Report Calls for Universal Electricity Access at 0.15 Percent California Levels

In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources. 

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Electrify Africa!

Advocates Urge US Leaders to Act Soon on Energy Access Legislation

One bright spot in the dark night of our partisan political divide was the House passage of the Electrify Africa Act earlier this month. Though the legislation would not spend any US taxpayer dollars on energy projects, it requires the United States and another other agencies to agree on a strategic framework to greatly increase electrification in Africa.

If the Senate votes to pass the legislation, President Obama says he will sign it. Anti-poverty advocates are hoping Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, will make the legislation a priority for passage this year. Advocates urge passage of the bill through the Senate by early summer to ensure conference and ultimate passage by the end of the 2014 legislative session.

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Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?

Why Only Sustainable Intensification Can Save Indonesia's Forests

There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.

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Five Energy Challenges Confronting India

Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty

On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.

It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.

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Our High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor. 

According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.

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Energetic Africa

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

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Fighting to Breathe

New WHO Report Says Air Pollution from Cooking Caused 4.3 Million Premature Deaths

Nasty airborne particles kill 7 million people a year prematurely, reports the World Health Organization—way more than previous estimates.

That news may not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen images of smog-belching smokestacks in Beijing, Delhi, or Mexico. But those factories—or even the clogged roadways of modern cities—are not the biggest culprit. Each year, some 4.3 million people die earlier than they should because of foul air inside their homes, says the WHO. (Its study accounted for fact that people spend time both indoor and outdoors.)

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The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee

Why Poor Nations Deserve the Large Dams From Which the West Has Benefited

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is the access to electricity. As Todd Moss has noted, consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically-viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. President Obama’s major initiative with Africa, “Power Africa,” envisages a major role for hydropower. 

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Keeping the Poor Poor

Against Anti-Growth Environmentalism

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

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Bitter Harvest

How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Norm Borlaug had no illusions that the Green Revolution was anything other than a means to buy the world time. Time, to get our house in order, to stabilize our populations, to generate the knowledge that would allow us to support ourselves without destroying the environment; and to enable most people to lead their lives in dignity. The expectation, he told me in several conversations in the early 2000s, was that we as societies would take up the new knowledge and use it wisely. 

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Electric Africa

7 Charts That Will Change the Way You Think About Africa

This is a joint post with Madeleine Gleave, and is part of a series of posts and publications, which can be found on the CGD’s new Energy Poverty topic page Download PDF of all 7 graphics.

1.     Energy poverty is an endemic and crippling problem; nearly 600 million people in Africa live without access to any power, which also means no access to safer and healthier electric cooking and heating, powered health centers and refrigerated medicines, light to study at night, or electricity to run a business.  Here’s the situation in the 6 countries chosen to be part of President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, home to nearly 1/3 of the continent’s population:

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Brighter Nights in Africa

$300B Required for African Nations to Achieve Universal Electricity Access by 2030

How long the night the dawn will break. Such is the saying – often quoted as an African proverb – attesting to the virtues of patience and perseverance. However, it also serves as an allusion to Africa’s gaps in infrastructure, particularly for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. As the well-known satellite photos of Africa at night show, very little of sub-Saharan Africa’s vast expanse is illuminated, so the nights are long indeed.

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The Passion of Alvin Weinberg

The Humanitarian Behind China's Great Thorium Push

The 59-year-old physicist was in a something of a panic. The earth was getting hotter, and nobody in Washington seemed to care. Nuclear power — the only realistic way to produce a lot of electricity with few carbon emissions — was the solution. But rising costs for nuclear power and the power of the coal lobby appeared to be trumping environmental concerns, and rationality itself.

He started writing articles. The first he published in Science. It was called “Global Effects of Man’s Production of Energy.” Next, he co-authored an article evaluating what would happen if the U.S. moved away from nuclear. “Continued energy demands during the first few decades of the next century will push atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels which warrant serious concern, even for the low energy growth case.”

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Don’t Believe the Fever Pitch

Climate Change Plays Limited Role in Spread of Dengue Virus

In the summer of 2012, I spent a week in a Cambodian hospital recovering from dengue fever, which I had contracted in Laos. When my bout with dengue comes up in conversation, a standard response is a knowing look accompanied by the obvious explanation: climate change – as in,  “any fool knows that dengue is spreading around the world because of climate change.”

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Saving Lives Does Not Lead to Overpopulation

The Age of Peak Child

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. As recently as the Cold War, American foreign policy experts theorized that famine would make poor countries susceptible to Communism. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives. This was a welcome change. We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

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Steeling Ourselves for More Coal

Why Explosive Steel Manufacturing in China Matters

There is no material more fundamental to industrial civilization than steel. Modern buildings, ships, cars, planes and bridges would all be unthinkable without steel, and as pointed out by Allwood and Cullen in their fine recent book on materials production we currently have no viable substitute materials that could perform steel's multiple functions. We are still very much living in the iron age.

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Solar Lamps Are No Substitute for Access to Modern Energy

Energy Poor Need Cheap, Reliable Electricity

I’m a pretty big fan of cash transfers. I’ve become convinced that cash is an efficient immediate way to help the poor and very often a better alternative than other standard development interventions like training or building schools. Cash transfers may even be catalytic, giving poor people a floor to invest in business, their children’s health and education, and some breathing space to pursue higher value activities. 

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2013: The Best Year in Human History

Five Reasons to Celebrate Progress

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

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GMO Fears Overblown

World Without GM Crops Poses Greater Risks

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of genetically modified (GM) foods and, more specifically, labeling food that contains GM ingredients. Recently, the state of Washington voted on an initiative that would force manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically altered crops. If it was approved, Washington would have become the first state to pass GM labeling requirements, although dozens more are considering similar legislation.

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America, Land of Carnivores

An Interview with Maureen Ogle, Author of "In Meat We Trust"

In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hit shelves Tuesday, November 12. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.

Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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The Socialist Case for Nuclear Energy

How Technology Can Achieve Marx’s Vision of a New Society

The deepest, the most objective and the most indisputable criterion says: progress can be measured by the growth of the productivity of social labour. -- Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (1932)

Energy, the environment, global climate change, and sea level rise are all huge, vast interconnected subjects that generate much debate and controversy at every level of society. One expects this when the future of our species, and all other species, are at stake.

The center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy. The historic application, or utilization, of various forms of energy is a measure of human progress. Even before the rise of civilizations such as the Indus, Greek, Persian, and others long gone were relegated to the anthropology text books and museums, and even before the development of class society, human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.

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Limiting Population Growth Is Not the Answer to Global Warming

‘Elephant in the Room’ Has Weak Relationship to Greater Carbon Emissions

Getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. It is time we worried more about rich people driving luxury cars than poor people having more babies.

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It’s Time to Label GMOs

Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

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Electrifying Africa

How Much Energy Will It Take?

We’ve been surprised at all the attention Todd’s new fridge has gotten recently—including comments saying the comparison against African per capita electricity consumption isn’t fair because many of those people don’t have refrigerators. Exactly our point!

Sparse grids and limited incomes make it hard to own or operate modern appliances, but plenty of Africans would consume a whole lot more energy if it was available. Regular rolling blackouts suggest that countries aren’t producing enough energy to meet current demand, let alone what would be necessary to achieve universal access by 2030 (possibly a post-2015 MDG).

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Challenging the ‘White Hat Bias’

What’s At Stake With the Subpoena of EPA Data

Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.

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Measuring Obesity

Part 2: The Limitations of Body Mass Index

The problem of obesity is so complex from a scientific standpoint and so highly-charged in the public discussion that it’s hardly surprising that there are divergent opinions. My previous article prompted several responses arguing that “obesity” should be considered a “disease.” But let’s leave this question aside for the moment.

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Obesity Is Not a Disease

Part 1: The Illness Label Precludes Societal Factors

The American Medical Association’s decision last month to label obesity as a disease has provoked a good deal of commentary, much of it critical. In fact, the AMA’s action went against the conclusions of its own Council on Science and Public Health, which had considered the issue over the past year.

While no analogy is perfect, in terms of the magnitude of a societal problem, the example of smoking offers a number of points relevant to the discussion of obesity.

 

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Poverty, Not Global Warming, Remains Biggest Challenge

Deprivation Is Most Important Problem No Matter Climate Impacts

It’s particularly trendy among politicians and members of the media to be worried about climate change. When President Obama recently spoke before a crowd in Berlin, he said that climate change “is the global threat of our time.”

But that’s not true. Just a cursory glance around the world reveals that, given the enormous problems facing our planet, it would be surprising if climate change cracked a list of the top 10 immediate concerns.

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Behind the Golden Rice Attack

Don't Blame Filipino Farmers for Anti-GMO Attack

Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.

The nature of the attack was widely misreported, from the New York Times to New Scientist to BBC News, based on false claims by the activists. But then anti-GMO activists often lie. In support of the vandals, Greenpeace has claimed that there are health concerns about the genetically modified rice. In fact there is no evidence of risk, and the destruction of this field trial could lead to needless deaths.

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Electricity for All

What Universal Energy Access Will Take

This article was coauthored with Morgan Bazilian, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013) under the title "Making Energy Access Meaningful."

In a somewhat inconsequential meeting at the United Nations (UN) in 2009, Kandeh Yumkella, the then Di­rector-General of the UN Industrial Development Or­ganization, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s informally assigned “energy guy”, noted something obvious and profound, namely that, “the provision of one light to poor people does nothing more than shine a light on poverty”. Yet much of an emerging discussion on the crit­ical importance of global energy access as a pathway out of poverty continues to focus on what are, in effect, “one light” solutions. In this essay, we seek to help clarify the challenge of energy access, expose assumptions that are informing pol­icy design in the development and diplomatic communities, and offer a framework for future discussions rooted in the as­pirations of people around the world to achieve energy access compatible with a decent standard of living.

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Mega-Philanthropists Won’t End Poverty

Rapid Economic Development Will

Philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle for investment managers, corporate leaders, and nonprofits to come together and abet a curious form of ‘noble’ colonialism that accelerates inequality by reinforcing political and societal norms. The argument isn’t a new one, but that didn’t stop Warren Buffett’s son Peter from taking to the opinion pages of the New York Times with a proposal for a “new code” of philanthropy that will truly enable systematic change.

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The Founding Father of Foodie

Wendell Berry and Green Pastoralism

No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems. 

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Dark Age Politics

Energy Austerity A Return to Feudalism

Of all the fantasies that entrance neo-Malthusians, none is more dangerous than the idea that a low-energy, low-consumption, locavore world could be organized along egalitarian lines.

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Making the World Safe for Coal

The History of the Antinuclear Movement

The antinuclear movement has historically drawn from a number of wellsprings, from fears of radioactive fallout caused by nuclear missiles, to parallels between Nazi Germany and the science of nuclear energy, to paranoia over radiation as the ‘most serious agent of pollution.’ The success of such antinuclear campaigns in the 1970s has guaranteed a legacy of increased use of coal for decades to come, as proposed nuclear plants across the Western world were cancelled and replaced by coal plants.

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Questions Loom Over Africa’s Rush for Hydropower

Will Dams Spur Sub-Saharan Electrification?

Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than three-quarters of the population is without electricity, will soon be lit up — or that’s the promise of governments building a host of new hydroelectric schemes across the continent. These projects are an attempt to keep up with the rising power demand from Africa’s economic boom. But the trouble is that, like the boom, the power seems destined to benefit only small industrial and urban elites. For the rest of Africa’s billion inhabitants, this investment looks unlikely to further UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s goal of “sustainable energy for all.”

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How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two

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.

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Don’t Fight GMO Labels

Realigning Consumers' 'Right to Know'

I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.

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Obesity Pragmatism

What We Should and Should Not Do About the Overweight

Public health advocates have distorted the nature of obesity, defining it as an “epidemic” and an “involuntary risk,” thus leading us down a blind alley from which we must now retreat. Instead of taxing junk food or mandating calorie counting, effective interventions will embrace the fact that eating habits are, first and foremost, a matter of individual responsibility.

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Beyond Counting Calories

Taking the Obesity Fight to Environmental Toxins, Stress, and Capitalism

The prevailing obesity discourse has obscured alternative explanations, from environmental toxins to chronic stress, and failed to address the broader influence of capitalism, which has deeply shaped our neighborhoods, habits, and health.

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How Electricity and TV Defused the ‘Population Bomb’

The Unexpected Promise of Soap Operas

In the late sixties, India was the poster child of Third World poverty. In 1965, the monsoon rains failed to arrive, food production crashed, and much of the country was on the brink of starving. Asked for help, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have told an aide, "I'm not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems." Johnson came around, but by the end of the decade India was viewed in the West as, at best, a basket case and, at worst, a "population bomb" that threatened the entire planet.

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The Truth About Genetically Modified Food

Debunking the GMO Conspiracy Theory

I think the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

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The Long Anthropocene

Three Millennia of Humans Reshaping the Earth

Humans have been changing Earth’s landscapes at globally significant levels for at least 3000 years, and doing so by increasingly productive and efficient means, according to our new research challenging the claim that use of land by industrial civilization is destroying planetary ecology at an accelerating pace.

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It’s Not About the Climate

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part One

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

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Nuclear Saved 1.8 Million Lives

NASA Scientist James Hansen Also Finds Nuclear Could Save 7 Million More

Nuclear power is often promoted as a low-carbon source that mitigates fossil fuel emissions and the resulting health damage and deaths caused by air pollution. But is it possible to provide estimates and actually quantify these effects?

new paper from NASA’s Goddard Institute authored by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen in the journal Environmental Science and Technology purports to do just that. Hansen is well known as one of the founders of modern global warming science. The authors come up with the striking figure of 1.8 million as the number of lives saved by replacing fossil fuel sources with nuclear. They also estimate the saving of up to 7 million lives in the next four decades, along with substantial reductions in carbon emissions, were nuclear power to replace fossil fuel usage on a large scale. In addition the study finds that the proposed expansion of natural gas would not be as effective in saving lives and preventing carbon emissions. In general the paper provides optimistic reasons for the responsible and widespread use of nuclear technologies in the near future. It also drives home the point that nuclear energy has prevented many more deaths than what it has caused.

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We Have Never Been Natural

As Environmentalism Fragments, Competing Stories About the Anthropocene Emerge

Environmentalism is no longer about saving nature alone: increasingly, it's about saving people given their dependencies on nature (witness the sustainability movement) and since environmental problems are often symptoms of deeper social problems (witness dumping in Dixie). Yet concepts of nature still suffuse the movement—perhaps no longer just wilderness, national parks, and Gaia, but also a spirit of wildness, community gardens, and an optimal 350-ppm-CO2 atmosphere. It is not surprising that manifold notions of nature are found throughout contemporary environmentalism, since that is what environment means to most people.

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The Ecology of Obesity

How the Focus on Neighborhood Food Environments Led Public Health Astray

Starting in the mid-nineties, ecologically-minded Americans increasingly came to see farmers markets as a way to bring healthy foods to poor neighborhoods, support local organic agriculture, and even address global warming. During the Bush years, major health philanthropies joined these efforts, making new grocery stores their highest priority in combating obesity, which was disproportionately affecting the poor.

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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic

How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray

In the 1990s, many public health advocates homed in on food availability as a significant influence on obesity. Major anti-obesity campaigns now center on radically remaking school and neighborhood food environments by reducing access to unhealthy foods and improving access to healthy ones. With this approach advocates have fostered a reductive story about obesity that appeals to liberal audiences but doesn’t comport particularly well with the evidence. Against the popular discourse, those most at risk for obesity would be far better served by strategies demonstrated to improve overall health than calls for more grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition

After Controversy, GM Rice and Yams Will Finally Reach Rural Poor

Biofortification is particularly useful for reaching the rural poor who grow the food they consume, and are therefore largely outside the reach of food fortification programmes, which work best in urban areas where most food is purchased in markets. Unlike supplements, biofortified vitamin A-enriched food and crops will continue to protect children from deficiencies in a sustainable way at little extra cost as they are harvested each year.

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How Much Energy Does the World Need?

Clarifying the 21st Century Energy and Climate Challenges

In the early 1920s, when my grandparents were just small children, only about 40% of Americans had access to electricity. Over the course of a generation that number reached close to 100%. Today, inexpensive, reliable and plentiful access to electricity is something that most people in OECD countries take for granted. I was reminded about this when I attended the recent annual meeting of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, a group that decidedly does not take electricity for granted. The meeting was opened by appealing to core shared values: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

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Why I Was Wrong About GMOs

And How They Can Help Sustainably Feed the World

A Lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference on January 3, 2013.

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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Let Them Eat Solar Panels

The Hypocrisy of Western Greens on Energy Poverty

Imagine the United States sending low-calorie food aid to Ethiopia in response to the global obesity epidemic. Absurd, right? Even if global waistline trends are worrisome, Ethiopians didn't create the problem. Such a policy would be futile since it would have no noticeable impact on the global aggregate.

Worse, while obesity may be a very real concern, Ethiopians are understandably more focused on undernourishment. The United States should aim instead to increase caloric intake in that part of the world. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even tackle the obesity problem at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.

Sadly, that is pretty much what the United States does on energy. In response to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. government put restrictions on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that is a principal tool for promoting investment in poor countries. A recent rule, added in response to a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, imposes blind caps on the total CO2 emissions in OPIC's portfolio, which ends up barring the agency from nearly all non-renewable electricity projects.

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The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food.  I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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Our Unproductive Climate Debate

Broadening and Diversifying Public Concern

Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.

I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.

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Just Don’t Call it Poverty

Writing in the FT earlier this week, economist John Kay discussed absolute and relative definitions of poverty. On the absolute:

People who struggle to find enough food to eat are poor. The World Bank's poverty line is an income of less than $1.25 a day. Financial Times readers, who spend more than that amount on their morning newspaper, are in no position to dispute that judgment. In the past two decades, economic growth in China and India has reduced global poverty by an unprecedented amount. That achievement is not diminished because some individuals in both these countries have become very rich. Fundamentally, poverty is about absolute deprivation.

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Environments Are Not Constraints

Long before Malthus, "the population bomb", "population overshoot" and the "planetary boundaries", ancient sages portrayed humanity as confronted with imminent collapse in the face of environmental limits and as degraders of nature overall (i.e."Earth's life-support systems"). Without halting population growth, pollution, or other harmful activities, humanity would collapse and nature along with it. While contemporary scientists, policy makers and the public are generally aware that this formulation profoundly oversimplifies the situation, it remains the core message behind the efforts of many of those concerned with improving environmental decision-making, both locally and globally.

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Planetary Boundaries: A Review of the Evidence

The planetary boundaries hypothesis - embraced by United Nations bodies and leading nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam and WWF - has serious scientific flaws and is a misleading guide to global environmental management, according to a new report by the Breakthrough Institute. The hypothesis, which will be debated this month at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil, posits that there are nine global biophysical limits to human development. But after an extensive literature review and informal peer review by leading experts, the Breakthrough Institute has found the concept of "planetary boundaries" to be a poor basis for policy and for understanding local and global environmental challenges.

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Love Your Monsters Ebook

Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene

These are demoralizing times for anyone who cares about the global environment. Emissions trading, the Kyoto treaty, and sustainable development have all failed. And yet climate change, deforestation, and species extinction continue apace. What lessons can we draw from the failure of environmentalism — what must we do now?

In this provocative collection of essays edited by the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” leading ecological thinkers put forward a vision of postenvironmentalism for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Over the next century it is within our reach to create a world where all 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living that will allow them to pursue their dreams. But this world is only possible if we embrace human development, modernization, and technological innovation.

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Energy Access for the Poor: No Cause for Environmental Alarm

The urgent need to provide energy access to the billions of "energy poor" around the world is currently making a strong comeback on the international development agenda, but fears linger that the resulting increase in energy consumption will wreak havoc on the environment and many climate change models bank on the continued dependence of a large proportion of people in developing countries on traditional energy sources such as biomass. However, a review of empirical and modeling studies shows that these fears are largely unfounded, and that improving energy access may in fact contribute to both climate change mitigation and resilience.

The International Energy Agency has estimated that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would have "little impact on energy demand, production or CO2 emissions." Providing electricity to an additional 1.2 billion people and access to clean cooking fuels to 1.7 billion people, over and above business-as-usual, they predict, will result in global emissions only 0.8% higher than the baseline scenario.[1] The World Bank comes to a similar conclusion, claiming that "increasing access to electricity services and clean cooking fuels in many low-income developing countries...would add less than 2% to global CO2 emissions".[2]

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Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation

Driving directions from your iPhone. The cancer treatments that save countless lives. The seed hybrids that have slashed global hunger. A Skype conversation while flying on a Virgin Airlines jet across the continent in just five hours. Where did these everyday miracles come from?

As soon as the question is asked we know to suspect that the answer is not as simple as Apple, Amgen, or General Electric. We might recall something about microchips and the Space Race, or know that the National Institutes of Health funds research into new drugs and treatments.

But most of us remain unaware of the American government's support for technology and innovation. Our gratitude at being able to video chat with our children from halfway around the world (if we feel gratitude at all) is directed at Apple, not the Defense Department. When our mother's Neupogen works to fight her cancer, we thank Amgen, not NIH or NSF.

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