This post originally appeared in RealClearScience. You can read the original here.
Every time I write an article about population growth or poverty, I receive at least one e-mail insisting that there are too many humans on the planet. That erroneous statement is usually followed up with a not-so-subtle suggestion that letting a few people starve to death wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but instead would actually make the planet a safer, richer and more sustainable place.
Not many things shock me anymore. But the arrogance and callousness of a well-fed society toward those who are less fortunate always leaves me stunned.
What is particularly frustrating is that both sides of the political spectrum claim to be the true champions of the poor – while simultaneously endorsing policies that disproportionately harm them.
The Left repeatedly insists that climate change is the world’s #1 problem, and this has distracted us from the world’s actual #1 problem: Poverty. About 1.3 billion people don’t have electricity, meaning they also don’t have adequate access to food, healthcare or the Internet. Essentially, such communities are condemned to a life of indefinite poverty. Providing them with cheap electricity is a compassionate, progressive thing to do.
Or at least it was at one time. In an article posted on New Geography, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus explain how the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) “established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise.”
Why is it necessary to make cheap electricity a public good? Because it helps end the vicious cycle of poverty. The authors describe the stark reality of life in the American South in the 1930s:
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.
The TVA helped change this. Cheap hydroelectric power lifted residents out of poverty and even helped restore the environment.
Therefore, providing cheap electricity to the 1.3 billion people without it should be a top global priority. Solar and wind power should be implemented if possible, but not all locations will be amenable to that technology. And that means it will be necessary to burn more fossil fuels in some locations, even though more people will die as a result of air pollution. But given a choice between a life of poverty (and all the hazards that come with it) versus a chance at a more prosperous life (albeit one with an increased risk of lung cancer), most people in the developing world would probably choose the latter, even if that upsets climate-obsessed progressives in the rich world.
On the Right, conservatives need to give up their ideological opposition to birth control. While the world is not overpopulated as a whole, overpopulation does cause issues at the regional level. (That is why I like to say the world is not overpopulated, but rather “maldistributed.”) For instance, only so many people can live in the U.S. Southwest before water shortages become a routine problem.
At the behest of President George W. Bush, the United States implemented a program called PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) that was rightfully praised for saving millions of Africans from HIV. But the program was criticized for doing little (perhaps even undermining efforts) to provide women with birth control. But, cheap birth control – just like cheap electricity – is an important tool to help end the vicious cycle of poverty.
To truly help developing societies, we need to answer their immediate needs. That is far more compassionate than trying to shape them into the societies we would like them to be.
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