By Michael Shellenberger
The root cause of climate change, say many activist leaders, is economic growth. “How dare you!” Greta Thunberg told the United Nations last September “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth!”
And yet it was economic growth that lifted Thunberg’s ancestors out of agrarian poverty, raised life expectancy from 40 to 70 years, and liberated women and girls from feudal patriarchy. Without Sweden’s economic growth, and the fossil fuels upon which it depended, the person who is Greta Thunberg would not exist.
Some climate activists acknowledge the need for poor nations to burn more fossil fuels if they are to achieve decent standards of living. Thunberg herself suggested as much in her January 2019 TED talk.
But in the name of fighting climate change, powerful first-world organizations including Sierra Club and Greenpeace, whose annual revenues nearly total $500 million, have forced World Bank and other banks to divert lending from cheap and reliable energy sources like hydroelectric dams and natural gas power plants to expensive and unreliable ones like solar panels and industrial wind turbines.
And, last year, Thunberg and other student climate activists even sued Brazil, where per capita incomes are just 25% that of Sweden, for supposedly not doing enough to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.
As for climate change, it results fundamentally from people wanting to improve the quality of life for themselves and their loved ones, not from “greed.”
“Three billion people in the world today use less electricity than what’s used by my kitchen refrigerator,” notes journalist Robert Bryce in “Juice,” a humane and moving new documentary on iTunes. “Darkness kills human potential while electricity nourishes it.”
Electricity + Factories = Growth
Bryce is the Anthony Bourdain of energy. With the filmmaker Tyson Culver, he travels from Iceland to India to show “how electricity explains the world.” The word “juice” has been used as a synonym for electricity since at least 1896. It connotes “lively” and “energetic,” much like Bryce himself.
Industrialization powered by electricity is what drives economic development. For more than 250 years, the combination of manufacturing and industrial agriculture has been the engine of economic growth for nations around the world. And for the last half of that, industrialization powered by grid electricity has been at the center.
Increased wealth from manufacturing is what allows nations to build the roads, power plants, electricity grids, flood control, sanitation, and waste management systems that distinguish poor nations like the Congo from rich ones like Sweden.
Electricity makes possible the cities that liberate people from the oppression of farm life. Women and girls benefit the most.
“Three billion people today are walking around in clothes that were washed by hand,” says Culver. “And it’s women and girls who are not only washing the clothes but also gathering the firewood, cooking over biomass stoves, and missing out on education and other opportunities.”
The industrial revolution wasn’t possible with wood. Britain and other nations required coal. The energy density of coal is twice as high as the energy density of wood, while the power density of coal mines is up to twenty-five thousand times greater than forests, notes scholar Vaclav Smil in his 2016 book, Power Density.
Similarly, the environmental and economic benefits of electricity stem from its power density. Thanks to electricity, Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex factory in Detroit in the 1920s had a power density 50 times higher than that of America’s first large, integrated clothing factory 100 years earlier.
Today, Manhattan has a power density 20 times higher than New York City’s outer boroughs, and the wealthy island nation of Singapore has a power density seven times higher than that of the global urban average.
What characterizes big cities are their tall buildings which require electrical-powered elevators. “Height is electrical,” explains Jesse Ausubel, the pioneering energy and environmental scholar. “Skyscrapers are concentrated energy.”
It is thus understandable that the word “juice” has long been a synonym for wealth. “The defining inequality in the world today,” says Bryce, “is the disparity between the electricity-rich and the electricity-poor.”
“It’s a Crime!”
Over the last 30 years, as climate change became an issue of public concern, environmentalists have promoted solar panels and batteries, LED lighting, and “micro-grids” as ways for poor nations to achieve prosperity by “leap-frogging” industrialization and fossil fuels.
In 2013, while in Tanzania to promote “Power Africa,” a U.S. government program supporting electrification, President Barack Obama dribbled and headed a modified soccer ball known as a Soccket: after you play with it for thirty minutes, it can power an LED light for three hours. “You can imagine this in villages all across the continent,” Obama enthused.
But with a price tag of $99, the Soccket cost more than a month’s wages for the average Congolese. For only $10, one could buy a superior lantern that doesn’t require dribbling.
More to the point, it wasn’t exactly the kind of energy that could industrialize Africa.
Two years later, an Indian village made worldwide headlines after it rebelled against the solar panel and battery “micro-grid” Greenpeace had created as a supposed model of energy leapfrogging for the world’s poorest people. The electricity was unreliable and expensive.
“We want real electricity,” chanted villagers at a state politician, “not fake electricity!” Children held up signs saying the same thing. By “real electricity” they meant reliable grid electricity, which is mostly produced from coal. The village was shortly thereafter connected to the grid.
One of the stars of “Juice” is an economist named Joyashree Roy, who shows Bryce and Culver the heart-breaking poverty of rural India. As a lead coordinating author of a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chapter on “Sustainable Development,” Roy is a powerful critic of climate hypocrisy.
Roy argues movingly that it is inhumane and unethical for Indians to work indoors without air conditioning. And yet activist environmental journalists in the rich-world routinely condemn air conditioning as a dangerous luxury.
Bryce and Culver believe that carbon dioxide contributes to climate change and the movie makes a compelling case for why we need more nuclear energy if we are going to slow the growth of CO2 emissions.
Roy rails against efforts by rich world environmentalists and climate activists to push “fake” micro-grid electricity on Indian villagers over cheap grid electricity. “That we are not allowing others to be modern is a crime!” she says.
The experience touched Culver. “While I would never equate energy poverty with institutional racism,” he told me, “a lot of us, particularly those of privilege, have a hard time seeing what’s happening outside of our own precious circle.”
Bryce and Culver say they hope the coronavirus pandemic reminds many people of the importance of cheap and reliable electricity for hospitals, ventilators, and the urban infrastructure upon which they depend.
“We shouldn’t need the world to be flipped on its axis to see what’s happening right in front of us,” said Culver. And yet it is “chaos” in the form of blackouts and riots that reminds us to be grateful for our electricity-dependent prosperity.
One of the most touching scenes in “Juice” is of Bryce in parts of Puerto Rico. Parts of the island were still without electricity seven months after the island was hit by a hurricane.
“They were American citizens on American soil and they were powerless,” said Bryce. “So they did what they had to do: they ran a small gas generator to run the refrigerator and power the lights at night. But the noise from their Chinese-made generator was awful and so was the air pollution.”
Electricity in Sweden, by contrast, is produced with vanishingly little pollution. Eighty percent of Swedish electricity comes from large hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants, which Thunberg opposes.
Though accused of hypocrisy, Thunberg has not backed away from her blanket condemnations of nuclear power plants, economic growth, and industrialization by poor nations. “We have simply moved our factories to different parts of the world, and a significant portion of our emissions overseas,” she lamented recently.
While Thunberg traveled extensively across the United States, visiting national parks with her father, she has yet to do what Bryce and Culver did in “Juice,” which was to visit poor rural communities in developing nations to better understand what life is like without reliable electricity.
I hope she does so, and soon. If Thunberg does, she will discover that for the vast majority of women and girls, economic growth is indeed a fairy tale but one to which they aspire, not fear.