TCS Daily

Power to the People?

By Paul Driessen - March 25, 2004 12:00 AM

On January 22, Citigroup directors and executives fell all over each other, rushing to claim their Ethical Oscar from the radical activist group, Rainforest Action Network.

Henceforth, promised Citi, it would dramatically scale back investment in developing country projects that some might perceive as being socially or ecologically destructive. From now on, they would minimize investment in hydroelectric and fossil fuel projects, and focus instead on renewable energy, "sustainable development," climate change prevention, and preservation of habitats and indigenous cultures.

Residents of developing countries might be excused if they don't share the jubilation. They understand all too well that Citi's capitulation will further postpone the day when their destitute families will have electricity, safe running water, and a glimmer of hope for a better, healthier, more prosperous future.

Around the world, 2 billion people still do not have electricity. In an era when the average European cow is subsidized to the tune of $250 a year, a billion people in developing countries struggle to survive on less than $200 per year. Three billion people -- half the world's population -- live on less than $700 a year.

Life for these people would be infinitely better if they had abundant, reliable, affordable electricity -- for lights, heat and refrigeration; hospitals and clinics, schools, shops and factories; water purification and sewage treatment; and a tiny fraction of all the other modern conveniences and necessities we take for granted. Unfortunately, they aren't likely to get electricity anytime soon. Eco-centric pressure groups, Hollywood celebrities, politicians and wealthy foundations are seeing to that.

Power to the People?

"African villagers used to spend their days and evenings sewing clothing for their neighbors, on foot-peddle-powered sewing machines," says Earth Island Institute editor Gar Smith. "Once they get electricity, they spend too much time watching television and listening to the radio. If there is going to be electricity, I'd like it to be decentralized, small and solar-powered."

"I would promote solar and wind for power, not damming more rivers," intones television actor Ed Begley, Jr. "It's much cheaper for everybody in Africa to have electricity where they need it -- on their huts."

Of course, most of these destitute people won't even get a solar panel, or a wind turbine. Instead of switching on a light or appliance, millions of mothers and daughters will continue spending hours every day collecting firewood -- or squatting in mud laced with animal urine to collect, dry and store manure for cooking and heating fires.

Instead of turning a faucet handle, millions will continue bringing water from rivers and lakes that are often tainted with parasites and bacteria -- carrying it in heavy cans on their heads and shoulders, often for miles. Instead of enjoying a modern kitchen, they will continue spending hours a day over primitive hearths breathing acrid, polluted smoke from their fires.

Instead of going to school, their children will be toiling at home, working the fields, weaving carpets or picking trash, to help put a bowl of rice gruel on the dinner table. The mothers have little time to engage in more satisfying or productive economic activities. Not that there are many such opportunities, anyway. Pressure groups have played a role in that, too, causing untold misery.

Four million infants, children and mothers die every year from asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other lung infections, caused by breathing the smoke, dust, bacteria and pollutants that are a constant fixture in their homes and villages. Six million more perish every year from dysentery and other intestinal diseases, caused by spoiled food and unsafe water, due to nonexistent refrigeration and water purification. Few live long enough even to get cancer, much less die from it.

And still, RAN and other radical environmentalists insist that they are legitimate "stakeholders," with a right to make decisions that affect these people's lives. Viewing the countries' own needs and wishes as irrelevant, they talk endlessly about "environmental ethics" and "social justice" -- as defined, interpreted and imposed by them -- and worry incessantly about dams, fossil fuels and hypothetical global warming.

"European governments, Third-World bureaucrats, businesses like The Body Shop and European Wind Energy Association, and NGOs like Greenpeace and NRDC, have decided that 'renewable energy' and 'clean development' are the future for Third World countries," says Barun Mitra, president of India's Liberty Institute. "Socially responsible" lending institutions like Citigroup are merely the latest to kowtow to eco-imperialists.

All of them, in Mitra's opinion, would be far more ethical, moral and responsible, if they worried more about the real, immediate life-or-death risks that these impoverished people still face every day -- because of misguided environmental policies. He's not alone.

What's Indigenous?

"Cute, indigenous customs aren't so charming when they make up one's day-to-day existence," says Kenya's Akinyi Arunga. "Then they mean indigenous poverty, indigenous malnutrition, indigenous disease and childhood death. I don't wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish our so-called friends would stop imposing it on us."

Anti-energy policies also harm the environment. "People cut down our trees, because they don't have electricity," Uganda's Gordon Mwesigye points out, "and our country loses its wildlife habitats, and the health and economic benefits that abundant electricity brings."

Renewable energy projects, like those favored by Smith, RAN and Begley -- and now by Citigroup -- merely add to the environmental and human woes. A single 555-megawatt gas-fired power plant in California generates more electricity in a year than do all 13,000 of the state's wind turbines. The gas-fired plant sits atop a mere 15 acres. The 300-foot-tall windmills impact over a hundred thousand acres, mar once-scenic vistas, and kill thousands of birds and bats every year -- to provide expensive, intermittent, insufficient energy.

Wind farms and massive, habitat-smothering solar panels can never produce enough electricity to sustain a modern society. Moreover, their unreliable energy output would drive quality and worker productivity so low that local plants could not compete with their First World counterparts, even at wages a fraction of those prevailing in the United States.

Thus, blocking the construction of centralized power projects -- as not being "appropriate" or "sustainable" or "socially responsible" -- is to condemn billions of people to sustained poverty and disease, and sentence millions to premature death. Such agendas may reflect activists' misplaced "passion for the environment." But they hardly reflect concern for the poor -- and regardless of what RAN and Citigroup might claim, they are hardly moral, ethical or socially responsible.

"Telling destitute people they must never aspire to living standards much better than they have now -- because it wouldn't be 'sustainable' -- is just one example of the hypocrisy we have had thrust in our faces, in an era when we can and should grow fast enough to become fully developed in a single generation," South Africa's Leon Louw says bluntly. "We're fed up with it."

It's a message that Citigroup and other companies should take to heart, if they truly want to be "socially responsible."

Paul Driessen is the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death ( and director of the Economic Human Rights Project, a joint initiative of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and Congress of Racial Equality.


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