I am glad to know that I live in a world where poverty is declining.

While that is true it remains a world of haves and have nots. Those of us who “have” can barely conceive the lives led by those of us who have not. We can scarcely grasp the diabolical choices they face. Our position of astounding privilege can lead to badly warped perspectives.

Two friends of mine recently took two very different journeys. An Australian, Gary Davies, went to Germany. An American, Michael Shellenberger went to Indonesia. They both met locals, and their journeys both involved rivers.

In Indonesia, Michael met a family who live in the concrete undercarriage of a busy road bridge. They live there because that’s the best option they know of. Reaching their home required a precarious crossing of a polluted river. Once a two-year-old child was dropped, and died. Their living involves fishing recyclable rubbish from the dirty water. They are periodically evicted. They dream of a job in a factory. In their current economic conditions, these people live on the margins of harm from extreme weather events that are expected from a changing climate. It’s a problem of global environmental commons to which they scarcely have the income to contribute.

Per capita electricity consumption in Indonesia is 733 kWh per year.

In Germany, Gary and his friends were accosted by locals protesting nuclear energy. These people doubtless lived in secure homes. These people had the economic security that permitted leisure time to protest against facilities that provide electricity with no greenhouse emissions, no air pollution, and that have never hurt a German person by virtue of the nuclear fission process. Not only that, their economic security enabled a remarkable conversation starter: a free glass of champagne. So wealthy are they, they can provide alcohol to strangers in the name of delivering their argument to an audience. Such wealth results from several centuries of exploitation of energy for economic development.

Per capita electricity consumption in Germany is 7,270 kWh per year. So wealthy is Germany that in the last four years she has, by simple dint of policy, forced closure of over 50 TWh per year of nuclear electricity generation. That’s 28 % of the total annual electricity generation of Indonesia, junked.

Meanwhile on the Rhine, Gary didn’t see families living under bridges, fishing rubbish to make a living. He saw a barge called Privilege moves masses of polluting coal up-river, to power an economy that keeps the locals in champagne.

11 comments

  1. Thank you Ben. I’ve linked to this post in a comment on the Atomic Insights guest post, by Bill Sacks and Greg Meyerson, The Left Needs to Reconsider its Automatic Position Against Nuclear Energy.

  2. Thanks Ben. There is so much to the message of this story. Technically, it plainly shows the relationship between the spectrum of poverty to wealthy abundance and that of energy/capita (and more-or-less that of energy density). If (economical) energy is not made available to a society, poverty or decline (Germany, be warned) ensues. Whatever cultural or moral factors have kept Indonesia from advancing along these energy spectrums, its near-diabolical effects are so plainly illustrated here for these people (I’ll leave my disappointment regarding the Germans for another time).

    This message is so important to get across. I shared this post with my 19-year old son, a college engineering major, to bring home these very clear points to him.

    This post has me harkening back to a great speech by Richard Rhodes at the 2013 American Nuclear Society (ANS) Winter Meeting. Mr. Rhodes vividly took the audience through the 20th century and its big technology advances, which include the development of nuclear energy. He allowed ANS to post the speech. Hopefully you have already seen it, but here it is anyway:

    http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2014/01/14/a-century-of-technology-remarks-by-richard-rhodes/

    Thanks again

  3. It looks like only “moves” needs to be “move” (subject/verb agreement) in the final sentence. Otherwise, the message is clear to me.

  4. The Conservation Council of SA has told the Royal Commission that renewables are the way to go. Slight problem SA has the highest combined wind and solar penetration (over 30%) of any state yet the economy is in strife. At the moment SA appears to have both the highest wholesale and retail electricity prices in urban Australia. For wholesale prices see the top right table here. For retail prices compare identical power plans for SA with Vic or NSW. For example AGL’s fixed price single rate meter plan is about 9c a kwh more expensive in Adelaide than in Melbourne though the daily fixed charge is a bit cheaper.

    Something doesn’t seem right about the way things are going. I see on TV the Chinese restaurant in Roxby Downs may close after 20 years yet you’d think in a carbon constrained world uranium mines would be doing well.

  5. What a great article. Thank you for doing this… from my surname you might be wondering, yes, I am half-Indonesian (& proudly so). Was following Michael while he was over there and he did a great job, conveying the realities for those who would pay attention, which will be all too few. The group that organised the conference he was there for is also a little interesting, though I haven’t found out that much about it yet. This one line captures it all, “They dream of a job in a factory.” I could go on, but I know that if I start this will turn into a very, very long post, even by my standards.

    Great job on LNL by the way. I am however a little concerned now I realise you are an extreme radophile [sic]. I mean to each their own of course, so I am not going to judge if you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, I’ve always found Longines to be the mark of a true gentleman.

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