The Great Progressive Reversal: how the TVA supporters became the prison jailers of the developing poor

It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear.

“Giving society cheap, abundant energy, would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” —Paul Ehrlich 1975

Prof. Erlich continues to preach the same theme, which is essentially the low energy hymnal as written by Amory Lovins. I think Erlich and Lovins are completely on the wrong side of the low-energy/high-energy debate. If you are an Amory Lovins believer I hope to persuade you to read The Breakthrough Institute’s concise briefing document Our High-Energy Planet. Arizona State University's Dan Sarewitz is one of my trusted sources on science policy issues. Here’s Dan’s summary of the choice between high-energy and low-energy policies:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If, after reading Our High Energy Planet, you are still thinking that we already have all the tech required, that all we need to address climate change is more efficiency and renewables, then I recommend that you need to learn more about the staggering magnitude of the energy transition required. Start with energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, then his Energy Transitions and finally Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

If, like me, you are puzzling over how the former protectors of the energy-impoverished have transformed into the prison guards responsible for preventing their escape, their breakout from the energy-poverty jail — then read the captioned three-part The Great Progressive Reversal. This is a very different history than what I was taught in public schools, even university. When I studied civics and social history the prevailing progressive theme was the signature New Deal program of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

(…snip…) In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

From The Great Progressive Reversal I learned how the progressive movement mutated into what it is today, a supporter of anti-progress development policies. The three-part series concludes with this:

Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced sterilization's and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.

If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”



3 thoughts on “The Great Progressive Reversal: how the TVA supporters became the prison jailers of the developing poor

  1. Is this Erhlich’s latest offering?
    “The protection of Earth’s remaining biodiversity (especially the crucial diversity of populations) must take centre stage for both scientific specialists and, through appropriate education, the public.”

    Well, Australian scientists quantitatively modeled how to achieve this but their strategy includes substantial nuclear power, so it’s simply unacceptable, right?

  2. Thanks for the link to prof. Erhlich’s “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”. Can you hear the Club of Rome violins? He carefully considered “techno-fixes”, including nuclear power which he easily dismissed “Unhappily, sufficiently cheap energy has never been produced by nuclear power to enable large-scale agriculture to move in that direction.”

    My take is that prof. Ehrlich and his followers, begin with the conviction, as Erhlich postulates in his conclusions, that “widely based cultural change is required to reduce humanely both population size and overconsumption by the rich”. Given that premise I suppose our challenge is simply to lash the unbelievers into submission.

    Since the fast-developing world isn’t responding to the lashings of the Ehrlich crowd I think we need to consider the practical policy proposals of Brook & Bradshaw.

  3. I hope prof. Ehrlich will listen to or watch the Long Now Foundation lecture by prof. Jesse Ausubel: Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing through Concentrating Human Activities.


    “If they were vehicles, we would say that “a steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60.“ (In that scale a farmed fish gets 80 miles per gallon.) Since 01975 beef and pork consumption have leveled off while chicken consumption has soared. “The USA and the world are at peak farmland, “ Ausubel declared, “not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories.” Much more can be done. Ausubel pointed out that just reducing the one-third of the world’s food that is wasted, rolling out the highest-yield techniques worldwide, and abandoning biofuels would free up an area the size of India (1.2 million square miles) to return to nature.”

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