A Free-Market Energy Blog

Christopher Flavin (Worldwatch Institute) on the Benefits of Electrifying the Developing World (quotations from the past to challenge prospective CO2 caps)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- May 2, 2009

“Today, 1.6 billion people in developing countries do not have access to electricity in their homes. Most of the electricity-deprived are in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. For these people, the day finishes much earlier than in richer countries for lack of proper lighting. They struggle to read by candle light. They lack refrigeration for keeping food and medicines fresh. Those appliances that they do have are powered by batteries, which eat up a large share of their incomes.”

– Faith Birol, “Energy Economics: A Place for Energy Poverty in the Agenda?” The Energy Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (2007), 1–6, at 3.

Chris Flavin, head of the Worldwatch Institute, has written prolifically (albeit often erroneously) on energy and the environment. Ken Lay, the architect of Enron’s “sustainable energy” vision, was a Flavin fan, keeping this study in his “Desk.”


I often wonder: What if Dr. Lay (as he liked to be called by the outside world–part of Enron’s “smartest guys in the room” problem) had instead kept a copy of William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question in his desk and had taken to heart Jevons’s argument that renewable energies were ill-suited for the carbon-based energy era.  But Lay was a political capitalist and second-hander, not a true capitalist or intellectual CEO like Charles Koch of Koch Industries Inc.

Back to Mr. Flavin. Like other rabid environmentalists, even John Holdren, Flavin has occasionally provided insight for nonalarmists who are wed to energy and climate reality, consumerism, and a non-coercive society. On consumerism, some Flavin statements in his 1986 study, “Electricity for a Developing World: New Directions” [Worldwatch Paper 70], are worth revisiting.

Here are several quotations that suggest why plentiful, affordable energy is important for those who need it most:

“Electricity can bring sweeping changes to the lives of rural people. It often opens villages to the outside world and gives people the idea that things can change. Surveys show that many people look back on the arrival of electricity as a turning point in their lives. Electric lights are usually the first appliance purchased, a big improvement over gas or kerosene lamps. Electric lighting allows school children to read in the evening and extends the work day into the evening hours. Electric irons are also popular in many communities, as are radios, television sets, and electric fans” (p. 36).

“Studies show that in most villages people believe that electricity improves their standard of living more than any other change they have experienced. Women appear to appreciate the benefits of electricity more than men, since they generally spend more time around the home and electricity can help in household chores, while fans and radios make leisure time more pleasant. Many women report that they have more free time after getting electricity. Frequently, electric pumps are used to provide a reliable, clean supply of water from a village well for the first time, which makes life easier and improves health” (pp. 36-37).

“Sometimes electricity provides unexpected benefits. In a remote village in China’s Fujian province in which young men have traditionally had a hard time finding wives, the arrival of electricity has attracted more brides” (p. 38).

“The real potential of electricity lies not in providing social amenities but in stimulating long-term economic development” (p. 41).

“Let them eat cake” was supposedly the infamous response of a princess when told of the people’s deprivation. “Let them have solar panels” or “Keep them from having a carbon footprint” might be the infamous words of today from the environmental elites.

Energy poverty from statism is the number one environmental, economic, and social problem related to energy. Christopher Flavin’s 1986 study explains, in part, why.


  1. Tom Tanton  

    Electricity provides much more than wives or economic development (although the latter is directly related to health) but especially healthier people. First, non-electric fuels are often associated with severe health effects. In the advanced industrialized countries most of the public debate about air pollution focuses on the outdoors, especially in urban areas. Viewed globally, however, by far the greatest human exposure to air pollution occurs indoors in rural areas—in part because nearly half the world’s population lives in rural areas and mainly because rural dwellers tend to be poor, and the poor satisfy their energy needs with highly polluting fuels. For example, typical indoor exposures to particulate matter due to cook stoves, using primitive yet common fuels are the second cause of premature mortality in many developing countries (smoking tends to be number one.) Fuel gathering is also the dominant time consuming activity for women and children, leaving no time for education and chaining people to non-escapable lives of poverty. Damning people to energy-less (especially electricity-less) lives is truly damning them.


  2. Marlo Lewis  

    Another valuable source on this topic is “Energy and Poverty,” Chapter 13 of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2002: http://www.iea.org/textbase/nppdf/free/2002/energy_poverty.pdf


  3. Ken Maize  

    I knew Chris Flavin as a journalist in the 1980s and found him to be thoughtful, serious, and generally intellectually honest. He was far more honest that his boss at the time, Lester “We’re all going to starve” Brown. Lester, as veterans of the time will remember, was a Paul Ehrlich (another green I know quite well) evangelist of the population bomb theory (and so was John Holdren, see John Tierney’s NYT blog on the subject).

    I used to laugh when I was a reporter covering World Watch when Lester would hold a lunch for the press each year as his state of the world report was about to be released. He always served really good French cheeses and wines as he talked about the iron march of hunger and death.

    Chris was more modest, and his work seemed to hold together better, as the 1986 quote demonstrates. This, or course, was all pre-global warming hysteria. I haven’t talked to him or read any of his work in about 20 years, however.


  4. rbradley  


    I had some of the same impressions of Chris Flavin. He has done a lot of research, but, alas, he did not want to go to some places that would have weakened his agenda.

    For example, he never studied Jevons’s The Coal Question, a book which refutes (back in 1865, no less) the notion of renewable energies for the industrial age. (Jevons is good on conservation too.)

    Chris was instrumental in getting the environmental community to back natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a “sustainable” future. He was a big Enron and Ken Lay fan to this end.

    His introduction to Paul Gipe’s book on windpower is pretty fair, noting the environmental problems with wind. Chris at a DOE conference once dismissed solar farms as not worth the environmental costs. (He supported micro solar as part of his ideal of distributed generation.)

    Chris would be a good one to switch sides and declare that with climate alarmism in trouble, the carbon energy age is sustainable after all. Oil, gas, and coal have become much cleaner in the last half century, and renewables are now getting to the point where their environmental problems cannot be ignored.

    It will be interesting to see how he addresses energy issues in a few years–he is no Joe Romm in this regard.


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