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February 12, 2012 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Life Without Lights Energy Poverty Photography.
posted by infini (28 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is this really energy poverty, or just "electricity poverty?"
posted by edguardo at 7:40 AM on February 12, 2012


I had never seen as many stars as I saw camping in Palo Duro Canyon last summer, and seriously, fuck light pollution for keeping that from me for so long.
posted by edguardo at 7:44 AM on February 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Does that website actually have an interface? Does some of that tiny dark-gray-on-black text in the upper right have something to do with the rest of the series? If I had waited longer would some buttons have appeared? Maybe it was an experiential website, where the viewer was meant to get a real sense of what it's like to have to fumble around in the dark because the only thing you can see is the dim, flickering flame of your oil lamp and a pool of indistinct shapes immediately surrounding. Perhaps the photographer was ashamed of the pictures and intentionally underexposed them during post-processing, in order that nobody would ever be able to truly see them – maybe the inscrutable, invisible interface was an extension of his or her will that the pictures never be viewed by their putative audience. I'm sure I don't know.
posted by Scientist at 8:44 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


You mean the website didn't have enough light to see things more clearly?
posted by infini at 9:15 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great photos--thank you for posting.
posted by sundaydriver at 9:23 AM on February 12, 2012


Is this really energy poverty, or just "electricity poverty?"

Just electricity poverty? Not having access to electricity is a key indicator of absolute poverty. No electricity means virtually no chance of being able to climb out of poverty, since there is virtually no opportunity to develop a business which can be competitive. Electricity means lighting but it also means refrigeration, more productive agriculture and machine use, access in the domestic sector means less time spent on essential domestic chores (eg gathering wood for cooking); even where there is access to other forms of energy then these are not a good substitute for many applications of electricity.

This is why access to electricity is a huge political issue in developing countries; everyone wants it, because without it you are basically screwed.

Further, not having access to electricity will tend to mean that populations burn substantial amounts of biomass, which tends not to be sustainably sourced, with huge environmental degradation implications, and often with both health issues (burning wood or manure on a stove in a closed small living space) and gender impacts (because women tend to have to find the stuff to burn, and tend to be cooking in the small space). Biomass still accounts for ~10% or global primary energy consumption and the total amount burned has almost doubled over the last 40 years to keep that percentage roughly constant.

1.6 billion people are without electricity globally, pretty much all of them will be living in poverty.
posted by biffa at 9:48 AM on February 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think they're trying to say it's a bad thing these people's lives aren't illuminated 24 hours per day. Frankly, I wish I could escape light. It never gets truly dark, or truly quiet, in any semi-metropolitan city. And I think that is a terrible thing.
posted by LoudMusic at 9:55 AM on February 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is why access to electricity is a huge political issue in developing countries; everyone wants it, because without it you are basically screwed.

It's the 'being screwed without electricity', not the lack of it, that I would call the real issue.

Access to (and skillful application of) technology should by no means be a prerequisite to living a good life.
posted by edguardo at 10:27 AM on February 12, 2012


Well there's philosophy and there's wellbeing. Sadly the baseline of our lives is not a utopia, rather it is that life can be nasty, brutish and short. We should be thankful we have a tool that can lift people out of poverty and increase their opportunties for wealth, health and some freedom from the crush of hard work for basic subsistence. We should not forget to be grateful to be living in a time where for most of us (or most of us typing on the blue at least) life has been made easier by centuries of advantage created by scientific and technical advances. Railing at the unfairness of life and suggesting electrcity should not be necessary for a good life gets us nowhere. It is possible to live a good life without it, but with it, more people have more chances to be better off and have access to a greater range of decisons, enabling them to live both the good life and a good life.
posted by biffa at 10:47 AM on February 12, 2012


I think we can be concerned about poverty, and have an effective policy about poverty, without requiring everyone everywhere to be a consumer of refrigerators, space heaters, and light bulbs.

The lack of competitiveness arises earlier, when the poor countries of the world are essentially forbidden (by the World Bank, for example) from imposing tariffs on foreign goods, which would be a way to support the growth of local and domestic industries.

Call me back when we have a plan to get these people their own domestically produced and managed sources of electricity.

Because this can just as easily be construed as a marketing attempt for coal, oil, uranium, wind turbines, and solar panels, and not merely an exhortation to improve the lives of those pictured.
posted by edguardo at 10:53 AM on February 12, 2012


@Scientist: I am not sure what website you were looking at but I figured it out pretty easily. If you would like I can post links to the slideshows http://lifewithoutlights.com/#/ghana---nightly-life/Nightly_Life-6 which are on a nice white background and play on their own. Then you can comment on the actually photography rather then critiquing the portfolio template company/website host that the photographer uses.
posted by WickedPissah at 11:16 AM on February 12, 2012


and light bulbs

Until that mythical day, let us in the meantime use whatever means to effectively change lives. Teachers in rural off grid areas have told me that they can tell when a pupil's family installs solar light or obtains a cheap chinese LED light (78 leds and 85 hour charge type things go for $20, needing a 20 cent charging every couple of weeks).

The quality of their home work changes, they are more organized in their work, reading better and better rested. They aren't waking up early to get to school to do their homework nor burning their eyes with kerosene fumes. A subsistence farmer spent a significant amount of money to get a portable solar light that he uses ONLY for 2 hours a day for the kids to do homework.

How dare you sit there in your 24/7 electricity and mouth off on quality of life and consumer culture in the same breath as the benefits of modern energy? The day you're bringing 20litres of water on your back to save 20 cents instead of being able to pump it through you can talk about the prerequisites to the good life.
posted by infini at 11:34 AM on February 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


without requiring everyone everywhere to be a consumer of refrigerators, space heaters, and light bulbs.

They're not required to have them - but I think you will find they often want them. The items you list are incredibly desirable items which substantially improve the quality of lives. Simply having light bulbs allows for access to education outside working hours which can be incredibly transformative. it also allows for creation of social spaces, and provides other benefits. Space heating literally saves lives. It reduces the dangers of living in cold and damp environments and hugely improves the comfort levels of families. As noted in my previous comment making safe space heaters available will also reduce the health disbenefits of the alternatives (such as open stoves burning whatever crap is available) and potentially reduce the environmental impacts of burning gathered biomass. Refrigerators offer health benefits to small communities in terms of greater access to vaccines and medicines at the small scale, and at the larger scale offer greater opportunity for commerce (since food will keep and can be transported and stored for longer periods) and for easier home economics. If you want to see a world with less people reliant on space heaters, fridges and light bulbs I suggest you go to your fuse box and shit down your power, then while you sit in the cold and dark you can work on pulling your head out of the noble savage nonsense to seems to be stuck in.

The lack of competitiveness arises earlier, when the poor countries of the world are essentially forbidden (by the World Bank, for example) from imposing tariffs on foreign goods, which would be a way to support the growth of local and domestic industries.

Well there are all sorts of problems with the international trading system and its regulation, but that doesn't come remotely close to giving a reason for people in less wealthy countries not to have access to technology which can massively improve their quality of life. Trying to make some anti-globalisation political point which requires poor people to stay poor does nothing to help anyone.

Call me back when we have a plan to get these people their own domestically produced
and managed sources of electricity.


So basically you are not interested in making life better for people unless it can be done in the context of a perfect solution to the problem? The problem with being poor (besides that no-one lines up to give you money) is that you basically end up taking the cheapest opportunity to improve your lot. I am very much an advocate of renewable energy but it may be that some non-renewable technologies are needed to lift many people out of energy poverty - this may be a necessary evil, because it will do much good.

Since you bring up the potential for support of new renewable energy manufacturing industries in developing countries, I will also try to address it. The reason this does not happen a lot is that most renewable energy technologies are still at a fairly immature phase in their development. There are some exceptions to this: wind energy, biomass and solar thermal. The last is particularly interesting in this context since ~80% of the manufacturing capacity and demand for systems has been captured by Chinese companies. The total global capacity is >100GW (which is a lot) and China stands to export a lot of systems, since there is likely to be a growing global demand as other countries looks for zero carbon heating systems. China is able to do this since it is at the wealthier end of the spectrum of developing countries and is geared for industrial manufacturing. Less developed countries tend to struggle to be able to afford the level of investment needed to move a new technology forward along the maturity curve and so do not take the risk of entering the sector. Since, most western countries expect their private sectors to make most of the necessary investments to mature technologies then the IP will tend to belong to the companies concerned, making it difficult (and probably illegal) to justify forcing them to give the technology rights away. And once you do it once then you can pretty much guarantee no-one will be investing in the other new RE technologies we need to spend money on.
posted by biffa at 11:35 AM on February 12, 2012


biffa, to your last section, there are now an increasing number of solutions coming on the market as impact investing increases and organizations (via the World Bank) like Lighting Africa offer market research, support and funding opportunities for sustainable social enterprises to enter these challenging environments.
posted by infini at 11:39 AM on February 12, 2012


Also, thanks to China, you can pick up a basic 14W solar panel, four lights, a solar battery from Exide and have it installed for something like $100
posted by infini at 11:40 AM on February 12, 2012


Hi infini, I was just trying to keep the China example down to the one tech as my post was getting out of hand, while the driving down of PV costs (and hopeful democratisation this will imply) is a great step forward in some ways I think the solar thermal is more interesting due to the scale it has achieved, PV only produces about 1-2% of the energy we get from solar thermal globally but because a lot of PV growth has been in Europe while the large scale roll out of solar thermal has been focussed in China, PV gets a lot more coverage.

I agree that the situation is looking more interesting in Africa, and I understand there are a few countries which have instituted or are planning their own tariffs for RE, which is very positive. I have a contact in Ghana who is working on persuading his government of the potential of biomass for a decent scale of electrical generation and a move to use local resources would be great.
posted by biffa at 12:03 PM on February 12, 2012


How dare you sit there in your 24/7 electricity and mouth off on quality of life and consumer culture in the same breath as the benefits of modern energy? The day you're bringing 20litres of water on your back to save 20 cents instead of being able to pump it through you can talk about the prerequisites to the good life.

Because I have never been to an extremely poor country, I am hesitant to believe I know what is best for them. What I am far more comfortable saying is that the way people live in the United States is not a way I would recommend people to live. The idea that the West can or should serve as a model for future development is very suspicious to me.

North America and Europe are not model regions for health and happiness, despite having all those amenities and more.

I sincerely hope that developing countries develop (in the sense of technological development) in a healthier and more responsible direction than we have in the U.S. Maybe I am overly skeptical, but I just don't see that happening if the tools and blueprints for this development are sold to them by people who fucked it up when they did it.

Please don't misunderstand me to be saying that we should keep technology from people, or not give assistance when asked. On the contrary, I oppose intellectual property laws generally, because, among other reasons, I think IP helps keep poor people poor.

In a nutshell, I'm just suspicious of the stubbornly enduring desire to "Westernize" the world, and I see our obsession with 24/7 electric lumination as a dubiously valuable part of Western culture.
posted by edguardo at 12:48 PM on February 12, 2012


Sort of like Alfred Nobel's dilemma innit?
posted by infini at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2012


How so?

I'm pretty sure the world wasn't improved by the invention of dynamite.

"You know what this place needs?"

"What, Alfred?"

"A way to blow shit up easier."

"My God, Alfred, you're a genius!"
posted by edguardo at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2012


Railway tunnels didn't improve the world?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:41 PM on February 12, 2012


Even granted that railway tunnels are a good thing, I think we should weigh the benefits of dynamite against the harm done to the environment and to human beings.

You know, Ted Taylor, in a desperate search for non-military uses of the nuclear bomb, wanted to carve out subway tunnels with shaped nuclear charges.

Would a high-speed subway from New York to Los Angeles be worth even the possibility of mass murders like Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
posted by edguardo at 1:49 PM on February 12, 2012


The "developing" world's people are not happy to sit around waiting for some utopian mode of energy generation. They need electricity now. I don't think many people understand this sense of urgency.

If you stop them from using thermal, nuclear and hydro power generation because, hey, ENVIRONMENT, then the alternative for them is to sit around in the dark and do nothing while the food rots, children can't study, vaccines expire, medical care is non-existent.. and I can go on and on, but it amazes me that anyone can imagine a healthy and basic human existence for billions of people in this world without there being reliable energy supply.

I grew up in that unreliable world, and I don't want to go back to that existence, thank you very much. Sure, thermal power generation fucks up the environment, but the environment was being fucked for hundreds of years before people like me got to have thermal electricity supply to our homes. And now, for the "developed" world to tell us to not burn coal because, hey, ENVIRONMENT, sounds like the continuation of a remarkably abusive developed-developing relationship.

If you can't give me clean, cost-effective energy right away, then don't ask me to give up my dirty, wonderful, sooty electricity right now either, because there is no way I am going back to the dark days peacefully.
posted by vidur at 2:50 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Related: Bringing light to the poor, one liter at a time.
posted by unliteral at 2:59 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


In a nutshell, I'm just suspicious of the stubbornly enduring desire to "Westernize" the world.

I think there's a bit of noble-savaging going on here. Most people in most developing countries ferociously want to "westernize" their lives - and why wouldn't they? Western life, for all its unsustainability, high consumption and waste, is totally frickin' awesome compared to what they have now.

You don't get to recommend people in other countries follow any particular model. They choose for themselves, just as we did, and let me tell you buddy with the colonial baggage most developed/developing countries have, efforts to make recommendations are treated with extreme skepticism by the people those recommendations effect.
posted by smoke at 3:15 PM on February 12, 2012


I did fieldwork on an island which only had electricity for a few hours a day (diesel generator). It was amazing both how dark the darkness was on moonless nights, and how bright full moon seemed when it came round.

Also mealtimes were way more regular and consistent, both within families, and across the population, than they are in any other place I know. You have to cook within the one hour period that the electricity is on. If you sleep in, you don't get a hot breakfast. If you miss lunch, you eat raw fish, or pick yourself a coconut.

And you also boil a lot of water and keep it in thermoses for the rest of the day, or else there's no tea and coffee for you.

As a linguist trying to make recordings, it's difficult too, because the times when the generator is on are the times everyone is most sociable - sitting around eating, drinking, cooking together, or doing communal building or craft projects that require electricity. (When it's off people go to bed, sleep in hammocks, go off fishing or hunting, go to school, or go to church/prayer meetings.) So it's when it's on that you'd like to make recordings of natural conversation. But that's also the time when the whole island reverberates with a steady WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP in the background that's not easy to filter out of your recordings.
posted by lollusc at 5:19 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow. I can accept somebody who hasn't visited a poor country being ignorant of conditions (kind of?) but to say Call me back when we have a plan to get these people their own domestically produced and managed sources of electricity.
is astonishingly callous.
Perhaps you could turn off you electricity for a few months and tell us which elements of western life, like light, refrigeration etc. are undesirable?
posted by bystander at 11:03 PM on February 13, 2012


As an aside, solar thermal for hot water is big in Fiji. It seemed every house had a solar system installed. Yay for appropriate technology!
I can see that the downside of McDonalds, Jersey Shore, mountain top mining, and whatever else fits in a definition of undesirable westernization, but lights, food preservation and clean water are pretty high up on the desirable list, however the power is generated.
posted by bystander at 11:15 PM on February 13, 2012


Ironically, its remote places that will go for sustainable solutions sooner simply because there's more sunlight/wind/whatever than refined fuel or substations. I wouldn't be surprised if the leapfrogging of old tech happened for electricity/energy just the way mobile phones leapfrogged landline infrastructure across the most challenging parts of the world. I'm typing this with 3G cellular signal (sim card modem) from a place you've never heard of.
posted by infini at 7:30 AM on February 14, 2012


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