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close this bookEnergy as an Instrument for Socio-economic Development (UNDP, 1995, 114 p.)
View the document1. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development
View the document2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards
View the document3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation
View the document4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective

1. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development


During the 1970s and 1980s, it became fashionable to think of energy as a goal in itself. The vagaries of the international oil market put energy development on a par with socio-economic development and environmental protection. More recently, many people take the opposite position that energy is simply one more product to be obtained through the market. My view, despite being an energy specialist, is different from both of these extremes. The most important goal is integrated sustainable human development for each and every person, male and female.

Energy is a fundamental and strategic tool to attain a minimum quality of life. This chapter examines how and why energy can contribute positively to sustainable development, and assesses how the potentially negative impacts of energy systems on human and natural environments can be minimized.

Human Development and Energy Consumption

The Human Development Index (HDI) developed by UNDP is one way of measuring how well countries are meeting, not just the economic, but also the social needs of their people, that is, their quality of life. The HDI is calculated on the basis of a simple average of life expectancy, educational level, and per capita gross domestic product (as measured by purchasing power).2 The HDI measures performance by expressing a value between 0 (poorest performance) and 1 (ideal performance).

It is useful to look at the historical influence of energy consumption on the achievement of certain levels of human development or quality of life. For this purpose, HDI values were analyzed in relation to per capita commercial energy consumption for all countries, developed and developing, for which data on both variables were available. Only commercial energy was used for this analysis because the data available for non-commercial energy (mainly biomass) are not of the same quality. Moreover, because non-commercial energy sources are used with low efficiency, the results of combining the two could be contradictory.

Figure 1.1 - Estimated Relationship Between HDI and Per Capita Energy Consumption 1991-1992

Note: Data for 100 developed and developing countries.

Source: Author's calculations based on data in United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1992, 1993, 1994 editions (New York: Oxford University Press).

The statistical analysis presented shows clearly that energy has a determinant influence on the HDI, particularly in the early stages of development, in which the vast majority of the world's people, particularly women and children, find themselves (see Figure 1.1). It also shows that the influence of per capita energy consumption on the HDI begins to decline somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of oil equivalent (koe) per inhabitant. Thereafter, even with a tripling in energy consumption, the HDI does not increase.3 Thus, from approximately 1,000 koe per capita, the strong positive covariance of energy consumption with HDI starts to diminish. Additional increases in HDI are more closely correlated to the other variables chosen to define it (life expectancy, educational level, and per capita income).

A similar diagram for the period 1960-65 for the same countries makes the point even more dramatically (see Figure 1.2). During this period, HDI also increased more rapidly than energy consumption and then stabilized, beginning at about 3,000 koe per capita.4

Figure 1.2 - Estimated Relationship Between HDI and Per Capita Energy Consumption 1960-1965

Note: Data for 100 developed and developing countries.

Source: Author's calculations based on data in United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1992, 1993, 1994 editions (New York: Oxford University Press).

Figure 1.3 - Comparison of HDI/Per Capita Energy Consumption Relationship, 1960 and 1991

Note: Data for 100 developed and developing countries.

Source: Author's calculations based on data in United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1992, 1993, 1994 editions (New York: Oxford University Press).

Figure 1.3 shows the distribution curve for the two periods (1960-65 and 1991-92). Although there is a general increase in HDI in the thirty years between the two periods, the level of energy consumption, at which further increases in HDI no longer occur, is virtually the same. On the other hand, a level of 1,000 koe per capita per year could be enough to support a reasonable level of development if it could be used efficiently from a technological point of view in both developing and industrialized countries.5

The developing countries are all located in the first part of the curve; this is particularly true of the lower income sectors in developing countries. It is, therefore, essential to find ways of increasing their (useful) energy availability On the other hand, the industrialized countries are located in a section of the curve where an increase in energy consumption not only does not improve life quality, but can even deteriorate it; this is also true of the higher income sectors in some developing countries. Thus, there is need for strict energy conservation policies in high-energy-consumption areas.6

In the face of these realities, does it make sense to continue to project increases in commercial energy consumption for the countries that consume the largest amounts of energy (sometimes estimated to reach 10,000 to 15,000 koe per capita by the year 2025)? Today, there are still 81 countries, with a total population of 4,750 million people (87 per cent of the world's population) that have not yet reached 3,000 koe per capita, and 62 countries, with a combined population of 3,800 million people (70 per cent of the world's population) that do not use even 1,000 koe per capita and have an HDI ranging from 0.19 to 0.80.

The duality that already exists between rich and poor will only increase if the world does not secure a more equitable distribution of resources in general, and energy in particular. The result will be a majority that cannot meet even its most basic needs and a minority that diminishes its quality of life (as measured in HDI and other indicators) through overconsumption and the resulting environmental deterioration. This reality can already be observed today in large urban areas, which are being choked by air pollution.

The trend toward increased duality and inequity is already evident. Income disparity, in both developing and industrialized countries, is growing, as studies on HDI and distribution of wealth have demonstrated.7 In 1960 and 1970, the ratio of the world income share between the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population was approximately 30 to 1, during a period when there was a high rate of global economic growth. In 1980, that ratio increased to 45 to 1, and by 1990, it had reached 61 to 1, with a simultaneous decrease in global economic growth (see Figure 1.4).

This means that inequity in income distribution has grown almost constantly since 1960, but especially since the 1980s. Moreover, this deterioration has not only affected the poorest 20 per cent; the next 60 per cent have drastically reduced their participation in the economy as well (see Table 1.1). If the socio-economic and energy strategies of the last ten or fifteen years are not rapidly modified, it will be impossible to lower the income and energy consumption gaps between the highest and lowest income level.

These analyses of income distribution and relative levels of consumption in developing and industrialized countries do not, in any way, mean that rational use of energy, or conservation based on efficient energy use, is not a necessary policy for developing as well as industrialized countries, in order to avoid repeating in the future the mistakes made in the past by the industrialized countries.

Figure 1.4 - Evolution of Global Per Capita Income Disparity, 1960-1991 (poorest 20% = 1)

Table 1.1 - Global Income Disparity, 1960-1991 (percentage of international income)

World population percentage





Poorest 20%





Middle 60%





Richest 20%





Gini's coefficient





Richest 20%

Poorest 20%





Richest 20%

Middle 60%





Source: Author based on United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1992, 1993, 1994 editions (New York: Oxford University Press).

Energy Consumption and Population

One issue that has received much attention during recent years is the relationship between population size and growth rate on the one hand, and energy production and use on the other. This issue has been particularly raised in the context of gas emissions contributing to the greenhouse effect. Figure 1.5 shows the relationship between energy consumption and per capita income for an urban area of Ethiopia in the early 1980s. It illustrates the inverse relationship that exists between family size and per capita energy consumption for the same income level; the smaller the size of family, the larger the total energy consumption in a system with a similar number of people with a specific income level. Those advocating population control measures should recognize that the consequence of aggressive policies to reduce population size may not produce a proportional decrease in the consumption of energy and other resources.8

In addition, the strong urbanization process taking place in nearly every developing country will lead to additional increases in energy needs. Urbanization creates substantial increases in energy consumption per capita, particularly of commercial energy; this is due to residential consumption as much as to transportation and production activities. This increased consumption is generally accompanied by a change in the structure of energy sources, increasing the demand for oil products, gaseous fuels, and electricity.9

Figure 1.5 - Relationship Between Consumption of Useful Energy and Per Capita Monthly Income, Ethiopia, Urban Area

Notes: Mcal = Mega calories = 1 billion calories. Birr = local currency in Ethiopia.

Source: Author's elaboration based on Energia Domani, CESEN, Vol. VI, No. 31/32 (February 1983).

These problems are not new, but analysis of the population problem and its deep roots seems to be moving backward instead of forward in recognizing them. Attention to population in recent years has moved too much toward simply promoting birth control, by more or less voluntary clinical methods; it has moved away from a comprehensive approach to human development. Even the attention to the need for improved education for women is more related to the possibility of success in using clinical birth control methods than to a vision of total and sustainable human development.

Twenty years ago, the Latin American World Model, developed by Fundaciariloche under the direction of Dr. A. Herrera, clearly set forth this issue: ".... the demographic variable is influenced by concrete factors like housing, education and food. Therefore, for economic growth to have an influence on population evolution, it is necessary to direct it specifically to the satisfaction of the basic needs of the majority of the community members.... Historical evidence and demographic development in the countries... suggest that the improvement of general welfare conditions is the most important factor in order to reduce fertility." The report's conclusion stated: "The model also shows that population growth can be controlled until it reaches the state of equilibrium, by means of a general improvement in life conditions, especially those related to basic needs. "10

Unfortunately, during the last twenty years, the world has pursued a different path. It would be most desirable if the United Nations would take steps, beginning at the U.N. Conference on Women and Development in Beijing in September 1995, to move toward a path of sustainable human development for the majority of the world's people.

To move in this direction, economic growth must be oriented to the satisfaction of basic needs, and not to overconsumption. This will require an adequate quantity of useful energy (i.e., energy services) that is not substantially higher than the present world average (1,500 koe per capita). This, however, is much higher than the global average for developing countries (500 koe per capita).

Energy Requirements in Developing Countries

In developing countries, energy requirements must be distinguished from energy demand, which only reflects transactions taking place through a market. However, a large proportion of total energy consumption in developing countries does not take place through commercial markets. Additionally, some requirements are not met because of supply restrictions or because potential consumers have physical or economic restrictions that make access to energy sources impossible.

Social and economic systems and conditions in developing countries are highly diverse, and these distinctions must be taken into consideration in discussing energy needs. Conditions vary between urban and rural areas and between income levels, with marginal sectors having totally different requirements. Modes of production vary considerably. In rural areas, they may range from subsistence farming, to intermediate commercial systems that supply local requirements, to modern export-oriented systems. In manufacturing, modes of production can range from craft activities, to small- and medium-sized industries, to large high-technology industries. Transportation can range from traditional informal systems based on human and/or animal energy, to organized public and private systems using modern technology in large urban areas. Similarly, the services sectors include everything form informal, individual activities to modern services utilizing sophisticated technology.

This diversity means that analyses that consider developing-country energy needs simply in terms of cooking and fuel-wood use miss the full scope of the energy problem. They cannot possibly recognize the enormous gap that exists between current consumption levels and the minimum reasonable requirements of the many sectors in which developing-country populations are engaged.

To adequately determine the energy requirements of the domestic sector of developing countries, it is necessary to consider: a) the distribution of present and future income; b) the population distribution between rural and urban areas, including migration; c) the demographic characteristics that determine family size and population growth; and d) human needs in general, not simply basic needs. Attempting to estimate energy consumption on the basis of income and population alone is reductionist and can lead to serious mistakes.

The same activity, product, or service can be obtained through a variety of production modes, each of which has different levels of energy consumption that can be obtained from a variety of sources. Thus, what is required is a detailed study of the technology associated with each production mode, taking account of not only specific energy inputs, but also the energy associated with other inputs or production factors. Thus, for example, in the agricultural sector, attention should be given to use of human and animal energy in order to assess the likelihood of eventual substitution or of efficiency improvements in utilization.

Studies of rural areas should not look at energy in isolation, but should look at prospects for integrated rural development in which energy is an instrument of development, not an end in itself. This means simultaneously considering problems of water supply, increased productivity, marketing, business organization, etc.

In the industrial sector, it is necessary to examine which technologies are most suitable to the particular conditions and the available natural and energy resources of a country. In addition, it must be recognized that agro-industries are a significant industrial sector whose energy requirements must be carefully assessed (just as the energy requirements of steel or petrochemicals are assessed in industrialized countries).

Other examples could be cited. But the main point is that energy problems of developing countries must be assessed from their own real situations. It is not enough to simply transplant analytic frameworks, technologies, or solutions that were developed for the very different conditions, resources, and social and cultural patterns of the industrialized countries.

Figure 1.6 - Global Reductions in Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 1970-1985 (Tn c/Toe)

Note: Tn c/Toe is tonnes of carbon released as carbon dioxide per tonne of oil equivalent of energy con-

Energy Supply in Developing Countries

Similarly, the particular characteristics of developing countries must be considered in assessing energy supply. These characteristics frequently include: a) highly dispersed demand, which in turn complicates supply systems; b) insufficiently developed local energy sources; c) diversity of available systems and technologies (including, for example, such old technologies as firewood stoves and such new technologies as micro computers); d) dependence on foreign appliances and research and development; and e) lack of adequately trained and experienced human resources.

Many developing countries have energy resources (such as biomass, hydroelectricity, coal, hydrocarbons, solar energy, geothermal energy, and uranium) that are not developed because they are not large enough or positioned in the wrong location to have economies of scale of interest to the international market. Yet from a local viewpoint, they could contribute to increasing energy self-sufficiency and to reducing the impact of energy on the country's balance of payments. These local resources have the additional advantage of being renewable if they are properly managed; they also provide additional benefits that contribute toward achieving integrated development.11 These energy sources also play a role in controlling greenhouse gases, both locally and globally.

The Environmental Impacts of Energy Systems

The reasons for building and running an energy system are to produce a positive impact on the human environment, to improve the quality of human life, and to achieve sustainable and integrated human development. But there are no "free meals" in any human activity. Energy systems also create negative impacts on nature and on human beings, and these must be reduced to a minimum.

All forms of energy have some kind of negative impact on the natural and social environment. The existence, magnitude, and scope of these impacts are not always recognized by those evaluating energy systems. For many years, thousands of miners and laborers were killed or injured in different stages of exploiting conventional energy sources, and few voices were raised in protest. Today, the potential risk that nuclear energy poses to the inhabitants of large urban areas provokes angry protests.

One objective in developing energy systems must be to minimize the negative impact of energy use on nature and on human beings, no matter what their social condition and status. Examples of energy use with potentially large negative impacts are: a) the demand for firewood and charcoal in urban areas in countries where these energy source predominate, and b) the construction of hydroelectric dams.

Yet hydroelectricity and other renewable sources of energy, including wind and solar energy, have the potential to help reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the massive development of hydro-electricity between the 1960s and 1980s made that region the lowest in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy consumed. Between 1975 and 1985, Latin America and the Caribbean attained the greatest reduction in the index measuring carbon dioxide emissions (see Figure 1.6 and 1.7).12 Unfortunately, progress in this area has slowed, in large part because of the economic and financial crisis linked to the external debt, currently evident in Mexico. Institutional changes (discussed below) have also contributed to slowing progress in this area.

The best means of preventing the negative impacts of energy consumption on the natural and human environment is not consuming or producing energy. But as the chapters in this volume make amply clear, developing countries must increase their level of energy services - i.e., their useful energy consumption - if they are to achieve sustainable human development. Thus, the solution must not necessarily be to increase supply, but to focus on a Rational Use of Energy (RUE), energy conservation, and adequate Demand Side Management (DSM). This is particularly true in urban areas and in activities related to transportation, industrial production, and services.

Rational use of energy and energy conservation are not contradictory with the need to increase energy services. Moreover, it is both possible and necessary to apply these principles not only in developing countries, but in industrialized countries as well.

Figure 1.7 - Global Decarbonization of Energy (Tn c/Toe)

Note: Tn c/Toe is tonnes of carbon released as carbon dioxide per tonne of oil equivalent of energy consumed. Source: C.E. Suz et al., La Energen el Mundo (Bariloche: IDEE/FB, 1994).

Energy and Institutional Policies

Integral energy planning is essential to overcoming the many limitations that inhibit sustainable energy strategies. These limitations include:

· the complex relationship between the need to provide better energy services and the need to limit total energy consumption;

· the inertia in current supply patterns and in the cultural and social patterns that determine consumption;

· the limited human, natural, and financial resources available to developing countries for addressing energy problems;

· the inability of imperfect or non-existent markets to ensure a just balance between energy requirements and energy supply, at least in the short term; and

· the difficulty, even in perfect markets, of balancing the needs of present and future generations or of considering environmental problems associated with energy production and use.

If developing countries are to adequately pursue Integral Energy Planning, based on their own resources, interests, and problems, they must form technical teams that are well trained for these tasks and that have access to the centers of government, where decision-making power rests. Moreover, planning must be a participatory process in which all those affected take part, including users, producers, workers, professionals, enterprises, and local, regional, and national interest groups.

Planning must be a continuous, iterative process that first assesses energy requirements consistent with sustainable human development objectives and the lifestyle preferences of the whole population. These objectives and preferences should then be pursued through a supply system that is autonomous, safe, and fair and that limits as much as possible the socio-economic costs of doing so. The supply and consumption systems must try to maximize the positive effects on the social and economic systems, and to minimize the negatives ones. Implementing the resulting plans will require preparing concrete projects, designing suitable policies, and having an effective and efficient system of management control.

These recommendations are consistent with recent documents published by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. But they seem contradictory to the current environment in which governments and international organizations are promoting privatization, deregulation, and indiscriminate openness to other countries, not only in developing countries, but in some industrialized countries as well. Nevertheless, the recommendations outlined here are not only appropriate, but essential. In the case of energy, ownership of the means of production, transportation, and distribution is not sufficient to ensure adequate performance (which entails much more than just microeconomic efficiency); it can, in fact, be self-defeating in terms of such important criteria as equity, solidarity, and adequate satisfaction of basic needs.

In addition, the concepts of privatization and deregulation are contradictory in the case of the energy sector, where, despite recent technological advances, markets are still basically monopolistic, monopsonistic, or oligopolistic. Privatization generally requires even more and more complex regulations, as well as the technical and economic capacity, and the economic and political power, to implement it. All of these are rare in developing countries.

With respect to indiscriminate opening to the external market, it is useful to observe that every industrialized country, at the moment of its economic take-off, erected tariff barriers to protect its nascent industries, just as the economic unions currently forming in many geographic regions are establishing a common external tax. These same countries also subsidize agricultural products and hinder international commerce through custom duties and other measures. Today, industrialized countries are expanding these measures to include taxes on labor and environmental violations, on the basis of defending human rights or protecting the environment, even though these same countries historically made extensive use of slavery and indiscriminately exploited nature.

Finally, there is a basic issue that the proponents of deregulated privatization ignore. The problems of protecting the natural and social environment, the sustainable exploitation of renewable and non-renewable resources, the conservation and rational use of energy, and the development of new and renewable sources of energy (hydro, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal), all require high initial investment that is recuperated over the system's lifespan with a reduced operating cost.

This implies that, for these issues to be addressed and new technologies and energy sources to be pursued, there must be reduced profit rates. This is directly and clearly contradictory to the fashionable international recipe for deregulated privatization, which would require a high internal race of return in order to pursue a search for alternatives instead of the low internal rates of return that are needed to develop environmentally sound and sustainable solutions.

This assertion is not simply theory or ideological opinion. It is confirmed by the experience of two recent cases of privatization of electric systems, in Argentina and the United Kingdom. In both cases, the utilities shifted all new investment to gas turbines fueled by natural gas, open cycle in the first case and combined cycle in the second. In Argentina, gas turbines replaced the previous options of hydroelectric and/or nuclear power plants; in the United Kingdom, they replaced nuclear power plants.13 Both decisions were contrary to the objective of reducing emissions of contaminating gases into the atmosphere - decisions to which their governments had agreed at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.14

Sustainable, integrated, equitable human development will remain impossible as long as short-term, market criteria prevail, and as long as societies and their governments lack adequate mechanisms to prevent common resources (air, water, lands, renewable and non-renewable natural resources, and general health) from being appropriated for private benefit. Positive aims - proclaimed in speeches, declarations, development proposals, and supposedly compulsory international agreements - are regularly contradicted by the policies and behaviours pursued by national governments and international agencies.

The root causes of poverty, misery, marginality, and exploitation continue to prevail in most of the world today, although the mechanisms are subtler, consisting of economic and technological control rather than geopolitical colonialism, and labour flexibility rather than slavery. If we do not analyze these root causes, understand them, and fight them, no real solutions will be possible. We will continue, just as in the past, to propose only local and marginal charitable measures that attack only the most visible manifestations of the problems caused by current policies.15

This view will be regarded by some as scandalous and irrelevant, but it is essential to examine the underlying causes of problems, to identify them honestly, and to address them in entirety, not just their most visible consequences.


1 Carlos E. Suz (Chem. Eng.) is Full Professor at Instituto de Economia Energca (IDEE/FB) and Executive President of Fundaciariloche.

I wish to thank Roberta Kozulj and Fabiana del Poppolo's contribution to the analysis and study of the relation between HDI, energy consumption, and gross domestic product. I am also grateful for the very valuable comments of Hor Pistonesi, President of IDEE/FB. However, the errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author, and so are the opinions expressed in this paper.

2 See United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press, May 1994). The HDI is calculated on the basis of a simple average of life expectancy, educational level and GDP/capita for each country

Ideally, both commercial and non-commercial energy consumption should be taken into account, but there are no homogeneous data available to do so. The general conclusions would not be significantly modified.

The relation between HDI and energy consumption per capita was derived on the basis of the model HDI = a + b (EN/H)1/3 . Using HDI data for 1992 and data on energy consumption per capita for 1991, the results were the following:

HDI = 0.999 - 2.551/(EN/H)1/3; R2 = 0.81

3 Albany, Gabon, Iran, Malaysia and Syria consumed approximately 1000 koe per capita in 1991. Belgium, Ireland, Oman, Poland, Rumania, and Venezuela consumed approximately 3,000 koe per capita in 1991. Canada, the United States, and Norway consumed approximately 9,000 koe per capita in 1991.

4 In this case, a semi logarithmic model was utilized. The results were the following:

HDI = -0.261 + 0.122 (EN/H)1/3 R2= 0.78

5 J. Goldemberg et al., "Basic Needs and Much More with One Kilowatt Per Capita," Ambio (1985), pp. 190-200.

6 C.E. Suz, "Human Development and Energy: A View from the Developing Countries," in Carlos Chagas and Umberto Colombo (eds.), Energy for Survival and Development (Study week of the Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum, June 11-14, 1984), pp. 93-116. (Spanish version available, CIAS, Desarrollo Humano y Energ Un Enfoque Desde los Pas en V de Desarrollo, Vol. XXXIII, No. 334, July 1984, pp. 5-29).

7 United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report (1992, 1993, 1994 editions).

8 C.E. Suz, "Human Development and Energy."

9 C.E. Suz, "Presiones Demogrcas y UrbanizaciSus Efectos Sobre la Demanda y la Sustitucinergca," presented at the Seminar on Energy and Economic Development in the Third World, Quebec, October 24-26, 1990.

10 A.O. Herrera, Catastrophe or New Society: A Latin American World Model (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1976). Versions available in Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Rumanian, and Spanish.

11 C.E. Suz, "Human Development and Energy."

12 C.E. Suz et al., La Energen el Mundo (Bariloche: IDEE/FB, 1994).

13 It should be noted that, in the case of Argentina, the decisions were made prior to the move toward privatization. In the case of Britain, from an environmental standpoint, the natural gas option was better than an equivalent coal plant.

14 "Les rltats de la rrme de l'industrie ctrique en Argentine", Graciela D de Hasson, in Revue de I'Energie, N° 465, janvier-fier 1995.

15 J.L. Coraggio, "Las Nuevas Polcas Sociales: El Papel de las Agendas Multilaterales," prepared for a workshop conducted by CEUR-UNBA, Buenos Aires, October 26-28, 1994; and F. Malimacci, "Estrategias de Lucha Contra la Pobreza y el Desempleo Estructural: Dise Gestie Polcas Sociales en un Marco de Globalizaciconomica e Integraciegional," October 26-28, 1994.

2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards


Poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. While growing pockets of poverty are visible even in the industrialized world, "the fundamental reality of developing countries is the poverty of the majority of human beings who live in them."2 Whether measured in terms of nutrition levels, health and education status, income and employment, or quality of shelter, a majority of people in the developing world exist at sub-standard levels, where the struggle for daily survival is unending. The chief characteristic of poverty is that basic human needs - food, shelter, health care, education, and livelihoods - remain unfulfilled.

It is tempting to associate poverty with inadequate energy consumption, but to simply correlate these two conditions obscures the fact that the poor use energy very inefficiently, primarily because the technologies available to them are abysmally inefficient.

The real determinant of poverty is the level of services that energy provides - heat for cooking and illumination, accessible water supply for personal and domestic needs, enhanced productivity of labor, etc. In the face of inadequate inanimate energy and of a lack of access to efficient technologies of energy use, the poor are forced to depend on their own labor, animal power, and biomass energy resources to meet their survival needs. Poverty and scarcity of energy services go hand in hand, and exist in a synergistic relationship.

Recognizing the importance of this relationship increases the range of options for addressing poverty; the goal must become not just increasing the magnitude of energy consumption, but also (and even more importantly) improving the efficiency of energy utilization. To reduce poverty and improve living standards, energy services must be dramatically augmented. This is the challenge, a challenge that is aggravated by growing populations already facing shortages of inanimate energy. Failure will contribute to perpetuating poverty, and success can lead to the achievement of equitable, ecologically sound and sustainable development.

Village Energy Consumption Patterns

The vast majority of the world's poor live in rural areas, mostly in villages. In order to understand how low levels of energy services become an obstacle to improving living standards, it is necessary to first examine the nature of energy consumption patterns at the village level.

Several studies have examined patterns of energy consumption in villages. One of the earliest was a study of six villages in the Ungra region of Tumkur District, Karnataka State, South India, carried out in the late 1970s.3

Table 2.1 - Pura Energy Source-Activity Matrix 1977 (×106 kcals/year)



























































Total energy = 928 × 106 kcal/year; = 1.079 × 106 Wht/year; = 2955 kWht/day; 8.28 kWht/day/capita

One of these villages was Pura, which, in September 1977, had a population of 357 in 56 households. It is 671 metres above sea level and had an average annual rainfall of 127 centimeters per year. It utilized energy for the following activities:4

· agricultural operations (with ragi and rice as the main crops),

· domestic activities (grazing livestock, cooking, gathering fuel-wood, and fetching water for domestic use, particularly drinking),

· lighting, and

· industry (pottery, flour mill, and coffee shop).

These activities were achieved with human beings, bullocks, fuelwood, kerosene, and electricity as direct sources of energy.

Table 2.1 is a matrix showing the relative importance of each of these sources for the various activities, as well as the relative importance of each of the activities.5. A ranking of energy sources (in order of percentage of annual requirement) shows that fuelwood provided by far the greatest amount of energy: 1) fuelwood, 89 per cent; 2) human energy, 7 per cent; 3) kerosene, 2 per cent; 4) bullock energy, 1 per cent; and 5) electricity, 1 per cent. A ranking of activities requiring energy shows that by far the greatest need was for domestic activities: 1) domestic activities, 91 per cent; 2) industry, 4 per cent; 3) agriculture, 3 per cent; and 4) lighting, 2 per cent.

Human energy and fuelwood were both used primarily for domestic activities. Bullock energy was used entirely for agriculture, including transport. Kerosene was used predominantly for lighting, and electricity mainly for agriculture (65 per cent) and lighting (28 per cent), with a small amount used for industry (7 per cent).

Several features of the patterns of energy consumption in Pura deserve highlighting:

· What is conventionally referred to as commercial energy (i.e., kerosene and electricity in the case of Pura) accounted for a mere 3 per cent of the inanimate energy used in the village, with the remaining 97 per cent coming from fuelwood.6 Further, fuelwood must be viewed as a non-commercial source, since only about 4 per cent of the total fuelwood requirement of Pura was purchased as a commodity, with the rest gathered at zero private cost.

· Animate sources (human beings and bullocks) only accounted for about 8 per cent of the total energy, but the real significance of this contribution is revealed by the fact that these animate sources represented 77 per cent of the energy used in Pura's agriculture. In fact, this percentage would have been much higher were it not for the operation of four electrical pumpsets in Pura, which accounted for 23 per cent of the total agricultural energy.

· Virtually all of Pura's energy consumption came from traditional renewable sources - thus, agriculture was largely based on human beings and bullocks, and domestic cooking utilized 19 per cent of the human energy and 80 per cent of the total inanimate energy (entirely fuelwood).7

· This pattern of dependence on renewable resources, although environmentally sound, was achieved at an exorbitant price: levels of agricultural productivity were low, and large amounts of human energy were spent on fuelwood gathering (on the average, about two to six hours spent travelling four to eight kilometres per day per family to collect about 10 kilograms fuelwood).

· Fetching water for domestic consumption also utilized a great deal of human energy (an average of one to five hours travelling up to six kilometers per day per household) to achieve an extremely low per capita water consumption of 17 liters per day

· Of the human energy for domestic activities, 46 per cent was spent on grazing livestock (5 to 8 hours/day/household), a crucial source of supplementary household income.

· Women provided the major part of human labour (53 per cent), especially in gathering fuel (42 per cent), fetching water (80 per cent), grazing livestock (15 per cent), and agriculture (44 per cent). Their labour contributions were vital to the survival of families, a point now well established in the global literature, but still neglected by planners and policy-makers.

· Similarly, children contributed a crucial share of the labour for gathering fuelwood (25 per cent), fetching water (14 per cent), and grazing livestock (33 per cent). The critical importance of children's labour contributions in poor households has significant implications for population and education policies and programmes - but again, largely ignored.

· Only 25 per cent of the houses in the "electrified" village of Pura had domestic connections for electric lighting; the remaining 75 per cent depended on kerosene lamps, and of these lamps, three quarters were open-wick type.

· A very small amount of electricity (30 kWh/day), flowed into Pura, and even this was distributed in a highly inegalitarian way - 65 per cent going to the four irrigation pumpsets of three landowners, 28 per cent to illuminate 14 out of 56 houses, and the remaining 7 per cent to a single flour-mill owner.

Table 2.2 shows the end-uses of human energy in Pura in 1977. Its inhabitants, particularly the women and children, suffered burdens that have been largely eliminated in urban settings utilizing inanimate energy. For example, gathering fuelwood and fetching water can be eliminated when cooking fuel and water are provided as public services.

Table 2.2 - End-Uses of Human Energy in Pura, 1977

Human Energy Expenditure

Human Activity


Hours/day/ Household

kcal/ year × 106

1. Domestic




1.1. Livestock grazing




1.2. Cooking




1.3. Fuelwood gathering




1.4. Fetching Water




2. Agriculture




3, Industry








Since the Pura study, many studies of rural energy consumption patterns have been conducted in developing countries.8 The specific numbers vary, depending upon region, agro-climatic zone, proximity to forests, availability of crop residues, prevalent cropping pattern, etc., but the broad features of Pura's energy consumption pattern outlined here were generally validated.

Poor Pay High Price for Low Levels of Energy Services

The poor pay a much higher price for their energy services than any other group in society The price can be measured in terms of time and labour, economics, health, and social inequity, particularly for women.


The return per unit of human time and labour invested in vital subsistence and productive activities is very low in the absence of other energy sources and/or labour-saving technologies. For example, a round trek of seven to ten kilometres, requiring about four to six hours of a woman's time, may yield only enough firewood for one day's cooking and heating needs in a household of four to five persons.9 An urban middle-class household, in contrast, may spend less than one tenth of the time and labour for the same result.

Studies also show a high correlation between land ownership and access to biomass for fuel and fodder. This traps the landless poor, especially poor women, in a subsistence level of living with low productivity; meeting basic needs for fuel, food, fodder, and water consumes enormous quantities of time and labour that cannot be diverted to more productive or life-enhancing activities.


The direct and indirect unit cost of the energy needed to fulfill basic needs is much higher for the poor than the relatively affluent. Not only is the cost of economic opportunities lost much higher, but the actual cost of energy used for a specific activity (e.g., cooking) is also much greater.10 In addition, there is the ecological price of the poor's forced dependence on inefficient biomass-based technologies (e.g., open cookstoves) in the absence of alternative energy sources.

Lack of available energy has economic costs not just at the individual and household level, but at the national level as well. Agriculture and industry are essential to economic growth in poor countries. Yet their development is dependent on energy supplies. Energy shortages also introduce biases in the distribution of available energy resources; politically powerful groups can influence decision-making about energy policies to advance their own interests at the cost of the majority. This hinders the economic advancement of the poor, which in turn affects the economic development of the country as a whole.


The serious gender and health implications of rural energy consumption patterns have been brought out in several studies.11 Among the most serious costs of energy scarcity for the poor are the range of health problems it causes; women and children are particularly affected, both directly and indirectly, by dependence on increasingly scarce biomass to meet daily subsistence needs.

Health Hazards of Biomass Cooking Fuels. The World Health Organization has estimated that "more than half the world's households cook daily with unprocessed solid fuels, i.e., biomass or coal."12 Moreover, evidence from around the world indicates that firewood, dung cakes, and other fuels release highly toxic emissions such as carbon monoxide, total suspended particulates (TSPs), and hydrocarbons.

These fuels are used primarily in traditional open cookstoves with a fuel efficiency of just 3 to 10 per cent,13 in poorly ventilated one- or two-room homes. Even where ventilation is relatively good (such as in thatch-roof homes), the emissions still have alarming health effects. For example, an early study in Gujarat state in western India found that fuels such as firewood, dung cakes, and crop wastes emit more TSP benzo-a-pyrene, carbon monoxide, and polycyclic organic pollutants than fossil fuels. The study showed that women are exposed to 700 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter (the level considered permissible is less than 75 micrograms); they inhale benzo-a-pyrene equivalent to 400 cigarettes per day.14 Moreover, women begin regular cooking around the age of 13, and, thus, are exposed to pollutants for a long time.

Similar studies - although few in number and not always focused specifically on health effects - have been conducted in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and China (where the focus has been on coal-burning stoves).

The health hazards of dependence on biomass for cooking are not limited to those arising from air pollution. Each part of the fuel cycle has health implications that can be serious. Table 2.3 shows potential health hazards arising from producing and processing fuel, collecting it, and actually cooking with it.

Health and Nutrition Effects of Energy Scarcity. In addition to the direct health effects of cooking with biomass, the growing scarcity of, and difficulty in obtaining, biomass also affects the health of the poor in indirect ways.

The scarcity and high time and labour cost involved in obtaining biomass may result in measures to economize on fuel consumption for cooking by: a) preparing fewer hot meals (this can lead to consumption of stale or leftover foods that maybe contaminated), b) undercooking (this can lead to health problems, particularly in the case of some pulses and oils that are toxic when undercooked), and c) switching to cereal staples that require less cooking, but may be less nutritious (for example, switching from wheat or other coarse grains to rice). There is no documented statistical evidence for any of these problems, but they have been widely observed by grassroots workers in many developing countries.15

The lack of alternatives to human energy for many survival tasks has significant impact on the health and nutritional status of poor women and girls, where these tasks are divided along gender lines. A benchmark study in the early 1980s based on the Pura Village energy data showed that the daily subsistence chores of cooking, fuel gathering, water fetching, and grazing lead to a higher calorie expenditure per day for women than for men. This is particularly true since these domestic tasks are perennial, while agricultural work (where men's contribution is higher than women's) is seasonal. However, women's greater energy output was not compensated by a proportionate intake of food; the ratio of food distribution between males and females within households was 2:1 in favor of males.16

Studies in other locations have corroborated the gender bias in access to food within families.17 Thus, women's lives regularly combine overwork and inadequate food. Surveys by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in India have found that adult women's weights are well below par all over the country; while women stop gaining weight after age 16, men continue to gain weight until at least 25 years of age. Moreover, weight gain in pregnancy among rural women averages only four to six kilograms, compared with the desired norm of 10-12 kilograms.18

Table 2.3 - Health Effects of Biomass Fuel Use in Cooking


Potential Health Hazards


Processing/preparing dung cakes

Faecal/oral/enteric infections
Skin infections

Charcoal Production

CO/smoke poisoning
Bums/trauma Cataract


Gathering/carrying fuelwood

Reduced infant/child: care Bites from venomous reptiles/ insects
Allergic reactions
Fungus infections
Severe fatigue
Muscular pain/back pain/arthritis


Effects of smoke

Conjunctivitis, Blepharo conjunctivitis
Upper respiratory irritation/ inflammation
Acute respiratory infection (ARI)

Effects of toxic gases (CO)

Acute poisoning

Effects of chronic smoke inhalation

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis
Cor Pulmonale
Adverse reproductive outcomes
Cancer (lung)

Effects of Heat

Burns Cataract

Ergonomic effects of crouching over stove


Effects of location of stove (on floor)

Bums in infants/toddlers

Source: Based on data given in World Health Organization, Indoor Air Pollution from Biomass Fuel (1992), and own experience.

Energy scarcity, combined with the absence of labour-saving appropriate technology, poses yet another risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies. Once again, poor women are primarily affected. The burden of traditional rice cultivation methods, requiring long hours of planting, nearly doubled over, appears to contribute to complications in pregnancy. A 1982 study of some 30,000 people in western India showed a sharp increase in stillbirths, premature births, and neonatal mortality during the rice-planting months. The fact that no maternal deaths occurred was probably due to the presence of an effective nongovernmental community health care project in the area.19

The reduction in water consumption, particularly for personal hygiene, because of the time and labour costs involved in collecting water also has negative effects on women's health.

Lack of adequate water for bathing and washing is a major contributing factor to the high rate of genito-urinary and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) in poor women. In one study, 92 per cent of the women had RTIs, many of which had gone untreated for years.20 RTIs can be a significant contributing factor to female sterility, cervical cancer, and uterine prolapse; uterine prolapse is also related to excess load carrying (water, firewood, etc.).21

The health costs of the confluence of energy scarcity, the resultant dependence on biomass fuels and human energy to meet basic needs, and the gender division of labour are extensive. They include:

· widespread protein-calorie malnutrition;

· poor immunity and high risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious and communicable diseases;

· chronic anemia;

· higher maternal/female morbidity and mortality;

· poor reproductive outcomes, including low birth-weight infants with reduced chances of survival, and increased infant and child mortality;

· poor reproductive health status among women and girls;

· depletion of women's health from repeated childbearing, overwork, and inadequate food.

The burden of this syndrome is carried mainly by millions of poor women and girls, who are already the most socio-economically disadvantaged segment in most countries. Consequently, it has serious implications for the health and development status of entire nations. The quality of life for the majority of poor people cannot be improved without urgently addressing these problems, which arise directly and indirectly from unmet energy needs.


The need for social justice - including gender justice - is universally accepted.22 Eradicating discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality is a prerequisite for creating a just society. At the most fundamental level, justice requires meeting the basic human needs of all citizens and providing equal access to productive and subsistence resources.

Energy plays a key role in achieving these goals. Lack of fulfillment of basic needs (for food, water, fuel, shelter, health, and education) perpetuates the poor's - especially poor women's - social, economic, and political disadvantage and powerlessness. Nations must invest in improved energy systems to achieve social justice as well as economic growth.

Low levels of energy services are a serious obstacle to raising the social status of women and other oppressed groups. Dependence on human energy and primitive technologies for survival introduces a whole range of obstacles to social and gender equality:

· The poor in general, and poor women and girls in particular, are trapped in an unceasing cycle of work that condemns them to poor health, little or no education, and deprives them of equal participation in local development programs (e.g., literacy, credit, and income-generating activities), self-government bodies, and social or political movements. As a result, the country's human resource base is seriously underdeveloped. Improved energy services must be at the center of any strategy to mitigate the gender-, caste-, and class-based division of labour.

· Because education is an unaffordable luxury in poor families where children's labour is required for family survival, literacy levels remain low.

· Girls are often deprived of education altogether, or at least receive fewer years of schooling than boys.

· High rates of female illiteracy act as a barrier to new knowledge and ideas that may catalyze women to question their subordination and demand change, or help them to gain economic mobility.

· The demand for children's labour may be a factor perpetuating the need for large families. This may contribute to high birth rates that further deplete the health of poor women by keeping them trapped in the cycle of childbearing and rearing, thus further limiting their participation in change processes and development programs.


1 Srilatha Batliwala is Fellow, Women's Policy Research and Advocacy, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.

2 J. Goldemberg, TB. Johansson, A.K.N. Reddy, and R.H. Williams, Energy for a Sustainable World (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1988), p.28.

3 Centre for the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), "Rural Energy Consumption Patterns: A Field Study," Biomass, Vol. 2, No. 4 (September 1982), pp. 255-80; N.H. Ravindranath, H.I. Somasekhar, R. Ramesh, Amala Reddy, K. Venkatram, and A.K.N. Reddy, "The Design of a Rural Energy Centre for Pura Village, Part I: Its Present Pattern of Energy Consumption," Employment Expansion in Indian Agriculture (Bangkok: International Labour Office, 1979), pp. 171-87.

4 Transport has been included in agriculture because the only-vehicles in Pura are bullock carts, which are used almost solely for agriculture-related activities such as carrying manure from backyard compost pits to the farms and produce from farms to households.

5 J. Goldemberg et al., Energy for a Sustainable World, Box 3.4, pp. 214-16.

6 Pura uses about 217 tons of firewood per year, i.e., about 0.6 tons/day for the village, or 0.6 tons/year/capita.

7 Unlike some rural areas of India, dung cakes are not used as cooking fuel in the Pura region. In situations where agro-wastes (e.g., coconut husk) are not abundant, it appears that, if firewood is available within some convenient range (determined by the capacity of head-load transportation), dung-cakes are never burnt as fuel; instead, dung is used as manure.

8 A. Barnett, M. Bell, and K. Hoffman, Rural Energy and the Third World (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982); S.R. Nkonoki and B. Sorensen, "A Rural Energy Study in Tanzania: The Case of Bundilya Village," Natural Resources Forum 8 (1984), pp. 51-62; K.R. Smith, "Biomass, Combustion, and Indoor Air Pollution: The Bright and Dark Sides of Small Is Beautiful," Environmental Management 10 (1986), pp. 61-74.

9 ASTRA, "Rural Energy Consumption Patterns"; International Labour Organization (ILO), Energy and Rural Women's Work: Memorandum for Implementation (Geneva: ILO, 1981); S. Lund Skar et al., Fuel Availability, Nutrition, and Women's Work in Highland Peru, Working Paper (Geneva: ILO, 1982); and M. Sarin and U. Winblad, Cookstoves in India: A Project Report (Sweden, Winblad, and Chandigarh, Sarin, 1989).

10 Anil Agarwal, "Firewood: Fuel of the Rich?" in Earthscan Bulletin (July 1982).

11 Srilatha Batliwala, "Rural Energy Scarcity and Nutrition: A New Perspective," Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XVII, No. 9, February 27,1982; Srilatha Batliwala, "Rural Energy Situation: Consequences for Women's Health," Socialist Health Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 1984), pp. 75; Bina Aggarwal, Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes: The Woodfuel Crisis in the Third World (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Ltd., and London: Zed Books, 1986); and Srilatha Batliwala, "Women's Access to Food," The Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3 (October 1987), pp. 255-71.

12 Indoor Air Pollution from Biomass Fuel, Report of a World Health Organization Consultation (Geneva: WHO, 1992).

13 Howard Geller, Rural Indian Cookstoves: Fuel Efficiency and Energy Losses (Bangalore: ASTRA, 1980).

14 "Stoves Pose Health Hazard for Women," Indian Express (Bombay), March 18, 1983; and K.R. Smith, "Health Effects in Developing Countries," in J. Pasztor and L.A. Kristoferson (eds.), Bioenergy and the Environment (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

15 S. Batliwala, "Women and Cooking Energy," Economic and Political Weekly (1983).

16 S. Batliwala, "Rural Energy Scarcity and Nutrition."

17 Sarah Lund-Skar, et al., Fuel Availability, Nutrition, and Women's Work in Highland Peru; Development Forum (December 1982), p. 6; Amartya San and Sunil Sengupta, "Malnutrition of Rural Children and the Sex Bias," Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 19-21 (May 1983); Veena Shatrughna, Women and Health, Current Information Series, No. 2 (Bombay: SNDT Women's University, 1986), p. 40; and S. Batliwala, "Women's Access to Food," Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3 (October 1987), p. 260.

18 Veena Shatrughna, Women and Health, Current Information Series, No. 2 (Bombay: SNDT Women's University, 1986).

19 S. Batliwala, A Study of the Morbidity and Mortality Pattern in the Mandwa Project Area in 1982 (Bombay: Foundation for Research in Community Health, 1983); and S. Batliwala, "Fields of Rice: Health Hazards for Women and Unborn Children," Manushi, No. 46 (1988), pp. 31-35.

20 Rani A. Bang, et al., "High Prevalence of Gynaecological Diseases," The Lancet, January 14, 1989; and Shireen Jeejeebhoy, "Population, Health, and Women in India: Agenda for a National Strategy" (unpublished monograph, 1994).

21 Shramshakti, Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector (New Delhi: Government of India, 1988).

22 More than 150 U.N. member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation


In developing countries, firewood is the major source of cooking and heating fuel for most rural communities and for the majority of urban dwellers. In the developing world as a whole, about 2 billion people rely solely on fuelwood as their energy source for heating and cooking.2 Traditional fuels, mostly firewood, supply about 52 per cent of all energy required in sub-Saharan Africa.3 In the Sahel region, fuelwood contributes even more significantly to the overall energy needs of households; in some countries, providing up to 90 per cent of domestic fuel requirements. In The Gambia in 1992, total energy consumption was estimated at 262,710 tons of oil equivalent (toe), of which 61 per cent was from traditional energy sources. Total energy consumption in Burkina Faso was estimated at 1.7 million toe, of which 91 per cent was from traditional energy sources; in Niger, it was estimated at 1.1 million toe, of which over 80 per cent was from traditional energy sources; and in Mali, 1.8 million toe, of which 1,627,400 was from traditional energy sources.4

These figures demonstrate the critical importance of fuelwood in meeting energy requirements in these countries. In general, the situation is similar in most other parts of sub-Saharan Africa and some pans of Southeast Asia. Indeed, as economic growth becomes sluggish, revenues continue to decline, and the problems related to conventional energy use continue to increase, fuelwood consumption throughout Africa is increasing. In addition, rapid population growth and urbanization create even more demand for energy in its cheapest and most accessible form, that is, fuelwood. This demand puts pressure on biomass resources and arable land in an already deteriorating environment. This pressure, in turn, tends to jeopardize economic growth and put at risk the poorest and most vulnerable groups of the population, mostly women and children.

In the Sahel, energy plays a critical role in the interrelationship among environment, development, and population. The Sahel exemplifies the vicious cycle that begins with the use of fuelwood used for energy in an inefficient and unsustainable manner. Between 1980 and 1987, a significant number of countries in the Sahel experienced economic decline; these are the same countries that have experienced cyclical droughts for the past two decades. Moreover, these countries have naturally poor soils to begin with, and have experienced repeated pest invasions and resulting agricultural losses. These problems in turn contribute to rapid urbanization, as rural populations migrate to urban areas. The rapidly growing urban centers then consume even more fuelwood than the rural areas.

It is estimated that by 2005, some 35 per cent of the people living in the Sahel will reside in urban areas.5 In the developing world in general, it is estimated that by the year 2025, 4 billion people will be classified as urban.6 This corresponds to the total world population in 1975. Thus, it is imperative that in these countries, appropriate energy policies be adapted if environmental disaster and all its ensuing consequences, both economic and social, are to be averted.

Energy as a Contributing Factor to Deforestation and Land Degradation

It is estimated that within the next three decades, the world population will increase by nearly two thirds, from 5.5 billion to 8.5 billion, of whom 7.1 billion will live in developing countries, mostly in urban areas.7 This large population increase will correspondingly result in more pressure on limited and already degraded natural resources, especially in developing countries. The demand for energy will undoubtedly increase, and this will mostly be met through the felling of more trees for fuelwood and for charcoal production. The expansion of agricultural activities is generally considered to be the dominating cause of deforestation and land degradation, with the supply of fuelwood contributing to a different degree in different parts of the world, e.g., in Northern China, it may account for 30 per cent of the land clearing.8 (Editor's Note: see chapter 5, and particularly note 16 for additional references to this subject.)

Already, in many developing countries, the demand for fuel-wood is far greater than the supply. In many areas of western and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, fuelwood consumption is running 30 to 200 per cent ahead of the average increase in the stock of trees. Along with the clearing of land for agriculture, this phenomenon is dramatically reducing forest lands. Between 1980 and 1990, tropical forests declined about 0.8 per cent per year, or 15.4 million hectares annually.9

In 1977, the use of wood as fuel accounted for about 47 per cent of world wood consumption (1,184 million cubic meters out of some 2,500 cubic meters). In developed countries, fuelwood accounted for about one tenth of total roundwood use (refers to any wood felled or harvested from trees regardless of its use); in developing countries, it accounted for four fifths.10 This is evidence of the significance of fuelwood in the deforestation process in these countries. The importance of wood as a primary energy source varied widely among various world regions, with most fuelwood consumption taking place in developing countries.

Today, developing countries consume even more wood and wood products, primarily as fuelwood and charcoal, and clear more forestland. In Mali, in West Africa, wood consumption is estimated at 5 million tons per year, representing an annual deforestation rate of nearly 400,000 hectares.11

The problem is further exacerbated by the rapid urbanization in most of these countries and the need to meet the energy requirements of expanding cities. With the irregular and mostly inefficient conventional supply system, the predominantly urban poor turn to fuelwood or charcoal as their main source of energy for both domestic and industrial use. It is estimated that 48 per cent of the land that was cleared between 1988 and 1993 in Burkina Faso was to satisfy the charcoal demands of Ouagadougou; only 7 per cent was attributed to wood.11 India has also witnessed an increased demand for fuelwood in urban centers in the last fifteen years. In Brazil, charcoal is also a main source of industrial fuel.

Currently, industrialized countries consume more energy than developing countries. However, it is estimated that in the next century, developing countries will become the largest consumers of energy. For example, China is the third largest consumer of energy in the world. Approximately 80 per cent of the energy requirement in rural China is met from traditional biomass fuels such as fuelwood and straw. It should be noted that two thirds of the population of China are in the rural areas. China consumes more of these fuels than any other country, about 500 million tons annually This rate is not sustainable even in the very short term, especially as firewood consumption is more than twice the sustainable harvest.13 In India, wood is also the main source of energy for the rural population. If the forests are harvested in a sustainable manner, they can provide up to 41 million cubic metres of fuelwood per year. Yet the current annual demand has been estimated at 240 million cubic meters. The difference in the supply and demand dynamics is indeed alarming.14

Forest cover in industrialized countries showed a slight increase in the decade 1981-1990. In some European countries (for example, Finland), the deforestation rate was zero during this period.15 In the tropics, however, annual deforestation rates were 0.8 per cent, with rates in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region higher still. It is estimated that global loss of above-ground biomass from deforestation was 2.5 gigatons annually during the period.16 The loss of above-ground biomass results in soil degradation, creating serious additional environmental, economic, and social consequences. In Africa, for example, the soil of some 320 million hectares is moderately or seriously degraded.17

Environmental Impacts

The environmental consequences of deforestation and land degradation are severe. They include ecological instability, loss of agricultural production, desertification, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.


Firewood is generally obtained from local sources, and this exerts growing pressure on the trees, bushes, and shrubs near inhabited areas. Long before the extraction of firewood from the forest leads to complete destruction of the tree cover, it can cause serious environmental degradation. Excessive pruning of the branches may reduce a tree's capacity to grow; removing the more easily felled younger trees may reduce the regenerative capacity of the forest; removing too many trees, and thus, opening the forest's canopy, may make the forest susceptible to wind and sun, cause erosion, affect wildlife, and reduce biodiversity; removing all residues also removes the nutrients that should return to the soil and which maintain fertility; and removing stumps, bushes, and shrubs can destroy the soil's remaining protective cover and binding structure.

Eventually, in the developing countries, the whole forest maybe felled and disappear. Until the 1940s, forests had completely disappeared in most of China because the trees had been felled to be used as fuel. In recent years, however, there has been a reversal in this trend, and vast areas have been successfully reforested. (Editors Note: See chapter 7)

Deforestation leads to losses of top soil and nutrients, mostly through wind and water erosion. This subsequent decline in soil fertility in turn results in loss of agricultural production and degraded pastures. It also causes siltation in waterways, as well as salinization and acidification of soils. The net effect is an unstable ecosystem that cannot support a sustainable livelihood system for either humans or animals. Charcoal production has similar environmental effects as firewood, from which most charcoal is obtained.


Forests are being cut down faster than they can grow, partly to make room for new farmland and partly to harvest trees as fuel. As a result, erosion destroys upland areas, and the resulting sediments fill reservoirs. Downstream flooding destroys cultivable soil and food crops.

In the Sahel, land degradation is the single most important factor preventing sustainable crop production. The combination of land degradation, drought, and desiccation (the process of land becoming more arid as a result of decades of dry spell), poses nearly insurmountable problems, including loss of top soil and/or loss of soil fertility, and declines in productivity.


Desertification results from a series of environmental problems that render the land unfit to support human or animal life. Firewood consumption is a significant contributing factor. Desertification is usually accompanied by dessication and drought, and has serious economic and social consequences. It contributes significantly to climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, the Sahel is the preeminent example.


The clearing of forests and the burning of firewood add to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Recently, it has become clear that the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere from forest cutting and burning and from certain soil management practices is approximately one third the amount generated by fossil fuels (estimated at 6 × 1015 g c/y); of this amount, forest clearing in developing countries accounts for 1.6 × 1015 g c/y18

The direct combustion of firewood created emissions consisting mainly of particulate, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Relatively few data are available on the quantity of emissions from burning wood in wood stoves, although data have long been available on emissions from industrial boilers burning wood residuals. More understanding is needed of the potential impact of emissions from wood stoves. (Editor's Note: See chapter 5 for a comprehensive review of studies on emissions from wood stoves from all parts of the world).


Deforestation and land degradation also contribute significantly to the loss of biodiversity. If current trends continue unchecked, human activities such as firewood collection may soon have irreversible impacts. These impacts include species loss, habitat loss, declines in the variety of genes within a species, and overall declines in the number of species. These losses will affect the production of pharmaceuticals and medicines, biotechnology, and food security, among other things.

Social Impacts

In 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organization showed that of the 2,000 million people, who depended on wood for fuel, 96 million were already unable to satisfy their minimum energy needs for cooking and heating. An additional 1,052 million people were in a "deficit situation" and could meet their needs only by depleting wood reserves. Out of this total of 1,148 million people, more than 64 per cent lived in Asia.19 Shortages were most acute in the arid regions of Africa, the mountainous areas of Asia (particularly the Himalayas), and the Andean plateau in Latin America. Overall, an additional 400 million cubic meters of fuelwood per year was needed to make good the deficit.

The situation has been growing rapidly worse since then. According to FAO, projections for the year 2000 suggest that, unless there is immediate action, 2,400 million people either will be unable to obtain their minimum energy requirements or will be forced to consume wood faster than it is being grown. By then, the world fuelwood deficit will reach 960 million cubic meters per year - the energy equivalent of 240 million tons of oil. If the fuelwood deficit had to be met by increased oil consumption, the cost would be - even at the low price of $30 per barrel for crude oil - about $ 50,000 million per year.20

Obviously, the fuelwood deficit will not be met in this way. The cost is too high and the developing countries - most of which are net oil importers - cannot afford the foreign exchange that would be needed. In practice, the cost of the fuelwood crisis must be measured, less accurately but more painfully, in terms of human suffering.

Table 3.1 - Time Spent Gathering Fuel, Early 1980s


Average Hours per Day

Explanation of Work

Southern India (6 villages)


Women contribute 0.7 hours; children contribute 0.5

Guajarat, India


In family of 5,1 member often spends all his/her time on it



Often 1 adult and 1-2 children do fuelwood collection



Traditional women's work



Often is carried about 45km



Women sometimes walk 25 km



Women do 75 per cent of fuel gathering



1 full day's search provides wood for 3 days



Women gather and cut wood

Source: World Resources Institute, World Resources Report 1994-95, p.47 (New York: Oxford University Press).


Environmental destruction and degradation in developing countries inevitably increase rural women's workload. Because they are responsible for heating the home and cooking the food, women and their children are the first to suffer.

Deforestation makes it more difficult and more time consuming for rural women to collect fuelwood and other forest products; carrying loads of up to 35 kilograms, they are forced to travel ever longer distances to collect the bare minimum of wood needed for survival, sometimes up to 10 kilometres (see Table 3.1).

Urban dwellers, too, must rely on supplies that come from farther and farther away. In India, in the city of Hyderabad, fuelwood is transported from 50 to 280 kilometers away; in Bangalore, it is transported from about 40, and sometimes up to 700 kilometers, away. During the past decade, families in Kunzono, Zaire, required one to two sacks of charcoal per month to meet their basic needs. At a cost of about $300 per ton, a single sack cost the equivalent of one third of a worker's monthly wage. In the poorest parts of the Andean Sierra and in the Sahel, as much as 25 per cent of all household income must be spent on fuelwood and charcoal; in some East African households, this figure is as high as 40 per cent.22

Two decades ago, it took no more than two hours to gather firewood and fodder in the foothills of the Himalayas; now it takes a full day of walking through mountainous terrain. Over a ten-year period, the time it took to collect fuelwood in the Sudan increased more than fourfold. In rural Bangladesh, women spend three to five hours per day searching for fuelwood.

In some countries (for example, Bangladesh), when fuelwood is not available, women shift to alternative and sometimes inferior fuel, for instance, animal dung and crop residue. These fuels not only take longer to burn, they also produce hazardous fumes. The use of dung also deprives the soil of nutrients needed for agricultural production. Lack of fuelwood sometimes forces women to reduce the number of hot meals their families receive.

Like fuelwood gathering, water collection is also becoming more difficult as land degradation spreads and water sources are depleted. Women may spend up to four hours per day collecting water for the home and the farm, often carrying 20 kilograms or more in containers on their backs, shoulders, or heads.

The loss of production due to land degradation also means that women have to work harder to increase their yields. About half the world's food is grown by women; in Africa, 95 per cent of the work of feeding and caring for their family, including food production, is done by women. Two thirds of women workers in developing countries are in the agriculture sector. In many places, women are also primarily responsible for animal husbandry, i.e., caring for livestock and poultry and collecting fodder.

Women's agricultural work gives them valuable knowledge about local ecosystems, including soil features, multiple uses of crops, and health care for small livestock. Their experience is vital in maintaining crop diversity; in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women cultivate or collect more than 160 different species of plants on fragments of land scattered among men's crops and surrounding communities.

For centuries, women have managed forests and used forest products, collecting fuel, fodder, and food from trees and other plants. They regard forests, like agricultural products, as multi-functional and use them in various ways to meet basic family needs.

In many developing countries, not just women, but also girls, are involved in traditional chores. In Africa, India, and other parts of South Asia, young girls may spend all day collecting wood and water, doing domestic work, and farming. They begin at an early age, and thus, have little or no opportunity to get an education.


Using fuelwood to cook has negative consequences for women's health, particularly when the stoves are inefficient. Because of the confined spaces and poor ventilation, women inhale smoke, including toxic gases; the smoke also causes eye irritation, and respiratory diseases and the extreme heat has negative effects on skin. (Editor's Note: See chapters 2 and 5 for a detailed discussion of these effects.)

The lack of adequate fuel also causes serious health and nutrition problems, whether the lack is caused by distance or cost. The principal food crops in developing countries almost all require cooking to be palatable or even fully digestible. If cooking is reduced because of lack of fuel, protein intake is often reduced as well. In many areas, families now can only eat one cooked meal per day (instead of two) simply because they lack fuel. Agricultural practices are changing because vegetables that can be eaten raw are now chosen over other, more nutritious foods that need cooking.

The effects of fuelwood shortages extend far beyond the individual family, producing a chain of reactions affecting the nature of rural society, its agricultural base, and the stability of its environment. As fuelwood becomes scarcer, substitutes such as straw, dried dung, rice husks, and even plant roots are utilized. Whether these materials were previously used to feed animals or to restore nutrients to the soil, there is a major loss to the food production system. The land becomes impoverished, and there is a loss of nutritious food needed; women and children often lose out because of social customs that put them last in line for food. Malnutrition can result.


Land degradation often creates pressures to migrate, either to other countries or to urban areas within their own countries. When the situation is particularly severe, especially when it is accompanied by an extended period of drought, the result may be the displacement of a large number of people, now often called "environmental refugees." The term first came into use during the 1984 drought and famine in the Sudano-Sahelian countries, when 35 million people were displaced, crowding into cities like Khartoum or making their way to relief camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Sometimes, whole villages had to be resettled. The consequences of environmental breakdown reverberate through society in decreased birth rates among displaced populations, higher infant mortality rates, and a great deal of personal distress.23


It is now evident that an adequate and efficient supply of energy is fundamental to sustainable development and economic growth in the developing countries. It is also becoming increasingly evident that the energy needs of the developing countries cannot be met from conventional sources, due to the prohibitive costs involved and the lack of the requisite financial resources in these countries. This, therefore, means that ways and means have to be explored of ensuring the sustainable use of fuelwood, complemented by the use of other types of renewable energy and the adoption of energy-efficient technologies.

Sustainable fuelwood use can be achieved through the creation of woodlots and the increased productivity of natural forest through proper management. For example, in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Ghana, where the population growth rate is about 3-3.5 per cent per year, the demand for land for agriculture and for fuelwood resulted in excessive tree felling, declining land productivity, and increased siltation of dams. Despite indiscriminate tree-felling, there were still fuelwood shortages. In 1988, the Government of Ghana, with external assistance, started a major agro-forestry project. Free tree seedlings were provided for 19 groups of women farmers, who were encouraged to plant these seedlings in woodlots, alley cropping orchards on farms and along stream boundaries. Thousands of trees have been planted by the 3,400 women who participated in the project.24 The project has had the net effect of improving soil fertility, and will enhance production and reduce the need for fertilizers. In addition, when the wood-lots mature, they will reduce the burden on women in terms of the time they spend gathering fuelwood. Women will also have more money because of what they are not spending on fuelwood, which could be used to enhance the quality of their lives. Thus, through the sustainable management of fuelwood resources, not only are the women provided with an easily available resource, but their quality of life is also enhanced and the quality of the environment is improved.

New developments in technology also facilitate the transition to more efficient energy, and ensure a better demand for management while enhancing the quality of life for women. In Senegal, improved kilns for charcoal production, which required a relatively small investment, increased the carbonization yield by at least 20 per cent.25 This has the effect of reducing the amount of trees needed for charcoal production, thus, reducing the pressure on the resource base.

In China, two thirds of the total rural population today use stoves that are at least 30 per cent more efficient than older stoves.26 In addition to reducing the demand for fuelwood, such stoves have the beneficial effect of reducing the health hazards to women of smoke inhalation. There is also evidence that devices such as fish-smoking ovens also save considerable time and labour for women. The savings in time can result in more time being spent in leisure activities or other income-generating activities. This usually results in an improvement in women's well-being, and in the care and feeding of their families. (Editor's Note: See chapter 7 for a discussion of China's stove program.)

In most developing countries, there is the need to create a conducive policy environment to ensure conservation of energy and better demand management. Current energy policies do not provide any incentive for conservation in that energy prices are mostly subsidized. There is a need to allow market forces to determine the prices for energy (including fuelwood and charcoal), for it is only when these commodities are valued at their real market prices that action aimed at curbing demand will be taken by consumers. In addition, there is the need to look at incentives to encourage such practices. This has been adequately demonstrated in the developed world. For instance, in the United States, demand management techniques are used in the utility sector, including regulatory provisions that reward the companies for investing in energy efficiency. Energy tax policies have also successfully curtailed demand for gasoline in Europe. Such deliberate policies are instrumental in restricting demand or promoting the use of more sustainable supply sources.

In the past, it was generally believed that economic growth and development resulted in a transition from traditional to conventional means of energy. We now know that this is a myth. Furthermore, we are also now more aware of the environmental consequences of conventional energy which, in turn, have social and economic impacts. Given the massive financial investments required in terms of assuring a reliable energy supply using conventional means, and the current economic situation in most developing countries, it is clear that their energy problems will not be solved through the use of conventional energy.

Yet we know that energy services for domestic and industrial purposes are a fundamental prerequisite for development. Developing countries possess the type of resources that, if adequately harnessed, will supply the energy requirements of these countries in a sustainable manner. Through the sustainable use of such resources, improvements can also be made in the quality of life of women and children, while enhancing the quality of the environment. The energy sector represents a significant economic activity and source of employment in most developing countries. Improvement in this sector will, therefore, impact positively on their economies. Thus, developing countries need to embrace comprehensive energy policies that reform the current situation in that the economic, social, and environmental gains are tremendous and will go a long way toward improving the quality of life of the present and future generations.


1 Ndey-Isatou NJie is Executive Director, National Environment Agency, The Gambia.

2 World Resources Institute, World Resources Report, 1994-95 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 33.

3 World Resources Institute, Work? Resources, 1994-95, p. 10.

4 World Bank, Africa Technical Department, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes in the Traditional Energy Sector, Proceedings of Workshop 11, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, February 21-25, 1994 (Working-level translation from French), pp. 28, 48, and 77.

5 World Bank, Africa Technical Department, Review of Policies, Strategies and Programmes in the Traditional Energy Sector, Proceedings of Workshop 1, Bamako, Mali, May 10-12, 1993 (Working-level translation from French, June 1993), p. 23.

6 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 31.

7 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 27.

8 International Centre for Education and Research on Desertification Control ("Desertification and Rehabilitation in China," Lanzhou, 1988).

9 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 130.

10 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Environmental Impacts of Production and Use of Energy: Part III - Renewable Sources of Energy, Energy Report Series (Nairobi: UNEP, 1980), p. 85.

11 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 60.

12 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 36.

13 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 67.

14 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 89.

15 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 307.

16 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, pp. 130-31.

17 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 34.

18 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

19 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Map of the Fuelwood Situation in Developing Countries (Rome: FAO, 1981), p. 3.

20 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Wood for Energy, Forestry Topics No. 1 (Rome: FAO, 1984), p. 3.

21 Data in this section largely from World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, pp. 43-57.

22 FAO, Wood for Energy, p. 5.

23 Assessment of Desertification and Drought in the Sudano-Sahelian Region (New York: UNDO, 1991), p. 54.

24 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 55.

25 World Bank, Review of Policies, Strategies, and Programmes (1994), p. 103.

26 World Resources Institute, World Resources, 1994-95, p. 69.

4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective


The anthropological approach to energy needs for sustainable human development contains two important elements: the historical and the cultural. The historical aspect allows us to examine the present in the long time frame of human evolution, and survival by analyzing both the social organization and the material remains of societies. The cultural aspect takes us out of the immediate moment and lets us question the unexamined assumptions of the "modern" period that is now promoted by development schemes everywhere. Recognition of the cultural, of the place of ideas, strengthens our ability to recognize that corporate cultures, whether of the state or of industries, regularly superimpose their own blueprints on more local cultures everywhere. Much can be learned, particularly about who the primary actors are, from examining the past.

Until recently, the capacity of the human species to change the globe in irreversible ways was limited. Similarly, decisions affecting individual and group survival were probably shared for most of human existence. We evolved and survived as hunters and gatherers for 1.5 million years, during which people regularly made decisions about potentially life-threatening situations. The period of time between decision and consequence was relatively short. Humans act intelligently in the face of dangers if they have the cultural information necessary to understand situations such as environmental limitations and opportunities. When societies made disastrous environmental decisions in the past, the scale of destruction was relatively small.

The recent human situation is in stark contrast to most of human history. At the end of the twentieth century, the development movement to economic global centralization has accelerated standardization of problems, definitions, and solutions at breakneck speed by means of human technology. Development is not a benign process. This worldwide tendency to central control, irrespective of political forms that government or ethnic movements take, is related to a dominant military-industrial system spread by governments and multinational corporate structures. Nations, regions, and migrations are all coloured by the diffusionist modus operandi of these now oligarchical corporate structures; their unilateral assessments of risk are imposed on vast populations. Perhaps, the most ubiquitous inequity has been the inability of those who will be directly affected by technologies to inform themselves of what is going on, and to organize politically around universally shared inequities that affect life processes.

What is needed today is a frame of reference for understanding the future that reaches deep into the human past.

Modern cultures do not provide people with the necessary cultural knowledge to routinely participate in choosing technologies. Over the past fifty years, individual and group self-reliance has decreased dramatically worldwide. Wage labour and specialization is now the overwhelming pattern, and dependence on large-scale institutions the theme. Often, when subsistence farmers turn to cash cropping, their children turn to work in factories. With increased dependence has come increased regional planning, increased reliance on experts, and an increasingly disunited society with different segments operating as strangers to one another. The future will not be an extrapolation of the past because there has been a qualitative transformation of the human world. Sustainability seems threatened because a species, unprepared to deal with events unrelated to first-hand experience, will be sleep-walking.

Social philosophers have reminded us that "from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic; the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."2 Along the same lines, Amory Lovins uses the "hard-soft" analogy for energy paths that are either authoritarian or democratic.3

The dominant thinking - that large-scale, system-centered complex technologies are more likely to spread the good life - is increasingly being questioned.4 Some philosophers argue for a better understanding of "limits," while others take a more pragmatic conserver approach to the reality of limits, encouraging us "to do more with less."5

This essay is about innocence and ignorance, about problems and solutions, about nature and culture. It is about powerful barriers to thinking about sustainable energy as an instrument of social change. Rooted in the belief that "more is more" lies a system, an ideology, an expertise that needs to be continually subjected to critical thought in order to stimulate practical innovation and creativity. Too often, those who well realize that, given our present way of doing things, there is not enough wealth, resources, or material goods for global use, are prevented from acting on what they know by their mindsets and institutional affiliations.

People's daily interactions with technology are decided for them by a small group of planners. The effects of industrial-country production and use of energy are felt both in their own countries and the rest of the world: coal miners suffer from lung disease, acid rain damages lakes and forests; nuclear waste contaminates groundwater; cities are shrouded in smog.

The Last Twenty Years: Questioning Assumptions

During the 1970s, broad-based energy research examined unquestioned assumptions held by the majority of energy specialists; this research revealed options previously deemed unacceptable as solutions to a growing energy crisis in the United States, a world leader in energy consumption.6 Action around these research results promoted "appropriate technology," a conceptually impoverished, but nevertheless useful, term. High energy productivity was combined with conservation, thus, removing inefficiency and waste in the U.S. energy expenditure system; amenities, instead of being reduced, were enhanced. We now have automobiles that run more miles per gallon of gas, and refrigerators that use less energy without reduced function. Furthermore, research indicated that there are many possibilities for a high technology society to use low energy expenditure.

Such changes in resource use - toward high technology with low energy expenditure - were not thought to be punitive or to lead to reduced amenities. On the contrary, the realization that conservation is essential stimulated a whole range of innovative technologies and diverse products and services. This creativity is related to an openly diverse and flexible atmosphere. Today, conservation technologies are utilized even in mundane areas. For example, lightbulbs, which have long been produced in energy-wasteful ways, have been greatly improved; efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) consume only one fourth the energy of common incandescent lamps. However, CFLs are almost unknown in Third World countries. The improved lightbulbs have the additional advantage that they could make dangerous, Chernobyl-class reactors a thing of the past.7

Only when we understand how systems-centered approaches work can we explain why powerful nation-states and corporate entities tend to be conservative and intellectually counter-revolutionary. This attitude transcends national boundaries and, along with seemingly innocuous technologies like nuclear power, glosses over pragmatic solutions.8

It is important to note that the behavioural and technological changes that lead to energy savings do not restrict growth in production of goods and services. By "decoupling" concepts such as high energy expenditure and quality of life, energy researchers have been able to discover a broader range of options than had previously been considered. They have documented improvements in quality of life with decreases in energy expenditures. The economists who linked, or coupled, economic growth and energy consumption were wrong; the futures they predicted were way off-base. It is possible to have economic growth with reduced energy consumption.

The greatest energy revolution of the last twenty years is conservation. In practice, this means that conservers (the sectors and people who practice conservation) retain approximately the same comfort levels in space heating and cooling, and in water heating. The goods and services are merely delivered and used more efficiently. Transportation sources are used more effectively and alternative fuels such as ethanol, methane, and methanol, although not without problems, are used. In the industrial and commercial sectors, savings per energy unit result from use of conservation technologies, not from production cutbacks.

Significant conservation of energy can be achieved by mechanisms ranging from economic policy to regulations, education, market signals, research, and development. With a conservation approach, the trend toward tightly meshed technological systems is reversed by increasing the use of diverse systems that can survive even if component parts are damaged. Culturally, sustainability is supported by an increase in the potential of self-reliance and a decrease in dependency. Attitudes change - towards transportation, throw-away products, the form of cities and space use, work organization, personal status - aspects not always discussed in connection with energy practices. New technologies are explored.

Anthropologists first defined the energy problem as social and cultural rather than technological. This approach forces a recognition of the roles that values play in planning sustainable futures. Only then can behaviour at international conferences change, with more attention given to exchanging experiences than to posturing. For example, Asian and European cities planned prior to the invention of the automobile, as well as Latin American cities, provide models of convenient public transportation that relegate the automobile to just one transportation option. Many peoples can learn from examples of citizen-activism as an input to central planning, such as the conservation movement in the United States. Brazil can teach us about the problems of producing alternative fuels like ethanol. Russia provides a dismal example of an undiversified energy policy dependent on nuclear power. The so-called developing world provides lessons in conservation and appetite limits. We have more solutions than we are using, partly because the military-industrial hierarchy of values stymies the application of the best solutions.

The question of flexibility, so key to sustainability, is bound up with professionalism and expertise - the identity of professionals is tied up with delimiting research problems and standardizing solutions. However, critical thinkers and energy experts are now scrutinizing central values and core concepts, including questioning fundamental ways of "doing science."

Energy research needs to be based on the science of totalities, not on isolated phenomena or isolated technologies. Decisions about nuclear energy, for example, cannot be made independently of the complete set of alternatives and their consequences. Many professionals realize this, but others resist the approach of looking at the total picture because that is not the way laboratory research is organized. Yet by resisting this approach, they operate with a disastrously restricted time perspective: for them, fifty years is a long time. In contrast, for most farmers, destruction of land fertility within a fifty-year period is unacceptable; sustainability is built into farming philosophies, especially where land use is precarious.

Fitting the time perspective to the problem is essential. Restricted time perspectives are not what is needed for environmental protection, nor for building conservation into cities, nor for building long-term sustainable futures in subsistence food-producing areas. Sustainability has been defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."9 Such a definition is central to measures of social progress, but measuring social progress is tricky. The notion needs careful examination.

Restrictive time perspectives are promoted by the widely held, but erroneous, thesis that progress is an inevitable part of linear social evolution. In this view, technology is used as a measure of progress, and it is the presence of technology rather than how it is used or its consequence that is considered indicative of progress. Thus, for example, technological progress is said to have eliminated the drudgery of women's work. Yet there is ample evidence to the contrary.10 For example, African women may not need to stamp the grain, but if they are cash cropping, they work harder. If portable water makes life easier, women may still have to walk longer and farther for fuel. In cities, amenities in the home make life easier, but paying for these amenities may require working double shifts. In addition, the cost of "progress" is minimized by the concept of externalities, which ignores long-term environmental and social costs of energy technologies, for example. (Editor's Note: for a different view of the impact of technological progress on women, see chapters 2 and 3.)

Evolution is neither necessarily linear nor built on technological progress. How energy is used, rather than the expenditure of energy per se, is what in practice defines improved quality of life or decline in living quality.12 And how the energy challenge is defined determines the kinds of solutions pursued. When is small beautiful? When is big bad? When is more, more, and when is it indigestion? When is centralization appropriate and when is decentralization required? Under what conditions do mal-adaptive ideas persist? What works and with what consequence? Answering such questions requires not just expertise, but above all, good judgement, wisdom, and a long-term time perspective, dimensions not always present in large organizations or research laboratories anymore than elsewhere.

An analysis of energy policies shows the connection between how science and technology are organized, and the development of sustainable options. Indeed, the perspectives of virtually all kinds of workers are limited by their own experience, interests, and skills. In California, bankers, contractors, architects, building inspectors, and realtors were questioned about housing, building codes, and energy use.13 As with scientists and engineers working on one particular technology, it was difficult for people involved in one aspect of the work to break out and see the picture as a whole, especially if it was not in their self-interest to do so. Even if solar building codes are passed, it is these various workers who would determine how effective they are. Whole industries are similarly positioned. The public utilities, for example, may see themselves as generators or sellers of energy, rather than as buyers; therefore, they may be unwilling to purchase alternative sources of energy from alternative providers.

Enumerating barriers is to recognize the realities of any sustainable energy thrust. Uncertainty in the workplace, particularly among high status workers, such as scientists and executives, leads to conservatism, denial of resource uncertainties, and inability to perceive the need for new technologies. The mentality that prefers the big toy over the workable gadget, laser fusion over community solar collectors, is a mentality that in many countries supports military values of control, centralization, and fear. In the United States and elsewhere, not separating military from civilian energy goals contributed to the slow development of sustainable energy technologies as well as to generous state subsidization of nuclear energy over renewable sources of energy.

Implications for Sustainable Human Development

The anthropological approach to sustainable human development offers three important lessons, lessons learned from observation and from testing assumptions. First, especially when dealing with technologies of potentially irreversible consequence, long-term decisions should not be left solely to experts or self-interested industries. Experts, like special industries, are often self-interested and operating with a short time perspective - usually the duration of their working lives.

Second, technology is rarely neutral.14 Technology carries a cultural load beyond its ostensible function. Thus, energy technologies should be adopted, knowing full-well what values are being introduced - instability/stability, democratic/ authoritarian, high risk/low risk, economically viable/state subsidized. Theories of technological politics recognize that large-scale technological systems create their own momentum and that technology has the power to transform human ends; they also recognize that some technologies, like solar energy, could have different political consequences under different circumstances.

Third, energy technologies are not free-standing - that is, they become situated in social nexus, embedded in institutions that are compatible with the preferred technologies, Nuclear energy, for example, is most compatible with institutions of secrecy such as the military or with short-cycle accountancy, which may include the building of a nuclear power plant, but not its decommissioning or clean-up in case of an accident. Thus, it may be difficult to decommission a nuclear plant when its usefulness has ended, or to expose the difficulties of storing long-lived radioactive waste. Nuclear energy flourishes with central planning that silences competition, options, and democratic debate. All this is known from the experience of the United States, Russia, France, and other European countries. The lessons of Chernobyl are crucial. The people affected by Chernobyl have had to learn to believe the evidence of their own eyes, as their trust in authority and expertise waned. They saw their children balding, they saw trees drying up; they knew their meat was contaminated, and their babies were born defective, despite what they were being told by government personnel and experts.

Common to all of these lessons is the observation with which I began this paper: people no longer trust their own experience and if they do, alternative views are quickly marginalized. Censorship, perhaps even self-censorship, prevails.

The Fork in the Road

Where do these observations lead us? Nuclear technologies that were the result of secret military research, and that were initiated by scientific elites for national security reasons, are no longer economical or environmentally sensible. It is increasingly clear that the way to meet long-term global energy demands is through renewable sources of energy and conservation.

Fortunately, a number of viable options exist. Current technology provides opportunity for dramatic change that would be beneficial to the economy, public health, and the environment. Existing, highly cost-effective and efficient technologies can reduce electricity consumption in buildings (insulation window systems, new air-conditioning systems) at annual savings worth billions of U.S. dollars.

In addition, new technologies make it possible to replace existing sources of energy - oil, coal, and nuclear - with technologies less damaging to life. Long-term renewable solutions - in the form of biomass, wind and solar power, and geothermal energy - increasingly produce the world's energy. Solar energy - including passive solar, solar electric, photovoltaics, solar thermal power plants, and hydroelectricity - holds the greatest potential. However, the situation is not straightforward. Two competing paradigms - system-centered and man-centered - continue to exist side by side.

In a recent book, Flavin and Lenssen are optimistic about emerging changes, suggesting that non-polluting hydrogen will supplant oil and natural gas, electric cars will become common, coal and nuclear plants will be converted to efficient gas turbines, and numerous clean decentralized systems will emerge.15 At the same time, however, the nuclear industry is renewing its raison d'e, this time to combat global warming. The arguments that nuclear energy is an expensive, unsustainable, dangerous and ineffective option to combat global warming are pushed away by desire for large-scale nuclear energy. It was desire, rather than decisions based on consequence thinking, that drove the push for the fast breeder reactor, which nevertheless came to naught. It has been dubbed "the most expensive technological ruin" in the German Federal Republic, and disastrous elsewhere.

The same kind of "big" thinking is ubiquitous. It is evident in the plans for India's World Bank-funded Tehri Dam, which has been called "a prescription for disaster. "16 At what cost will the Indian government be supplying electricity to power industry? The Tehri Dam is a solution imposed on locals with little or no consultation. The case is especially interesting because of the contradictory views of those who oppose the dam and those who support it. The arguments against the dam are not based on seismology or cost-benefit analysis, but on a completely different worldview, an alternative to economic development plans, a philosophy about the relation of humans to the natural world, a philosophy that opposes the predominant development policies that have spread worldwide over the past three to four decades. The opposition stems from a philosophy that is more local, more stable, more durable, one that adds a further dimension to civil society and democratic effort in India.

But even renewables can be controversial or imposed from the top down. Windpower provides an interesting illustration. England has had a tradition of windmills for at least several hundred years. Yet, when a large, centrally controlled and market driven wind farm was recently built in Cornwall, England, there was a storm of local protest because it was imposed by centralizing powers. In Denmark, on the other hand, the neighboring public has considered development of community rather than large-scale centralized windpower to be good value. The lesson is that imposition of solutions over the heads of local communities - and not for communities - is not an effective response to energy concerns.

Still another example of government-imposed solutions can be found in plans to revitalize an inner-city district of Copenhagen. Central versus local planning collide. Resident proposals opt for "urban villages" that would reduce water and energy demand on the model of the Asian City. The government has its own plan for improvement, a blueprint much like the usual western development plans for the Third World.17

The concept of the "Commons" should be taken seriously as a source of self-determination, creativity, and survival. It acts as a brake, or a safety net, against failures of global energy and resource plans devised by states and industries. The Commons implies that local people have the right to define their own forms of community energy and resource use, which may mean that they will be biased against large-scale plans and activities that are not designed to enhance sustainability. It is now well known that plans to provide energy to industry may be generated in the very regions where labour-saving devices are not available to women who are doing their wash by hand, grinding corn by age-old manual techniques, or carrying water on their shoulders - tasks which global planners have targeted to be "solved" by expensive grids.

Getting Through the Twenty-First Century

Increasingly, several new concepts are mediating the cycle of externally imposed energy technologies and strategies followed by resistance. These new concepts are people-centered development, public participation, and people-led development. These terms are similar to one another, but not the same. People-centered development refers to a managerial planning mode that makes change palatable to the user; it does not alter what is done, but makes how it is imposed more user friendly. Similarly, public participation is often used by the World Bank and others to win post-facto approval for decisions already made, to give a sense of having been consulted. Although bottom-up peopled development is no guarantee that sustainability will be achieved, it at least gives locals the responsibility and the opportunity to tinker with the system to make it work.

At the American Anthropological Association meeting in December 1994, anthropologists reiterated the loss of community control to national governments, multilateral institutions, and multinational industry action.18 The distance between decision and consequence has increased, while fewer and fewer people control more and more of the world's resources. This distance is a critical factor in making the immoral seem moral. The resulting reality is dysfunctional governance - where some humans are deemed legally and socially expendable in the name of national development, national security, and the health of the bio-commons. There is a need for mechanisms that allow people living with a problem to gain greater control.19 Anyone who has followed the Cayapo Indian case in Brazil knows that local control is not a panacea; nevertheless, in the long run, there is more hope in local control, provided there is no "mind colonization" of a hegemonic sort.

As noted earlier, national and corporate industry culture is often superimposed on local and regional cultures. Majid Rahnema argues that modernization hegemonies that are colonizing the minds of Third World peoples must be resisted.20 However, it is imperative to realize that such hegemonies are first put in place in industrial countries, and then diffused outward. A clear-cut energy example can be found in the repeated attempts of the U.S. nuclear industry "to win the hearts and minds of women."21 In the mid-1960s, Connecticut Yankee Power, a public utility, produced a film, "Atom and Eve," to gain women's support for the state's first nuclear power plant. The film indicated that a woman's desire for convenience and freedom can only be sated by the Atom.

In the 1970s, NEW (Nuclear Energy Women) was started, an affiliate of the Atomic Industrial Forum. NEW produced a slide show called "Women and Energy: The Vital Link." The program features a woman-to-woman approach and warns of the hardships an energy shortage would pose for women: "labour-saving devices in the home will be the first cutback," viewers are told. The slide show suggests that energy use has been at the forefront of the battles for women's rights. The case for energy consumption is followed by a glib dismissal of energy alternatives in favour of nuclear power. Safety issues are dismissed and any diversion from nuclear power foreshadows a bleak future.

In the 1980s and 1990s, NEW began a concerted international outreach, targeting women in other countries through such groups as the International Association of Professional Secretaries, the Girl Scouts, and other groups.22 Such "education" campaigns take many subtle forms. In the United States, the media campaign brought the message to mothers at home, in doctor's offices, in the classroom and school associations, in baby-sitting services, an obvious example of the selling of corporate culture. Other energy-related industries now also target women, especially since the role of women in energy and resource use has been, and continues to be, well documented.

Ashis Nandy speaks to the need to listen to culturally rooted understanding in this way:

"I am not speaking here of a strategy of mass mobilization.. .I am speaking of the more holistic or comprehensive cognition of those at the receiving end of the present world system... this... means that the living traditions of the non-Western civilizations must include a theory of the West.. it is the culturally rooted, non-modern understanding of the civilizational encounters of our times for which I am trying to create a space in public discourse."23

To Nandy's three skepticisms, this essay adds one more to make four: 1) skepticism directed at the modern nation-state, its potential and fallibility, 2) skepticism toward modern science, with its truths and biases, 3) skepticism toward the larger forces of history, with preference for the smaller forces of history, and 4) skepticism toward the multinational industrialization of the world, whose time dimension is so minuscule. Skepticism as a form of critical thinking is necessary for resolving energy sustainability within the dilemmas of a world which "has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it uses."

Entrenched alliances of interests form substantial barriers to energy sustainability. These interests demonstrate not just attitudinal obstacles, but also a combination of actions that together are mismanaging the long-run good for most of humanity. Recognition of the dangers inherent in these entrenched interests is itself providing new fuel for the engines of change. That new fuel may mean big energy plants or small ones, but the sources of energy need to be diverse, sustainable, and part of the processes that are commonly recognized as key to the longevity of the human species.


1 Laura Nader is Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

2 Lewis Mumford, "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics," Technology and Culture 5 (1964), pp. 1-8.

3 Amory Lovins, Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace (Ballinger Press, 1977).

4 Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994).

5 Science Council of Canada, Report No. 27 (September 1977).

6 Laura Nader et al., Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources (CONAES), Energy Choices in a Democratic Society (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1980).

7 Arthur Rosenfeld and Evan Mills, "A Better Idea," Washington Post, August 3, 1992, p. A19.

8 Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977).

9 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 43,

10 J. Vanek, "Time Spent in Housework," Scientific American 231 (November 1974); Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology - From the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983); A. Ong, "The Gender and Labour Politics of Postmodernity," in Annual Review of Anthropology 20 (1991), pp. 279-309; and Cynthia Gay Bendocci, Women and Technology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Gareaud Publishing, Inc., 1993).

11 Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 1989).

12 Laura Nader and Stephen Beckerman, "Energy and the Quality of Life," Annual Review of Energy, No. 3 (1978), pp. 1-28.

13 Laura Nader and Norman Milleron, "Dimensions of the 'People Problem' in Energy Research and the Factual Basis of Dispersed Energy Futures," Energy, Vol. 4, No. 5 (New York: Pergamon Press, 1976), pp. 953-967.

14 Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986).

15 Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution.

16 Fred Pearce, "Building a Disaster: The Monumental Folly of India's Tehri Dam," The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 3 (May/June 1991).

17 See, for example, Dharam Ghai, "Environment Livelihood and Empowerment," in Development and Change, Vol. 25 (1994), I-II, Oxford Blackwell Publishers.

18 Barbara Rose Johnston, "Defining and Defending Human Environmental Rights," American Anthropological Association meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, December 2, 1994.

19 Conrad R. Kottak and Alberto Costa, "Ecological Awareness, Environmentalist Action, and International Conservation Strategy," Human Organization 5z(4) (1993), pp. 335-43.

20 Majid Rahnema, "Under the Banner of Development," in Development: Seeds of Change (1986). Reprinted in The Tragedy of Development: Tradition and Modernity Re-Examined, A Reader in Peace and Conflict Studies (Berkeley: University of California, 1988).

21 Lin Nelson, "Atom and Eve: The Nuclear Industry Seeks to Win the Hearts and Minds of Women," Progressive, Vol. 47, No. 7 (July 1983).

22 Lin Nelson, "Atom and Eve."

23 Ashis Nandy, "Cultural Frames for Social Transformation: Acredo," Alternatives XII (1983), p. 117.