Keeping The Carbon In The Ground Elsewhere: Developing Nations

John Abraham has an interesting post up at the guardian called "Global warming action: good or bad for the poor?" It is a response to a post by a group of guys who tend to write annoying stuff about climate change (you can go to John's post for that information). Here, I want to make a brief comment related to John's excellent post.

The crux of John Abraham's post is this, in two parts: 1) Some have argued that mitigation against climate change is bad for "the poor" (read: people in developing countries) because they have a right to go through the same phases of technological and social development we (read: The West) have done, which would presumably include building numerous dirty coal plants so everyone can have a washer and dryer and blender and other stuff. This, John argues, is wrong at several levels. 2) As John demonstrates through is own activities, described in his post, it is possible to skip the 19th and 20th centuries in developing energy technologies and go right to the mid 21st century, installing carbon-free efficient inexpensive easily maintained and sensible technology.

I worked for several years in South Africa, as you probably know. When I first started to work there, we had problems with communication because we were usually in remote areas where there was no phone. We did get cell phones, but there were two problems with them. First, there were two major TeleCom carriers, and we worked in areas that were serviced, if they were serviced at all, by one or the other but usually not both. So we'd get two sets of cell phones. Second, as just implied, there was no cell phone service in many areas. During one field season we worked in a remote area of the Northern Cape. We were working on a farm not far from Upington for a while. We could get brief and unreliable cell phone service if we climbed a hill and stood near a certain water tank and held the phone up really high in the air. Sometimes. Farther out in the bush, where we spent considerable time, we had no cell phone access at all. There were land lines here and there but this required traveling way out of our way to use an unreliable pay phone.

During a later year, we prepared for our return to that remote area by getting the usual two cell phones, and also, carrying out all of the communications we could prior to leaving, letting people know we'd be mostly out of touch for a few weeks at a time. We packed up the Toyota Prado and the trailer with our gear and food, piled into the vehicle, and set out across the southern African subcontinent. A few days later we came to a key stop in our journey, the entranceway to what was then known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Reserve, on the border of Namibia and Botswana. I was chatting with the students who were on the field school about how our cell phones would be useless here, but there was a land line at the park headquarters that we could use now and then with the TeleCom cards we could purchase at the gift shop. As I was saying this, my field manager, Lynn, drove the car out of the river bed we had been following, and we ascended a hill overlooking the campsite at the entrance of the park. From there we could see dozens of camp sites, occupied by South African campers with their 4X4 vehicles, their amazingly tricked-out trailers deployed to form bedrooms and kitchens. The campers were standing around cooking their braai (that's South African for BBQ) as it was nearing dinner time, late in the afternoon.

Two sights took my breath away. Well, not really, but these two sights made me stop talking and change my story about making phone calls. First, there was the huge cell phone tower ascending from behind the camp site, the alp glow of the setting sun accentuating it's technological glory. The other was this: About half the people standing around in the camp site, cooking their boerwors and t-bones, were chatting on their cell phones.

Remember World War II? Yeah, I don't either. But it happened. Part of World War II involved bombing the crap out of German Industry. Japanese Industry was also bombed but there was probably less of it to begin with. The point is, at the end of the war, German and Japanese industry was toast, and those two countries were under occupation. Then there was the Marshall Plan and all that. This involved rebuilding industry in those two countries. Then, later, each in their own way, Germany (well, West Germany) proceeded to kick our industrial asses by more or less starting from scratch, combining in-place ingenuity, effective corporate culture, and brand new factories to grab several major international markets. There were a couple of decades there, overlapping with the ones I grew up in, during which it was not uncommon to hear Americans griping about that. Those guys, they started the war, we defeated them, then we gave them all this stuff, and now my commie neighbor drives a Japanese car. Dammit and get off my lawn. That sort of stuff.

I remember doing an archaeological survey in a newish exerb in the Boston area during one of those periods when Americans were especially mad at the Japanese for making great cars. In that particular neighborhood, some good ol' boys (yes, they have the in the Greater Boston Area) had gone around the neighborhood and, using chalk, marked up the driveways of anyone who had a Japanese car. They drew nasty pictures and wrote obnoxious and racist words. So, part of Western Culture, mainly that sub-part that arises from the Allied Powers, or maybe just America (but I suspect the United Kingdom as well) developed an anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent, anti-German thing based on post Marshall plan resentment.

John Abraham is a nice guy and I am not. Perhaps. John saw the article he critiqued in his blog post as being misinformed and stupid. Fine. I suspect, in my not-as-nice-guy way, that there is something deeper. Let me review before I reveal.

First, some climate change science denialists make the argument that mitigation against climate change by implementing new technologies will hurt poor people in third world countries.

Then, an expert on climate change and energy, John Abraham, notes that this is wrong, because we can implement the newest technologies in places like Sub Saharan Africa and go right from a sort-of-pre-industrial state to a 21st century state.

I note that not only is John right, but that it has happened before, in Japan, Germany, and with my example here South Africa, with various industries (cars, TeleCom, etc.)

And then we have this idea that people in the West have been known to resent those who have sailed past us in technology achievement because they ended up in a situation where they needed to move from the stone age (into which they had been bombed) to absolutely modern, or even next-gen, times.

If we give effective, inexpensive, workable, modern non-carbon energy technology to Africa and help it get deployed, then African nations will, in the near future, show up at international climate change summits with a new message that climate change science denialists and carbon-based energy magnates will not want to hear. They will say this. "Look, we're doing pretty well without carbon based energy technologies. We're advancing the standard of living without destroying the planet. Why haven't you done that, The West?"

And, when it comes to production, new ideas, technology, stuff you want to buy, the raw material of the global free market, the Africans are going to kick our asses.

And that will be great. But some are afraid because of a thing they have. It's called racism.

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