Hans Rosling, in this brilliant TED Talk, shows the direct link between the availability of electricity and education. He uses the electric washing machine as an example of how the lives of millions of poor women have changed as a result of electrification. This has a personal resonance for me. My mother grew up without a washing machine; see her comment below.
I love Rosling’s question about 04:30 into his talk: “how many of you [environmentalists] hand-wash your jeans and bed-sheets?”
I would not describe myself as an environmentalist. That is because the label has been misused by many who do describe themselves that way. This does not mean I don’t care about the environment. I do, passionately.
Regardless, I actually have hand-washed my jeans, and in exactly the way Rosling describes: by heating water with firewood, then soaking the jeans in the heated water and working them by hand until I think they are clean. I did this at my cottage in Muskoka, in wintertime. (Chalk it up to my addiction to fast food and bad driving habits: en route to the cottage one winter day I picked up some KFC, with fries and gravy, and spilled the gravy into my lap while driving, while wearing the only pair of pants I had brought.)
Here’s what I had to do.
- Make a fire in the wood stove inside the cottage; that’s how I heat the place.
- Make a hole in the lake ice, using a hand auger and saw (the ice at the time was about half a meter thick, so using an axe would have been even more time consuming and inefficient).
- Draw pailfuls of ice-cold water by hand, and carry them into the cottage (we have running water in summer but not winter).
- Pour the cold water from the pail into a pot.
- Put the water-filled pot on the wood-fired stove.
- Wait for the stove to warm up and in turn warm the water.
- Pour the hot water from the pot into a hand-tub and put the jeans in, with a bit of biodegradable soap.
- Work the jeans by hand until I thought they were clean.
This whole process took many hours of hard physical effort. Compare that work with what you do if you are washing your jeans in an electric powered washing machine:
- Put the jeans into the machine.
- Put soap in.
- Set your water level by pushing a button.
- Push the “On” button.
- Go and do something else, like read, while the machine is doing the work.
The eight steps involved in hand-washing your clothes are extremely time consuming and exhausting. Most people in the developed world do not realize how much energy it takes to move and heat water. If you had to do that all the time, you would have very little time for anything else. That includes education. That is why education levels tend to be higher in countries where there is ubiquitous cheap electricity. It frees you from the drudgery of manual labour.
Now, in most countries in the world, that electricity comes from one or more of only four sources: hydropower, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Most places have tapped out their available hydropower, which leaves coal, gas, or nuclear as their options for adding generating capacity.
Jurisdictions that need new capacity, and that includes most developing countries, are now facing these choices.
Which should they choose?
Here’s a debate on exactly that subject, in the form of another TED Talk. The debate is between Stewart Brand, one of the early founders of the Earth movement, and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University. Have a watch: