The first thing we do in a dark room is reach for a light switch.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued that we want money—income or wealth— because it allows us the freedom to live the kinds of lives we have reason to value. When individuals start to have access to resources beyond their most basic needs, they use it to buy artificial light, because light gives us more agency—more freedom to do what we want, when and where we want to do it. It’s such a universal human desire that researchers use the amount of light visible in nighttime satellite images of regions as a proxy for economic development.
I’m an engineering professor, which means that I think and teach about how humans interface with the material world around us. Because we are embodied beings in a physical environment, every interaction we have—everything we do—requires energy, in the very real, engineering sense of joules and kilowatt-hours. So to me, the real global differentiator isn’t wealth: it’s the energy, and so the personal agency, that we purchase with that wealth. The per capita energy usage of the richest countries in the world is ten or more times that of the poorest. We might pay for it with dollars, but energy is the true currency of the physical world.
Most of us use nearly all of that energy through collective systems: our infrastructural utilities. These networks give us freedom from what would otherwise be the daily labor of meeting our most basic human needs, delivering clean water and whisking away waste, providing for the warmth or cooling of our homes, and the heat we need to cook our daily meals. They give us the ability to connect with each other virtually through telecommunications networks and by moving around the world via transportation systems. Above all, there’s electricity. Few of us use our paychecks to purchase candles or lanterns to illuminate our homes. Instead, we tap into electrical grids that span the continent. While light might be the killer app, we use our access to the electrical grid for so much more, and all of us use electricity in different ways, for everything from ventilators to videogames. Not for nothing do we often refer to electricity as, simply, ‘power’. Together, our infrastructural systems underpin our personal agency to such a degree that they’re nearly invisible, unless, of course, they fail. A blackout, or a boil-water order, or a gas leak, or even just an internet outage reshapes our life for the duration, replacing our casual freedom with the exigencies of survival.
Every one of these systems makes it easy for us to do things in specific ways, so easy we barely have to think about it. But they also make it hard to do things in different ways, whether it’s taking public transit instead of driving, or switching to a heat pump or an induction stove when natural gas is already being piped to our home.
For all of human history, most of the energy that we’ve used to power our ways of life has come from combustion. As our infrastructural systems grew in size and scale—from horse-drawn carriages to 747s, from telegraphs to data centers—so too did their energy usage, coupled to an exponential rise in fossil fuel usage (first coal, then oil and gas) and with that, greenhouse gas emissions. Because these systems shape what we can do, and how we can do it, that means that most of our ‘individual’ energy usage (and carbon footprint) is anything but individual. You can make an individual consumer decision to buy a new electric car, but you can’t make a consumer decision to build out a nationwide network of chargers, much less roads. Our infrastructural systems were built out and adopted collectively.
Having access to high quality infrastructure underpins everything that we can do as individuals— not just how we take care of ourselves, but how we take care of each other, and how we engage with the world as civic and economic actors. We’ve known for two centuries that robust infrastructural systems underpin our capacity to think, create, and produce, as individuals and communities, as a nation and a species.
But any system that can efficiently move resources to where people use them is also a system that can efficiently extract resources from other places. Networks that can concentrate benefits in communities are ones that that can displace the harms to other communities. For the past two centuries, these systems have been used to amplify inequities. Systematic lack of access to the benefits of infrastructural utilities, or being forced to bear a disproportionate share of the harms of those systems, is a form of what scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls ‘organized abandonment’ of communities by the larger society.
But over the past few decades, the technologies that we need to power all of these systems with solar, wind power, geothermal, hydroelectricity, and other sources of renewable energy, have been quietly developed. For the first time, the energy that underpins our freedom to act in the world isn’t limited by access to what we can pull out of the ground to burn, nor does it necessarily put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is an epochal, civilizational change.
The scientists and engineers have done their job, and now it’s up to all of us to decide what we want to do with this energy and the human freedom it can provide.
We already know that our infrastructural systems, as networks that move resources around the world to where we use them, are frighteningly vulnerable to the increasingly rapid changes to those once-stable landscapes because we read about climate change-induced failures of these systems in the news every day. We can’t just patch them up and expect them to keep working when the ground is shifting beneath them, sometimes literally. But we can take this opportunity to rethink and rebuild all of these collective systems to be resilient and sustainable. We used humanity’s first big step up in energy access – fossil fuels – to scale up how we extract, transport, and consume resources, for the benefit of a global few. We can use this next big step in energy access to not only extend these systems to everyone on the planet, but also to use it to address the harms and needs—from pollution to access to clean water—of our technological civilization.
Whether it’s our neighborhood, our city, our watershed, our continent, or our planet, these systems connect each of us to all of those around us. By seeing and recognizing our infrastructural systems for what they are, we can figure out ways to work together to transform them, creating a whole new technological basis for human civilization, one where everyone has access to the shared energy that they need to lead the kinds of lives that they have reason to value.
It’s time to light up the world.
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