Yunis is an 8-year-old girl much like any other. She loves playing outside with her friends, the satisfaction of solving a new math problem, and her best turquoise satin dress with bows along the neck. Of course, being an 8-year-old isn’t all fun and games, especially when her sister and brothers sometimes get on her nerves. I have never met Yunis, but I think about her every day.
What makes Yunis so special? Nothing — and everything.
Yunis lives in a tiny, remote village in Malawi, where just 11% of the population has access to electricity (and far less than that in rural areas). The 8-year-olds in my upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood are watching TV shows on their iPads, pulling packaged snacks from ice-cold refrigerators, and turning in homework online. Yunis couldn’t imagine such gifts. The greatest blessing in her life? A brand new well that allows girls in her community to get to school on time because they no longer have to walk hours to gather water from an unsanitary river.
Malawi offers a snapshot of what life in energy poverty is like. Life expectancy in the sub-Saharan nation is just 64 years — for those fortunate enough to survive to adulthood, that is. Infant mortality is six times higher than in the United States. Nearly 70% of the population lives in extreme poverty — defined as subsisting on less than $2 a day — and barely more than half of women are literate.
Although some of these statistics have improved in recent decades, the contrast between life of the average Malawian and my life as I write this is sharp and unsettling. While American politicians are captivated by culture wars, allowing such frivolous issues as gender pronouns and skin color to consume our political narrative, real men, women, and children just like us are struggling to even survive.
Few societal problems have a one-size-fits-all solution, but if one exists for poverty, it’s energy. Access to affordable, reliable energy (and especially electricity) dramatically improves every aspect of our lives. Even the most basic necessities we take for granted — like safe sanitation systems, warm homes in the winter, pharmacies stocked full of medications, and access to a wide variety of nutritious foods — are impossible without it. And just imagine trying to provide children with a quality education, coordinate emergency management protocols, or start a flourishing business without reliable power and transportation fuels. Those things might be possible — but they would be tedious, laborious, and achievable only by a select few.
Energy makes possible our modern lives and the economic opportunity common to all stable, prosperous nations — yet it remains just out of reach for billions around the world. Sadly, many politicians are more keen on scoring political points and avoiding the wrath of the environmental lobby than exploring actual solutions for girls like Yunis.
There’s a picture of her, with her shimmering teal dress and her shy smile, on the corner of my refrigerator. As I walk by, I often think about what her life could be like if she had been born in the electrified West instead of in impoverished Malawi. I think about the opportunities my children have by default that Yunis could barely imagine.
This is why energy policy matters — because it affects real people’s lives, for better or worse. There are headlines nearly every day citing faceless figures of carbon dioxide emissions, corporate earnings, green energy tax breaks, and more. Facts and figures are important, and abstract statistics do help center policy discussions. But too often, political machinations in Washington, D.C., and state legislatures are too far removed from the real, human ramifications of the issues being discussed.
When it comes to energy, the potential within our grasp to liberate humanity from poverty is nearly limitless. But to do so, we need to question entrenched political narratives, dig deep into real data and real science, and focus less on what performs well in Twitter threads and soundbites and more and on what truly helps people.
America is a global leader in energy (a position we’re all the more aware of as tensions continue to rise in Russia and Europe). As much as the Biden administration tries to dismantle the domestic fossil fuel industry — and even to prevent it from bettering human lives around the world by denying financing to developing countries — we can only hope that we will remain one of the world’s powerhouses in oil, gas, and coal. If our elected leaders turn away from politicization and towards real solutions to improve the human condition, we can unleash the full power and potential of American energy producers to not only improve our lives, but to produce enough of the cleanest, most efficient, most reliable energy in the world to export where it’s desperately needed. Children like Yunis are depending on it.
This commentary originally appeared in The Cannon Online on March 8, 2022.