The Environment Votes for Democracy

As we see from the pathetic results of the US congress in the past few years, democracy can lead to zero forward movement and feel like a worthless form of government.  However, I have been pleasantly surprised lately to observe how democracy does benefit the environment.

After my company was recently awarded a contract to develop impactful renewable energy projects (ones that meet strict social and environmental benefit standards) in Myanmar, I’ve seen first hand how this extremely impoverished country (minimum wage in the capital city is ~$3.50/day) is in some cases choosing a higher initial cost yet less-polluting energy path due to both its people’s values and democratic principles beginning to take hold. To clarify, Myanmar as a whole isn’t exactly a well functioning democracy just yet, but has been moving quickly in that direction since emerging from military stronghold in 2012.

Protest over proposed coal power plant

In Kawthaung, a small town in southern Myanmar, residents have been paying more than $0.35 / kWh (the average cost of power for US consumers is just 1/3, or ~$0.11 / kWh), the residents protested vehemently over the 2012 installation of a new coal power plant right outside of town.  Despite the coal plant reducing town residents’ energy costs by almost 50%, the residents felt the polluted air, respiratory problems, and other health concerns far outweighed the increased savings.  Earlier this year, the residents actually succeeded in shutting down the 8 MW coal power generation facility, a mere 3 years after it was constructed.  Today it sits idle and residents are back to paying higher costs, but with better living conditions and peace of mind. If we are successful in converting the coal site into a combined solar and biomass generation facility, the residents may get the best of both worlds – clean environment and cheaper electricity.

China on the other hand, despite 1000’s of similar protests over the past 15 years, paid little attention and built 900,000 MW of coal power plants, not to mention massive industrial complexes such as lead smelters, chemical plants, refineries, etc. often right in people’s backyards or adjacent to their farms. Chinese people now pay the price with ~10% of arable farmland polluted by heavy metals, and unbearable air and water pollution.

State-owned lead smelter in Tianying, China that has made much of the land uninhabitable. Photo: David Gray/Reuters/Corbis

State-owned lead smelter in Tianying, China that has made much of the land uninhabitable. Photo: David Gray/Reuters/Corbis

It is really remarkable the direction that countries will develop if a) people speak up for themselves and b) the governing system is structured to be impacted by those complaints.

From the looks of it, as long as the system is right, the complaints don’t need to be loud, impassioned, nor even expressed in a language we can read.

burmese woman coal

Now it’s time to get the US system right!!







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