We have met the 1%, and he is us

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

In explanation of my title, I fear I’ll have to go on a bit of a digression. Let me tell three stories, about people in three different parts of our amazing planet.

STORY THE FIRST: In my early thirties, through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences I spent some time as the first mate on a sailboat in the Philippines. At one point we spent a couple months anchored up offshore from the Manila Yacht Club while we were getting some boat repairs done. As befits a young man with more testosterone than sagacity, I spent the evenings in the dives and nightclubs in the local red light district. Not paying for the favors of the ladies of the evening, you understand, that always seemed creepy to me. Just drinking and having a good time. One of the bars had a piano. It became my habit that each evening after work, I would go ashore. I’d walk the six blocks or so over to the bar and play the piano for a few hours, and talk to what they euphemistically called the “hostesses” and the bartender, and watch the evening go by. After a while, I was just another fixture in the bar, I was the piano man. People coming in thought I was just part of the floor show. I got to be friends with the bartenders, and with the hostesses, they would tell me their stories. One of the women working there was named Helena. She and I got to be good friends. We were never lovers, although I wouldn’t have minded one bit. We just hung out together and had a good time in the bar, singing songs maybe, telling stories. Sometimes on the weekends we would meet and wander around the city and she would explain to me the local customs, tell me what was going on. She taught me just enough Tagalog to get in trouble, it was great.

manila slums

Figure 1. Slums in Manila

During this time, Helena kept telling me that I was rich. I always laughed and said no, no, in America I was a very poor man. And that was true, I was an itinerant sailor and fisherman and a boat bum. She just laughed back at me. But she never asked me for anything, not one penny, not one gift. Well that’s not quite true. She asked me for cigarettes for her father. So I kept her old man in smokes. I figured it was the least I could do. She had her pride.

One other thing she wouldn’t do. I kept asking her to invite me over to the place where she lived. But she always refused. I wouldn’t like it, she said. So one afternoon I decided I’d just go over there on my own. I got her address from one of the bartenders. He advised me against visiting there, he said it was in a bad section of town. I said okay. I was young. I was foolish. What did I know? When I told the taxi driver where I was going, he turned around in his seat and looked at me. Are you sure you want to go there, he asked? Yeah I’m sure, I said with more certainty than I felt. OK, he said, but you gotta pay me the money now, I’m not waiting around once we get there … I gave him the money and off we went.

Helena’s place turned out to be located in a shantytown covering an entire city block. The buildings had been demolished at some point in the past and then abandoned. An entire community had sprung up there over the years. As soon as I got out of the taxi, the driver sped away. I turned around and was confronted by the most astounding warren of structures that I had ever seen. Every possible building material was on display. Concrete blocks, short sticks of wood, old highway signs, flattened out tin cans, cardboard of every color and description, car doors and windows, random bits of glass, hunks of corrugated iron, shipping pallets, foam from appliance boxes. And this potpourri of materials was all strapped and held and cajoled into staying together by a motley assortment of rusty nails, bits of wire, rubber straps, pieces of leather, sections of vine, lengths of duct tape, strips of cloth, the variety of fasteners was endless. There were buildings on top of buildings added onto buildings built underneath buildings. I asked the first person I came to where Helena lived. He gave me a series of instructions that, as near as I could understand, included obscure directives like “go over that direction except stay this side” and “don’t go under the third walkway, go where the man is selling balut” and “be careful to avoid the other opening”. All of these directions were delivered in what to a casual passerby would have passed for English, but on closer examination appeared to have been assembled from random phrases culled from instruction manuals.

I thanked the man and wandered off in the general direction he had indicated. I stopped at intervals to get new sets of partially intelligible instructions from random strangers that led me through and over and into more of the 3-D maze. The way to her house went by means of a bizarre collection of passageways that were neither streets nor alleys. I could not tell public from private areas. Eyes looked out of every opening. I knew that I could not find my way back out without a guide. The passageway wandered over and around structures, at points seemingly going through people’s back yards with life in full swing. At other points the way passed along a ditch running foul sewage, complete with a strange assortment of floating objects that did not bear close inspection. After accidentally looking at one piece of flotsam, I repented and quickly switched to carefully looking at the other side of the path, and I eschewed further reckless eyeballing until I left that ditch far behind.

Now, people mistake the Philippines for a nation. In reality, it is much more like a really big family with a bunch of kinda strange relatives. Not bad, just strange. And of course on this city block of houses-in-wonderland, everybody knew everybody. The nature of communications in the area was such that by the time that the kindness of strangers had brought me to where Helena lived, she had heard the news already and had gotten spruced up and was prepared to meet me at the door. She invited me into what she explained was her aunt’s house. She had a room in the back. She offered to show it to me. We stepped inside. Of course we could not close the door, that was not proper, nor all that practical given the miniature size of the room. But it wouldn’t have made much difference, there was no privacy. You could hear everything everywhere, the walls were paper-thin. And I suppose that shouldn’t have been surprising, because one wall was actually made of paper, but I was surprised by that detail nonetheless. I noted in passing that the paper wall was made up of pasted together advertising posters for Hindi Bollywood movies, lending a pleasant, almost carnival atmosphere to the place.

Her room was tiny. A small sleeping pallet took up almost all of the available floor space. Inside the room were all of Helena’s worldly belongings. They consisted of a small wooden box which contained a few dresses and blouses and under-garments, and another smaller wooden box which contained a few items of makeup, a mirror, and some little trinkets and costume jewelry that obviously were precious to her. Other than that, there was one pair of shoes, and a cross and a picture of Jesus on the wall. Oh, there was the cloth pallet on which she slept, but that scrap of sewn-together rags likely belonged to her auntie. And that was the sum total of her possessions, all contained in a minuscule room with one wall made of paper …

That was it … that was all that she owned. A few dresses and a picture of Jesus. Now I understood why she thought I was rich. Because by her terms, I most assuredly was rich. I was incredibly wealthy in her world.

I talked with her a while there in the house, and with her aunt. Her uncle was out working. Her aunt had a small sewing business in her house. Life was not bad, life was not good, life was just life. Helena translated, her aunt spoke only Tagalog. We laughed some. They had a roof over their heads, albeit one of flattened tin cans laid as shingles. They had each other. We watched the almost-liquid warmth of the Manila evening slowly pouring over the city. After while, Helena showed me how to get back to the street, and found me a taxi. I wouldn’t have been able to find the street without her, and no taxi would have stopped for me there at dusk, but they knew Helena. She left me there, she had to go back and get changed and get to work. I said I was going back to the ship, I’d see her later that evening, play some piano.

In the taxi, on my way back to the ship, I reflected on how incredibly wealthy I actually was. I finally realized, with some embarrassment, why she had laughed so heartily when I was so foolish and naive as to claim that I was poor. The only remaining mystery to me was how her laughter at my blindness had been so free of even the slightest hint of reproach for my colossal bumbling ignorance.

STORY THE SECOND: Fast forward five years. I’m working in sub-Saharan Africa, in Senegal. My workmate and I are in some godforsaken village out near the Kaolack salt flats. A 3-D relief map of the turf would look like a flat sheet of paper, it’s the land god stepped on. We get invited to dinner by some farmer, and by custom we cannot refuse. He lives in the proverbial mud hut, with his wife, a scad of kids, a wooden planting stick, a wooden mortar and pestle for grinding grain, a three-rock firepit in back for cooking, a leaky roof, and not much else. I note when we get there that he has two scrawny chickens wandering the yard. When we go in the house, he confers for a moment with his wife. She disappears. I hear squawking. I realize the man now has one scrawny chicken wandering the yard. The farmer and my associate and I drink sickly sweet tea and  talk about the doings in the area. After a while, his wife brings in the chicken cooked up all nice, and offers it to us, the honored guests. The kids watch from the corners of the room.

But I can’t eat that damned bird. I can’t do it. I can’t bear the eyes of the kids. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like they are watching me with reproach in their eyes or anything, that wasn’t the problem at all. The thing I can’t bear is that the kids can’t take their eyes off of the chicken. Their eyes caress it, they watch that bird “as one who hath been stunned and is of sense forlorn” as the poet had it, they are blind to everything else. I can’t take it.

Plus I am shamed by the easy generosity of the man and his wife. They have nothing, and yet he offers us half of what they have without missing a beat. I am reminded of Rabelais’ will: “I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor”. The farmer’s wife has cooked and served the chicken, both of them temporarily appropriating the easy air of people who have hundreds of chickens, people who have chicken for dinner every night. My heart hangs, suspended. I hear the lone remaining chicken complaining outside.

So I trot out my old threadbare excuse from Mexico, and I blame my much maligned liver. In Mexico they blame their liver for everything. I have found it’s quite a useful excuse, over the years my liver has cheerfully soaked up the blame for a host of my idiosyncrasies. So I take one small bite for forms sake, and then (in French, it being Senegal) I compliment the woman and the man on the chicken. I tell them the doctor has said that chicken is bad for my liver,  le médecin has said that le poulet is downright mauvais for my greatly-abused old foie, so as much as I liked the delicious flavor, and as much as I was deeply grateful for the honor they were offering me, I say I’m terribly sorry but I can’t possibly eat any more, they’ll just have to finish it off for me. And I tuck into the rest of the meal, the part that my liver doesn’t mind, to prove my bonafides.

They make the appropriate noises of disappointment that I’m not eating, and they have the grace not to look overjoyed. The children’s eyes are full of expectation. They look at that poor scrawny little representative of the great avian nation with unconcealed longing. The wife takes the plate into the back. In contrast to their earlier raucous play, the children vanish soundlessly on bare feet along with her. It seems that none of them dare to make a sound in case the mirage all disappears, like Cinderella after midnight. Not the time to get mom mad …

I avert my eyes from the disappearing chicken and the children. I look at the man and my workmate. We lapse into small-talk with no reference at all to poultry, or to children, chatting light-heartedly as though nothing meaningful had just occurred.

Thinking on it now, I consider how many times I’ve bought some random chicken in the supermarket on a whim, and how little it represents to me. I could buy fifty chickens if I chose, five hundred if need be. And I think about what that one scrawny chicken meant to that family.

STORY THE THIRD: Fast forward another five years, to when I lived in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific. Because I ran a shipyard, I met lots of yachties who were on boats sailing through the Solomons. Often they would complain to me about the high prices being asked by the islanders for their beautiful wood carvings. After the first few complaints, I developed the following analogy which I used over and over.

I told the yachties, imagine that one day an alien spaceship lands in your front yard. It is made out of solid gold, and it is encrusted with rubies, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. The alien steps out of the spaceship. He is dressed in cloth picked out in gold and silver threads, and his shoes have platinum buckles and diamonds everywhere, including on the soles … he comes up to you, and through his universal vocoder he says, “I say, old fellow, I rather fancy that old pickup truck of yours. How much money would it take to convince you to part with it?”. 

Now, you know the old truck is worth maybe a hundred dollars, and that’s on a good day with a following wind. And one can’t predict the future, but you are kinda sure that this opportunity will never come again … which means the real question is, would you tell the diamond-studded alien “Oh, I could be persuaded to let it go for million dollars, it’s kinda precious to me”, or would you only say “a hundred thousand dollars”?

Seriously, I’d tell the yachties, you get a one-time chance like that, you have to take your shot. You have to ask for the moon. Might not get it, but why not ask?

Next, consider the average Solomon Islander, I would tell the yachties. The average guy in some outer island village might only see a hundred Solomon dollars in cash all year, that’s thirty bucks US. I said to the yachtie, your watch is worth thirty dollars US. Your yachting shorts set you back forty-five, the cool sunglasses were seventy-five dollars, the Izod polo shirt was fifty-five, the belt was thirty bucks. Your stylish yachting cap was sixty bucks. The nice Sperry Topsider boat shoes were seventy-five dollars. Not counting your socks or your skivvies or your jewelry,  what you are wearing is worth about what cash the average outer islander might see in ten or twelve years. It’s worth a decade of his labor, and that’s merely what you are wearing as you pass through his world.  That doesn’t count the cash in your pocket, or the credit cards in your pocket. It doesn’t count the value of rest of your wardrobe. And we haven’t even gotten to the money you might have in the bank, or your other assets …

So yes, when you sail up to the village in a yacht and ask how much something costs, they will ask a hundred dollars Solomon, or three hundred dollars, who knows? Because to them, you’re an alien wearing gold cloth, with diamonds on the soles of your shoes. They’d be mad not to ask top dollar for their carvings.

And I told the yachties, you know what? Given both that huge disparity in net worth between you and the woodcarver, and the world-class quality of the woodcarving in the Solomons, you’d be mad not to pay top dollar for whatever carvings catch your fancy.

============ END OF THE THREE STORIES =============

Now, I have told these three tales in order to provide a context for a couple of quotes. The context that I am providing is that there is an almost inconceivable distance from the top of the heap to the bottom of the heap. The top of the heap is the 1%, not of the US, but of the global population. That 1% is made up of the people like you and me and the folks who read this blog who live in the western world, the top few percent of the global population who enjoy the full benefits of development, the winners on the planet. It’s a long, long way from where we stand down to the bottom of the heap, that dark and somewhat mysterious place we don’t like to think about where far too many of the planet’s people eke out a living on a dollar or three a day, and we wonder how on earth they can do so. To them, we are as unknown and distant as aliens in golden jeweled spaceships with diamonds on the soles of our shoes. I offer the stories to give you some idea of the constraints on those people’s lives, and the contrasts between their lives and ours.

Those people have no slack. They have no extra room in their budgets. They have no ability to absorb increases in their cost of living, particularly their energy spending. They have no credit cards, no credit, and almost no assets. They have no health insurance. They are not prepared for emergencies. They have no money in the bank. They have no reserve, no cushion, no extra clothing, no stored food in the basement, no basement for that matter, no fat around their waist, no backups, no extras of any description. They are not ready for a hike in the price of energy or anything else. They have damn well nothing—a wooden digging stick, a spare dress, a picture of Jesus, a paper wall, a bowl of millet.

It is in that context, the context that acknowledges that about half the world, three billion people, live on less than three dollars a day (2005 PPP),  that I bring up the following two quotes:

 “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the [US] price of gasoline to the levels in Europe”


“Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.”

Here’s my problem with these brilliant plans. Regardless of whatever hypothetical possible future benefit they might or might not bring in fifty years, right here and now in the present they are absolutely devastating to the poor.

The US Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, the author of the first quote, wouldn’t have his commute to work imperiled if US gasoline prices were to rise to $8/gallon and thus reach the levels in Europe. He can buy all the gasoline he wants for any purpose. But if you are a poor single mom with a couple of kids and a clapped-out car that gets you to work and back and drinks gasoline faster than your good-for-nothing ex-husband drank whiskey before he left, for you a doubling of the gas prices means the kids eat less or something else goes by the board, because you have to get to work. It’s not optional.

And if the cost of electricity for the US and the White House “skyrockets”, Obama won’t be sleeping cold in the winter. Nor will I, for that matter. That would be the poor renter  in upstate New York who can’t afford to turn on the electric heater.

The difference between rich and poor, between developed and developing, is the availability of inexpensive energy. A kilowatt-hour is the same amount of work as a hard days labor by an adult. We’re rich because we have (or at least had) access to the hardworking servants of inexpensive energy. We have inexpensive electrical and mechanical slaves to do our work for us.

This is particularly important for the poor. The poorer you are, the larger a percentage of your budget goes to energy-intensive things like transportation and heat and electricity. If you double the price of energy, everyone is poorer, but the poor take it the hardest. Causing an increase in energy prices for any reason is the most regressive tax imaginable. At  the bottom of the pile people make a buck a day and pay fifty cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity … there’s no give down there at the bottom of the heap, no room for doubling the price of gasoline to European levels, no space for electric prices to skyrocket.

So I find it both reprehensible and incomprehensible when those of us who are in the 1% of the global 1%, like President Obama and Secretary Chu, blithely talk of doubling the price of gasoline and sending the cost of electricity skyrocketing as though there were no negative results from that, as though it wouldn’t cause widespread suffering, as though cheap energy weren’t the best friend of the poor. What Chu and Obama propose are crazy plans, they are ivory-tower schemes of people who are totally out of touch with the realities faced by the poor of the world, whether inside the US or out. Now please, I’m not making this political. There are people on both sides of the aisle who have signed on to the crazy idea that we should raise energy prices.

When I was a kid, everyone was quite clear that inexpensive energy was the key to a fairly boundless future. Our schoolbooks told of the Tennessee Valley project, and how it lit up the whole region, to everyone’s benefit. In particular, electricity was seen, and rightly so, as the savior of the rural poor. How did we lose that? Just how and when did deliberately making energy more and more expensive become a good thing?

I don’t buy that line of talk, not for one minute. Expensive energy is not a good thing for anyone, wealthy or poor. And in particular, more expensive energy condemns the poor to lives of increased misery and privation.

As far as I know, other than the completely overblown “peak oil” fears, about the only argument raised against the manifold benefits of inexpensive energy is the claim that increasing CO2 will lead to some fancied future Thermageddon™ fifty years from now. I have seen no actual evidence that such might be the case, just shonky computer model results. And even if CO2 were to lead to a temperature rise, we have no evidence that it will be harmful overall. According to the BEST data, we’ve seen a 2°C land temperature rise in the last two centuries with absolutely no major temperature-related ill effects that I am aware of, and in fact, generally beneficial outcomes. Longer growing seasons. More ice-free days in the northern ports. I don’t see any catastrophes in that historical warming. Despite the historical warming, there is no sign of any historical increase in weather extremes of any kind. Given two degrees C of historical warming with no increase in extreme events or catastrophes, why should I expect such an increase in some hypothetical future warming?

So I’m sorry, but I am totally unwilling to trade inexpensive energy today, which is the real actual salvation of the poor today, for some imagined possible slight reduction in the temperature fifty years from now. That is one of the worst trades that I can imagine, exchanging current suffering for a promise of a slight reduction in temperatures in the year 2050.

Finally, for those who think that these quotes and ideas of Chu and Obama only affect the US, nothing could be further from the truth. Sadly, the policies are being exported and imposed, both by force and by persuasion, on the poorer countries of the world. To take just one example, pressure on the World Bank from the western countries and NGOs is denying financing to coal-fired plants in countries like India with coal resources. So the poor of India are denied inexpensive coal-fired electricity, they end up paying the price for the western one-percenters’ guilt and fear ridden fantasies about what might happen fifty years in the misty future.

Heck, even if the dreaded carbon menace were real, raising the price on fossil fuels would be the last way on earth I’d choose to fight it. Like I said … big current pain for small future maybes, that’s a lousy trade. Now, like I said, I don’t think CO2 is worth fighting. But if you do, I implore you, first do no harm—any rise in energy prices harms the poor. If you want to fight CO2, there are other ways.


[UPDATE: a reader has pointed out that I am not describing the poorest of the poor, and he is quite correct. Helena had her job. The African farmer had a house and land, and not to mention originally two, but lately only one, chicken. The people in the Solomons had their bush gardens and the bountiful ocean.

The poorest of the poor have none of these things. They are a whole level below the people I talk about. You don’t want to consider where they sleep or what they eat. And yes, they are hit by rising energy prices like everyone else. -w.]

…  from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …


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The people who are “easing their consciences” are not the people who have to pay the price. Am I being a conspiracy-nut neurotic when I suspect that carbon taxes are just an excuse for the developed nations to avoid giving aid to the dark-skinned nations of the world?

Being a conspiracy nut requires believing that people sometimes lie and work together to achieve their desired ends. Logically that is less problematic than normalcy bias which causes otherwise rational people to believe that tomorrow will be like today inspite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Now that said, the expensive energy policy is designed to deal with population growth and resource scarcity. The group of peopl
Soe that can print money, buy votes, and pay off judges, they are worried about peak everything. Their undemocratic, published, funded position is that there are too many people, carbon dioxide emitters.
Take a look at fertility rates, gmo labeling resistance, geoengineering, and vaccine showing increased rate of many diseases. Or take a look at the foundations that gates and soros fund. What are their stated goals?
Conspiracy nuts are not to blame for the world’s ills, its the entranced (media programmed normalcy bias) masses that standby doing nothing while evil men with printing presses and science gone mad, run amock that deserve the negative connation.

Dr Mo

Growing up in a South East Asian country, I dig you Willis. I dig you deep. Whatever President Obama experienced when he was growing up in Indonesia – also a SEA country, he must have been pretty sheltered from the rank poverty of the people there, cos to this day (I just visited Indonesia last month), kids as young as 7 or 8 are knocking on car windows on busy city intersections asking for money, when they should be in school.


Thank you. I love your stories.
I have traveled as have you. I, along with many, thought Barak Obama would “get it” after going to school in Indonesia, albeit living in Mantang (an elite suburb). I was wrong. I saw with my own eyes the rather desperate consequences of what you say. I usually find that I have to pay the full asking price, I cannot bargain. Chu and Obama are of the elite, they think poor is having an old car and living on social security, they have no idea. I am so disappointed. Inexpensive energy for the poor was and is the key to life. Without it, you die badly in your forties in most of this world. I feel so very lucky to be in the 1% (middle class Australia). I showed my kids what poor was when they grew up, made them live there for a while, so that they feel lucky too.

TomTurner in SF

A good read, and a very good point. Now what? The folks who vote for Obama are out of touch with this line of reasoning. Some of them are said to be angry about a recent increase in payroll deductions.


Bloody hell. That’s one of the most powerful indictments of “expensive energy” I’ve ever seen.
Willis, you’ve led one heck of a life.

Difficult to add anything, Willis. You said it all.

Stephen Richards

What can I say ? Youv’e said it all but the arrogant fools that are sociocommunists will not be reading or listening. It’s their crusade and if some of the poor have to die so be it they did afterall vote for Oblarny et al.

Stephen Richards

Dr Mo says:
January 13, 2013 at 4:20 am
I think he grew up in Kenya where his father was the finance minister. Ideally placed to feed on the corruption that is rife throughout Africa.


I fully agree with Willis.
About electricity for the poor, South Africa is a country to keep an eye on!

Mike Fowle

Eloquent and poetic. Not being flippant when I say one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Richard Thal

Willis, you’ve done it again. this really puts things in perspective. Brings me to tears.


Thank you for those three very thought-provoking stories, and just to prove I read every word, there is a typo in the second paragraph after “END OF THE THREE STORIES =============”. They have no extra room in their budgets. They have NO ability to absorb…


Willis, you’ve done it again. Really puts things in perspective. Brings tears to my eyes.


The Left cares only about getting and keeping political power. They don’t care about the poor, freedom, the environment, or the country they live in – only power and themselves.

Les Johnson

Wills: I have had experiences similar to yours, and I realized too, that I am increadibly lucky for the geography of my birth.
We were poor growing up (two parents and 6 kids in two and three bedroom houses), but we didn’t know it. It was only when I went overseas, that I confirmed that we were indeed NOT poor, compared to most of the world.
One story in Nigeria sticks out, involving my wife. She had one of the neighbours driver come to her, and ask for money so his wife could have a caesarian section. The doctor was asking for a several months salary, and he didn’t have it.
My wife is a firm believer in “doveryai no proveryai”, and asked to visit his wife in the hospital. When she went there (and a in very similar journey you took in the Phillipines), she found the “hospital” to be an infection spa. Blood was everywhere, even on the doctors white jacket. Her pockets were brown, where she put her hands in. The windows were opaque with mold. The sheets had not been washed in days or weeks, and the floors were filithy with subtstances unknown, and best left unknown. My wife tore the doctor a new one. Several new ones, actually, and then paid her for the procedure.
The next day, the driver came in and thanked my wife profusely. Not for the money, but for shaming the hospital into cleaning up.
ps- Mother and child were doing fine, last we heard, when we left Nigeria.

In australia increase in price by taxation is used cynically to reduce bad behaviour like drinking and smoking but the worst is gambling where the gov takes 35% of the winnings of hopeless addicts. The poor lose every time.
Willis struggles with the link with 3rd world but here is one example that stands out in my memory: A more direct connection is found in Indonesia where locals were forced to pay world market prices for their own oil. Their petrol is sold in soda bottles because most folks can only afford to buy in small amounts. In 2005 the price of petrol doubled overnight. It was scary. inthe end there were only a few small outbreaks of rioting. Although nothing much happened the tension on the streets was extraordinary. Why did they do this? The gov would never have done something so risk if its hand were not forced…by the world bank as I recall.


Right on the button as usual.
The poorest folk I have seen were a family in Port Sudan. 130F in the shade only there wasn’t any. This family lived on a plot of hard sand about 20 yards by 20 yards. They had four bamboo sticks held up by string with a discarded dunnage mat on top. Under the mat lived their goat, in the shade. The family lived outside in the sun. If the goat died they died, it was all they had. I was told the man sometimes got work at the camel market, maybe a day a month.
The countries that people like that live in do not need expensive energy.

Stan Vinson

Perspective is a most valuable gift. Thank you Willis for your gift. I will now pass this along to my children.


Excellent Willis! Your on point stories reminded me of a presentation I heard Dr. John Christy give in which he talked about his experiences doing missionary work in Africa and things he saw similar to your experiences. “Life without energy” he said “is short and brutal”…

Willis you painted three pictures in a detail of words that brought tears to my eyes and heaviness to my heart. You have made your point very well.


Spot on, Willis!
Having been in Solomon Islands and Fiji at the same times as you, (and shared a beer in the Honiara Yacht Club, and I think today would be the 20th anniversary of our unexpected meeting on Vakabalea Corner 🙂 ) I can fully grasp the import of every syllable you have written.
Well done, and thank you.

Joe Grappa

Too many people. Get the population down to 500 million or a billion or so and everyone would live like a king.

You have put real world experiences in my mind. And vivid ones. I already had the intellectual conviction that cheap energy is important both for rich and poor countries. Now there is a couple of strong emotions attached to it too.

Brilliant writing, Willis–you make your point with devastating effectiveness. Of course, you neglect a key point: there will be a wrong-headed, stupid, inefficient soul-killing government program to help the poor with their power bills, so the moral authority and smug righteousness of the horrible policy will be in place among the bureaucrats and busy bodies. We had an industrial revolution and an information revolution–what the people of the Earth need now is an energy revolution. Why the brightest of our youth are not studying physics and working on this problem twelve hours a day, I don’t know. Instead, they are playing video games and posting pictures of their cats on Facebook. So it goes. I will email anyone who wants it a free copy of my short story called Energy Independence.


brilliant willis,
and yes I as a poor aussie pensioner was seen as rich in my visit to the phillipines also..
such a stunningly beautiful place and such staggering poverty.
made me very aware of what I do have.
always been in the lower income, condemned rental home life, but in comparison my childhood was still well off. we did have food if not much, we did have clothes and shoes albeit 2 sets one summer one winter. and this was single parent aus in the 50s to 70s.
now older and still poor I get hit with 30c a Day rise in powercorp service charges and am wondering what else I can cut out to pay the extra with,. and the actual power use will also rise again soon.


on the price of fuel in US and Europe.
Most of the price of fuel in Europe is tax (roughly 70%). If there is higher tax on fuel in US, it will be the rich part of the world that pays, not the poor in your stories. As a result global demand would go down, as would probably the price of fuel in the rest of the world.
By your ‘gold encrusted space ship’ analogy, shouldn’t the rich world pay more for this asset?
There’s lots more to this debate than that, but the idea that the price of fuel in the US should go up is not necessarily wrong purely on the basis of the impact on the world’s poorest people

lowercase fred

Archaeology shows that when man left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settle in agricultural civilization the average stature and health decreased. We don’t know the whole story but two apparent reasons were that people who would have died of disease or malnutrition managed to hang on to existence and the level of non-state homicide decreased.
The point is that civilization has always been a mixed blessing. There is no Eden to which we can return. Our only option is to push ahead.

George Tetley

Gasoline in Europe ( in dollars US )
Germany $9-10 per gallon
Italy $13-14 per gallon
My energy bill in Germany has increased by $750 over the last 2 years to pay for solar/wind
Attention Germany is covered in solar panels, but the average sunshine in Germany is 30 hours a week so we have another country were politicians are living on stupid !

Claude Harvey

A really fit man on a bicycle can generate one kilowatt-hour in ten hours. A good horse on a treadmill can do it in maybe 1.4 hours. The wholesale price of one kilowatt-hour of work (force applied over time) in the U.S. today is less than 4-cents. THAT is the fundamental source of our current good fortune. Placing that reliable source of wealth out of both our reach and the reach of others and replacing it with intermittent, 40-cent per Kwh (according to the European record) solar power is criminally insane.

Here’s blurb you can use to promote your book, Willis.
Willis Eschenbach has it in him to be the George Orwell of our generation.
–Ken Coffman, Stairway Press publisher and author of Real World FPGA Design with Verilog and novels including Steel Waters, Endangered Species and Fairhaven.

here’s something that’s worth noting with regard to President Obama.
He has undermined the global warming arm of his party.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has consistently stiffed the Gorons both when he was the Senator of Colorado, and the Interior Secretary.
He refused to allow the warmers to use the endangered species act as a back door vehicle to impose global warming regulations. He has voted against cafe rules for cars and trucks. Against the repeal of tax breaks for oil companies. Against using global warming as a criteria for Army Corp of Engineers water projects. Increased the area of off shore oil drilling off the gulf coast of Florida (which to the detriment of us all, President Bush set aside as a sop for his brother, then Governor of Florida).
Also President Obama sent Jon Huntsman (who had become a considerable pain in the ass with regard to oil shale developement as Gov of Utah) off to China.
There are probably other things the Big O has done for our side which were not reported for the sake of political delicacy.


How ironic that those political institutions of the left – supposedly the friends of the poor, low paid and oppressed – are the very same that fight for the introduction of these costly ‘green’ energy schemes. We need to shame the left into opposing these policies and this blog post should be considered reading for them.


The worst of it is that all these “policies” of spending horrendous amounts of money on “renewables” are going to acheive practically NO reduction in emissions (even if such reduction were somehow valuable).
It’s all just hysterically stupid.

Joe Public

Thanks for enlightening your readers, Willis.


And the Watermelons snerk constantly that the “deniers” are opposed to their campaign to price gasoline like Chardonnay and make electricity rates “necessarily skyrocket” out of purely political motives.
Even were there not imperative sufficient in our adherence to the strictures of scientific method when it comes to the preposterous bogosity of the Warmerbruder idiocy anent anthropogenic atmospheric CO2, there’s acknowledgement of the laws of economics, and our appreciation of the impact of predatory vicious dirigisme on the lives of real human beings.
Just what the hell kind of people are these “global warming” fanatics, anyway?
Do they even qualify as “people” at all?

Chuck L

Poignant, beautiful, sad, and filled with wisdom and compassion – nothing else to say.


This reminded me of visiting a hospital in Malawi, the children there are often close to death, childbirth is horrific. I met a little 6 year old boy who was soon going to die. He was insulin dependant. Insulin was available. In my appalling western ignorance I asked why he would die, they had insulin. The doctor replied that unfortunately there was not a fridge in his village and even if there was, there was no electricity, they couldn’t afford it. That has lived with me for my whole life.


Here’s a possible way to salvation, a win/win solution that some Greens could be sold on. (The book’s author is now working in Russia on a pilot project.)
Here’s a three-part solution I endorse, spelled out in a book called “Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises,” whose details are outlined in the first reader-review, by G. Meyerson:
This book is a must read for people who want to be informed about our worsening energy and ecology crisis. Before I read this book, I was opposed to nuclear power for the usual reasons: weapons proliferation and the waste problem. But also because I had read that in fact nuclear power was not as clean as advertised nor as cost competitive as advertised and was, moreover, not a renewable form of energy, as it depends upon depleting stocks of uranium, which would become an especially acute problem in the event of “a nuclear renaissance.” Before I read this book, I was also of the opinion that growth economies (meaning for now global capitalism) were in the process of becoming unsustainable, that, as a consequence, our global economy would itself unravel due to increasing energy costs and the inability of renewable technologies genuinely and humanely to solve the global transport problem of finding real replacements for the billions of gallons of gasoline consumed by the global economy, and the billions more gallons required to fuel the growth imperative. I was thus attracted to the most egalitarian versions of Richard Heinberg’s power down/relocalization thesis.
Blees’ book has turned many of my assumptions upside down and so anyone who shares these assumptions needs to read this book and come to terms with the implications of Blees’ excellent arguments. To wit: the nuclear power provided by Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) can provide clean, safe and for all practical purposes renewable power for a growing economy provided this power is properly regulated (I’ll return to this issue below). The transportation problems can be solved by burning boron as fuel (a 100% recyclable resource) and the waste problem inevitably caused by exponential growth can be at least partially solved by fully recycling all waste in plasma converters, which themselves can provide both significant power (the heat from these converters can turn a turbine to generate electricity) and important products: non toxic vitrified slag (which Blees notes can be used to refurbish ocean reefs), rock wool (to be used to insulate our houses–it is superior to fiber glass or cellulose) and clean syngas, which can assume the role played by petroleum in the production of products beyond fuel itself. Blees’s discussion of how these three elements of a new energy economy can be introduced and integrated is detailed and convincing. Other forms of renewable energy can play a significant role also, though it is his argument that only IFRs can deal with the awesome scale problems of powering a global economy which would still need to grow. Tom’s critique of biofuels is devastating and in line with the excellent critiques proferred by both the powerdown people and the red greens (John Bellamy Foster, Fred Magdoff); his critique of the “hydrogen economy” is also devastating (similar to critiques by Joseph Romm or David Strahan); his critique of a solar grand plan must be paid heed by solar enthusiasts of various political stripes.
The heart of this book, though, really resides with the plausibility of the IFR. His central argument is that these reactors can solve the principal problems plaguing other forms of nuclear power. It handles the nuclear waste problem by eating it to produce power: The nuclear waste would fire up the IFRs and our stocks of depleted uranium alone would keep the reactors going for a couple hundred years (factoring in substantial economic growth) due to the stunning efficiency of these reactors, an efficiency enabled by the fact that “a fast reactor can burn up virtually all of the uranium in the ore,” not just one percent of the ore as in thermal reactors. This means no uranium mining and milling for hundreds of years.
The plutonium bred by the reactor will be fed back into it to produce more energy and cannot be weaponized due to the different pyroprocessing that occurs in the IFR reactor. In this process, plutonium is not isolated, a prerequisite to its weaponization. The IFR breeders can produce enough nonweaponizable plutonium to start up another IFR in seven years. Moreover, these reactors can be produced quickly (100 per year starting in 2015, with the goal of building 3500 by 2050)), according to Blees, with improvements in modular design, which would facilitate standardization, thus bringing down cost and construction lead time.
Importantly, nuclear accidents would be made virtually impossible due to the integration of “passive” safety features in the reactors, which rely on “the inherent physical properties of the reactor’s components to shut it down.” (129)
Still, if such a new energy regime as Blees proposes can solve the climate crisis, this is not to say, in my opinion, that a growth regime is fully compatible with a healthy planet and thus a healthy humanity. There are other resources crucial to us–the world’s soils, forests and oceans come to mind–that a constantly expanding global economy can destroy even if we recycle all the world’s garbage and stop global warming.“

Here’s the Amazon link:

Joe Sumrall

The short of it is, I enjoyed reading your post very much and appreciate its message.

Jim Barker

Sad story, but needs told. Shame we can’t crowd source energy projects.

Bruce Cobb

Willis, not only have you led an interesting life, your storytelling ability is fantastic. I hung on every word.
I couldn’t agree more with you about the effect of raising energy costs, especially on the poor. In a word, it can be deadly. Imagine the idiotic wastefulness of spending $billions each year on a non-problem, in addition to the effects on energy prices and availability. The mind boggles. There isn’t a place in Hell hot enough for the perpetrators of the biggest, most destructive lie in human history, that our C02 is somehow harming the planet.

Stephen Wilde

Wholly agree.
The ignorance of elites has caused most of the tragedies of history.
Progress has occurred fastest when elites have not been so ignorant such as when we saw the development of parliamentary democracy in England and heard the thoughts of the US ‘Founding Fathers’.
I have said several times on other blogs that only universal cheap energy will lead to people everywhere being rich enough and educated enough to voluntarily reduce propulation growth to below replacement level so that eventually there will be true sustaiability.
Everything that our elites currently propose will defer that time, cause unimaginable suffering to ‘ordinary’ people everywhere and enormous additional damage to the environment in the process.


What I find funny, or rather sad, is that in the west people can have a negative net worth, to the tune of millions, and yet live like kings! How does that work??


Joe Grappa:
re your post at January 13, 2013 at 5:02 am.
You are sad, mistaken and deluded.
Your comment is an expression of pure evil, and it has no basis in fact and/or reality.
Be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

Willis, I am speechless. Having been a few years sailor myself, I had similar experiences in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and other countries. But by far I can’t express my experiences as good as you do. Driving energy (and food) prices up as is the aim of all activists, will do harm at the poorest of the poorest. They don’t seem to realize that or they underestimate the consequences… Extremely well said!

Well done, thanks for sharing 3 great anecdotes which hammered your point home. Cheers, keep up the great work..


I have been telling this same narrative to my AGW believing friends. They really don’t like to hear that they don’t actually give a rats ass about the poor. They claim that they care but they really don’t.
Excellent article….you have one small typo…the third sentence in the paragraph telling what the poor will not be able to do, you wrote “to” which should be “no”.

R Barker

Following the train of logic of those who believe higher energy costs are “good”, the poor folks can easily solve their problem by just ridding themselves of their gas guzzlers and buying new energy efficient cars. (Do I have to say I am being sarcastic or is that obvious to everyone?)

T. G. Brown

Spot on, Willis.
I have been to villages in that very region of Senegal, and have sat where you sat. The hospitality from people who, by western standards, have nothing, is absolutely staggering. Yet the folks you visited are (likely) not even close to the poorest of Africa, or even of Senegal.
It is indeed the cost of energy that so often traps folks. Energy is needed to transport food and to bring water out of the ground. Children (and multiple wives) are needed for labor that would otherwise be done with machinery. As long as it is less expensive to have more children and wives than to buy, run, and maintain a tractor, children and wives will remain the commodity that they are.
But the other part of the equation is the political culture in Africa–often nepotistic and corrupt. Both the price of energy and the political culture will need to change. And, as we have seen so often, the two seem to go together.

Jack Simmons

Last night I went on what my wife calls a ‘rant’ over the costs of wind power. The rant was provoked by a GE commercial boasting about producing technology for wind energy. As if this was something good.
I told her the world does not need expensive and unreliable wind or solar energy. It needs cheap energy; the cheaper, the better. Nothing could be worse for the consumers of the world than thousands of jobs in wind and solar energy firms. Each of those jobs would have to be subsidized with higher rates. If the mad men running things succeed in getting a significant portion of our energy from wind and solar, fossil fuel jobs would be lost, along with the tax revenue generated by these ‘dirty’ energy jobs.
We’re in for at least a bad decade for economic growth as the US, along with the rest of the developed world, toys with socialism and central state planning. At least another four years of slow growth, with real possibilities of serious recessions, until people realize how they have been hoodwinked with false promises. It very well could be people won’t get it, as most people don’t think in terms of math and science, confusing alleged consensus among ‘scientists’ for science. All the blame will be placed on the rich and their low tax rates. If that happens, we are in for decades of misery.
And we are the rich ones as was pointed out in this wonderful post.
People think I’m nuts when I tell them anyone living in the US is extremely wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Our homeless are rich beyond belief. There are places where they can go when it gets cold, as it is right now in Denver.
But they have these places of warmth only because we have cheap energy.
The environuts must be going even crazier with the realization that the wicked oil and gas industry has slashed the costs of energy and feedstock for our plastic industry. This was all done right under their noses and the noses of government agencies focused on destroying cheap energy. And we haven’t even started on coal to fuel conversion and the great oil shale deposits in the west.