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Smoking, obesity, exposure to toxic chemicals: Which of these factors do you think plays the biggest role in determining how deadly prostate cancer will be in a given situation? The correct answer is none of them. The most life-threatening factor in prostate cancer is poverty, coupled with a lack of access to electricity. This condition, called “energy poverty” by the World Bank, is the reason all illnesses – including prostate cancer – are far more devastating to people in poor nations than in the developed world.
Worldwide, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity, meaning nearly one in every five people on the planet lives in energy poverty. As a result, hospitals in energy-impoverished areas, and the medical care received within them, are primitive, and treatment often consists of medical procedures long considered antiquated in the United States. Without electricity, there is no refrigeration for medicines and donated blood. Without electricity, equipment used for early detection of diseases does not run. All of this has serious consequences for the lives of the energy-poor.
For many diseases, early detection and treatment can make all the difference, as is the case with prostate cancer. In the United States, where early detection programs are effective and affordable, prostate cancer survival rates are nearly 100 percent when the disease is found in its earliest stages. In contrast, once diagnosed, most men in many Asian and African countries will eventually succumb to prostate cancer. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if these men had access to early treatment, powered by access to affordable electricity, but politics have gotten in the way.
Many organizations, including the World Bank, claim renewable energy is the best way to bring electricity to the world’s energy-poor, 95 percent of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Although some areas may be able to benefit from off-grid power generation systems, the vast majority of the world’s energy-poor will need to utilize traditional grid systems to have meaningful improvement in their lives. These systems can be powered cleanly and affordably using natural gas, improving the lives of millions.
A recent analysis by the Center for Global Development (CGD) shows investing $500 in renewable energy can pull one person out of poverty, but investing that same $500 in electricity powered by natural gas can bring more than four people out of poverty. When the environmental lobby attempts to influence governments to increase the amount of money spent on solar panels and wind power in the developing world, it is lobbying for a policy that brings electricity to one person while leaving three in the dark.
These policies are irresponsible. We should focus on doing the most good for the most people with the resources available, because our actions have real-life consequences for those in need. By spending money on renewable energy sources rather than natural gas, we doom people to poverty, hunger, and premature death. The sooner people have access to adequate energy services, the sooner they will have access to clean water, sanitation, and modern health care.
In the developing world, lowering cancer rates is not a matter of quitting smoking, losing weight, or reducing exposure to environmental hazards. It’s a matter of finding a way out of poverty and getting access to adequate energy services.
Perhaps energy poverty deserves an awareness month of its own.