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Energy Inequality

  One of most notable impacts brought about by skyrocketing energy consumption was the division of the world into energy "haves" and "have-nots." Nothing makes this more starkly evident that looking at a map of the Earth at night. The world was dark before the Industrial Revolution, and many different countries vied for political and economic power. Today, where you see light, you see where vast amounts of energy are used. You also see the countries with economic and political power.

A composite image of the Earth at night taken by satellite in the year 2000.
A composite image of the Earth at night taken by satellite in the year 2000. What becomes immediately obvious is that the most well-lit regions are the countries with the most economic and political clout: Europe, Japan and the United States. If this was taken today China and India would be much more well lit, as they are industrializating at breakneck speed. With industrialization comes increasing political power.

On a national level, the countries that industrialized first, namely Europe and the United States, were able to leverage huge political and economic power over the countries that had yet to develop. Though European states built global empires between the 16th and 18th Centuries, before industrialization, their conquests were largely limited to areas were the indigenous peoples still used stone age technology--principally in the Americas. The other major civilizations on the Eurasian landmass, China, India, the Ottoman Empire and Japan, were still for the most part strong enough to limit European expansion to trading posts. The same was true in Africa, but for different reasons: the harsh environment restricted the newcomers to the coastal periphery.

The Maxim gun
The Maxim gun, the first widely deployed machine gun. Used in colonial wars, the man who used it wielded the power of several dozen riflemen. The novelist Hilaire Belloc wrote in his poem "The Modern Traveller":
"Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not."

Industrial technology changed all that. First, new military technologies, mass-produced in coal-powered factories, allowed European armies to consistently beat all comers. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century, cannons, machine guns and quick-firing rifles virtually guaranteed European armies victory against all other peoples in the world, often against absurd numerical odds. The one exception was Japan, who rapidly industrialized after 1886 and was able to preserve her independence and even beat semi-industrialized Russia in a major war in 1905.

Secondly, the energy harnessed by railways and steam-boats allowed Europeans to enter once-inaccessible hinterlands of other continents, leading to the colonization of India, the American West, China, and Africa.

Thirdly, the instantaneous communication of the telegraph, and superior organization and bureaucracy of industrialized states, allowed comparatively tiny groups of Europeans to dominate millions of impoverished subjects. The British Raj in India is a prime example: a tiny elite of about 1,000 British civil servants ruled 300 million Indian subjects. At length the world was carved up into colonial empires with the energy-rich dominating the energy-poor, as can be seen in this map. Note the continuity between the energy-using industrialized nations of 1914 and the world powers today.

The world in 1914
Far fewer countries existed in the world in 1914: there were European empires, the United States, Japan, and South American countries. Parts of China were nominally carved up between many foreign powers. Almost everybody else was subject to European imperialism. These were the fruits of industrialization. Canada, though nominally an independent country, was still automatically at war in 1914 when Britain went to war with Germany.

Despite the uninterrupted accumulation of wealth among those countries which industrialized early, the earth at night today shows that many other countries are beginning to catch up in energy use. China, Brazil and India are all rapidly consuming more energy. On an absolute level they are pulling even with the developed world; China already uses more energy than the United States, though not as efficiently, and on a per person basis they continue to lag far behind. The immense size of China's and India's populations, which together are more than quadruple that of all the countries in the European Union, mean that if they were ever to draw even in energy use with the West on a per person basis, they would be far and away the most powerful countries on earth.

If these other countries are catching up in terms of energy use, then it logically follows they are catching up economically. In terms of national gross domestic product China has soared above the one-time European empires, and is second now only to the United States. Though that country's economy was still only 40% the size of the American economy in 2010, China's surging growth rate and America's slow growth leads most analysts to conclude that the Chinese economy will overtake the U.S. and become the world's largest before the end of this decade. India's economy still lags well behind but according to the IMF is hot on the heels of Canada. Brazil's economy is bigger still and has surpassed the United Kingdom taking sixth spot. Only a century ago Britain had the largest economy in the world, and easily dominated India, China and Brazil simultaneously.

The explosive economic growth of these other countries has led some commentators to call this era the "Rise of the Rest," in contrast to the past five hundred years which has largely been a story of the rise of the West to global dominance. The question of whether or not these developing countries are going to translate their economic strength into political clout is already being answered. The G8 has been expanded to include these countries (as well as other rising regional powers) in the G20. China's leverage is especially apparent, playing a large role in dictating the conclusion of the Copenhagen climate talks, and investing heavily in a military with fifth-generation fighter jets and a aircraft carriers--what some commentators believe are prerequisites for military parity with the United States.  All of these rubrics--economic, political and military--are closely tied to energy use.

Climate Change


Banyan Blog, "China's military power: Modernization in Sheep's Clothing," The Economist, August 26th 2011. Accessed June 3, 2012.

"Brazil 'overtakes UK economy'. BBC News. March 6, 2012. Accessed June 3, 2012.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel, (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 362.

Dewey, Clive. Anglo-Indian attitudes: the mind of the Indian Civil Service. (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1993), p. 3.

"Energy Consumption: Total energy consumption per capita." World Resources Institute. Accessed June 3, 2012.

Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest, (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. vi.

Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order, (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. ix.

"GDP based on PPP valuation of country GDP," International Monetary Fund. Accessed June 3, 2012.