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Has There Been a Great Progressive Reversal? How the Left Abandoned Cheap Electricity

The authors say the Left went from viewing cheap energy as a fundamental human right to a threat to the planet and harmful to the poor. (Followed by an exchange with AlterNet environment editor Tara Lohan and the authors).

Photo Credit: wang song/ Shutterstock.com


Editor's Note: From time to time we publish articles we don't necessarily agree with. We encourage differences of opinion, for the sake of open debate. AlterNet's environmental editor Tara Lohan replies to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at the end of their article, and  we've added the authors' response to Lohan below it.

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity. 

Hope came in the form of World War I. Congress authorized the construction of the Wilson dam on the Tennessee River to power an ammunition factory. But the war ended shortly after the project was completed.

Henry Ford declared he would invest millions of dollars, employ one million men, and build a city 75 miles long in the region if the government would only give him the whole complex for $5 million. Though taxpayers had already sunk more than $40 million into the project, President Harding and Congress, believing the government should not be in the business of economic development, were inclined to accept.

George Norris, a progressive senator, attacked the deal and proposed instead that it become a public power utility. Though he was from Nebraska, he was on the agriculture committee and regularly visited the Tennessee Valley. Staying in the unlit shacks of its poor residents, he became sympathetic to their situation. Knowing that Ford was looking to produce electricity and fertilizer that were profitable, not cheap, Norris believed Ford would behave as a monopolist. If approved, Norris warned, the project would be the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.” Three years later Norris had defeated Ford in the realms of public opinion and in Congress.

Over the next 10 years, Norris mobilized the progressive movement to support his sweeping vision of agricultural modernization by the federal government. In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.

The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.

By the '50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

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