In 2015, a cartoon appeared in my Twitter feed that's stuck with me. It depicts an Indian family squatting, smashing solar panels. A woman chews on a shattered piece of glass, and a man attempts to smear mango chutney onto shards of photovoltaic technology.
The cartoon popped back into my feed when its creator, Bill Leak, passed away in recent weeks. The initial reaction to the cartoon centred around the racist depictions of Indians. On reflection, it represents a broader and worrisome attitude towards global energy politics: one that assumes idiocy in developing countries, combined with a push to burden these countries with the outdated and dangerous wares of a dying industry.
Recently, there's been a push by the fossil fuel industry to frame coal as necessary for the growth of the developing world — an appeal to generosity and positivity, rather than growth and greed. It's curiously similar to the transition tobacco companies have made, shifting their marketing from developed to developing countries.
The inverse, as was presumably the point of the cartoon, is that any technology that doesn't combust compressed dead plants to produce electricity is useless to the imbeciles that populate developing countries. The Telegraph said:
'Chris Kenny, a columnist at the newspaper, told IBTimes India that the cartoon was "mocking the Paris deal for spending aid on climate instead of reducing poverty", adding that "solar panels are not the greatest need in developing world".'
Leak elaborated: 'There's something obscene about the fact that there are billions of others who've had all those things all their coal-power-driven lives and they're now distributing solar panels to the world's poor because they think that provides a virtuous, if inadequate, form of electricity for which they should be grateful. I think that's racist, I think it's condescending, and I think it's immoral.'
But Leak's argument applied equally to his own directive: that carbon-intensive fuels, rather than independence and low-carbon innovation, are the only allowable cure for their poverty. This is a popular public relations line for the fossil fuel industry. The idea originated in the bowels of murky US think tanks, funded by the industry, such as the 'Advanced Energy for Life' campaign. It's insincere and illogical.
In terms of the logic of the claim, Mike Sandiford points out in The Conversation that: 'Given that cheap coal has been around powering electricity systems for over 150 years, why are any children still living in poverty?'
"In an effort to simulate the altruism of the environmental movement, fossil fuel advocates amplify their prejudice."
It's a good question for those pushing the coal-cures-poverty PR line. Chaitanya Kumar wrote on the ABC's site that: 'The answer of course lies in the simple adage that you can't solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. With 40 per cent transmission and distribution losses across the grid, a heavily nationalised process of mining and generating power and the recent rise in consumer tariffs, coal is not the solution but in fact the reason that 300 million-odd Indians continue to live in darkness.'
The World Bank have rejected the concept that coal can lift starving children from the depths of poverty, in addition to a wide range of international development and aid organisations. The concept is simply wrong, right to the core.
The insincerity of the claim seeps into every piece of communications around it, ranging from the cartoon's unsympathetic depiction to the language used by the industry. One article, shared by the Australian fossil fuel industry lobby group, talks about 'speaking Indian' (Hindi is the primary language in India) — this isn't really something you'd get wrong if you had even cursory knowledge of India.
It's clear that coal-fired power, which is cheap but comes burdened with the serious and long-lasting impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, is part of the problem of energy poverty, not part of the solution.
The recipients of coal-fired power are intentionally cast as simpletons who smear chutney on inedible machines, crouched like animals on the ground and draped in dirty cloth. In an effort to simulate the altruism of the environmental movement, fossil fuel advocates amplify their prejudice.
The crude caricature emerged in the original cartoon because Indians can't have their poverty cured by coal unless they're depicted as impoverished fools without agency. The cartoon was a racist jab, whether you see it as part of the broader idea that developing countries are too hopeless to shape their infrastructure, or purely as a mean-spirited caricature based on race and culture.
The best way to help developing countries get access to energy is to make low-carbon energy technologies significantly cheaper and better suited to decentralised, remote deployments, rather than decree that developed countries forcibly burden them with fuels that sabotage and disadvantage those who consume their output.
Ketan Joshi works in the renewable energy industry in Sydney, and writes on science, technology and political issues. He tweets @Ketanj0