Global issue and a transdisciplinary challenge: New book sheds light on the energy poor
Close to 3 billion people in the developing world rely on biomass combustion — burning fires in rudimentary stoves — for cooking and heating needs. As a result, 4 million people die each year, and the large amount of black soot created has a staggering negative impact not only on health, but also on climate and advancement of the poor.
It’s an issue that has weighed heavily on Gautam N. Yadama, PhD, professor and director of international programs at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, who has spent much of his academic career researching communities that are dependent on forests for livelihoods in India, Nepal and Bhutan.
This fall, Yadama and photographer Mark Katzman are taking that issue to a broader audience with the publication of Fires, Fuel and the Fate of 3 Billion: The State of the Energy Impoverished (Oxford University Press 2013), a 152-page collection of photos and essays that tell an eye-opening, insightful story about energy access in the rural villages of India, where the hunt for safe, affordable energy is often a matter of life or death.
“This book represents a call for transdisciplinary action on the problem of household air pollution that is really about much more than cookstoves,” Yadama said. “It’s about understanding gender inequalities; it’s about understanding the vulnerability of poor populations and communities to climate change; it’s about understanding ecosystems and how livelihoods within those ecosystems are connected. And then, understanding ways to sustain clean energy systems in these complicated lives of the very poor.”
“At multiple levels, this book will help raise awareness of this global challenge and the need for transdisciplinary research and interventions to overcome this wicked problem,” he said.
It’s an issue gaining momentum on an international level as well. Last month, Yadama was in New York at the third anniversary event of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, where it was announced that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will chair the alliance’s Leadership Council.
Kandeh Yumkella, PhD, special representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, wrote the foreword for the book. At the Global Alliance event, Yumkella referred to the book as highlighting the central issues of the energy poor from health to climate.
Yadama said the book would not have been possible without the input of WUSTL colleagues Tiffany Knight, PhD, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences; Pratim Biswas, PhD, chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the Lucy and Stanley Lopata Professor; Brent Williams, PhD, the Raymond R. Tucker Distinguished I-CARES Career Development Assistant Professor; Mario Castro, MD, professor of medicine and of pediatrics at the School of Medicine; and graduate student Nishesh Chalise.
“The Foundation for Ecological Security in India was absolutely essential for getting this work done on the ground in rural India,” he said.
Yadama and Katzman traveled through seven states of India in 2011 and 2012 to come up with the photographs and stories in the book. Fires, Fuel and the Fate of 3 Billion examines the complex nexus of issues at play in the developing world’s use of crude cookstoves — factors such as poverty, energy, environment and gender inequality — and melds them with succinct prose, scientific synthesis and unforgettable images of communities in rural India.
Yadama, who also is a faculty scholar at WUSTL’s Institute for Public Health, continues to teach and conduct research at Washington University.
“The book is based on research we’re doing across multiple disciplines at the university, such as aerosol science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science; pulmonary science at the School of Medicine; and system science from the social system design lab at the Brown School,” he said.
“The book captures the elements that have been important in this transdisciplinary research, made possible by several pilot grants to our team from the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership and the Institute for Public Health,” Yadama said. “The book itself has been made possible by generous support from Charoen Pokphand Group, Indonesia and Washington University.”
“We will be taking forward some of the ideas in the book through simulations of uptake of clean-energy systems in rural India to reduce household air pollution and improve health. This work has just begun, with support from the Institute of Clinical and Transnational Sciences at Washington University.”
To read more about Yadama’s work at the Brown School, visit here.
To view more work from Katzman, visit markkatzman.com.