Summary: Electricity and heat are essential for human survival and well-being, especially in winter. This article explores how far humanity has come in terms of heat and lighting technology, and why these achievements should not be taken for granted.

The recent shooting of two power substations in North Carolina, temporarily leaving tens of thousands of Americans without power, has drawn attention to the susceptibility of U.S. electricity infrastructure to attacks. Such vulnerability is heightened in war. As winter approaches, Russia’s military has increasingly targeted Ukrainian power stations and critical infrastructure. The resulting blackouts have left millions of Ukraine’s people cold and cut off from modern necessities like electric light. The blackouts have also forced many businesses and schools to close, further disrupting the economy, as well as education for the country’s children.

“I’m not afraid of the bombs, but without electricity, water and heating you can’t work or have a normal life,” one Ukrainian refugee told the Wall Street Journal of her decision to stay out of the country.

The sudden, war-induced loss of electricity in parts of Ukraine stands out as a grim exception to the trend of increased electricity access globally and a stark reminder that the modern wonder of electric power should never be taken for granted. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy steady access to electricity and heat seldom contemplate just how vital to our existence these basic services are.

Ukrainians’ “lack of access to fuel or electricity due to damaged infrastructure could become a matter of life or death if people are unable to heat their homes,” according to Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director for Europe.

Being forced to survive a winter without electricity in the modern age is a humanitarian emergency, a horrific step back toward a past best left behind. Because, lest we forget just how gruesome the premodern age was, all humans once faced wintertime without electricity—even royalty. Accounts from the French court of Versailles in the 17th century tell of a palace “so bitterly cold that the wine as well as water freezes in the glasses at the King’s table.”

When Homo erectus first learned to control fire a million years ago, humanity may have gained the ability to create warmth during winter and light after sunset, but the heat didn’t extend far, and the light was dim and absurdly costly.

From fire to electricity and LEDs, heat and lighting technology have come a long way—further than our ancestors could have imagined. And as free enterprise and exchange have lifted billions of people out of poverty over the last few decades, the long-run trend is that an ever-greater share of humanity can take the modern wonders of abundant heat and light for granted. 

In India, for example, only half of the population had access to electricity in 1993, the earliest year for which the World Bank has data. But that rose to 99 percent of the population by 2020, the most recent year of available data. Here you can watch a video of the powerful moment that a remote Indian village called Rakuru in the Himalayas turned on its first electric lights six years ago. “The people were hugging each other and dancing,” was how Shivani Saklani, an Indian GE employee who helped bring about the village’s electrification, described the scene. “The experience was so powerful it made me cry.” 

Progress is ongoing: in Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, electricity access is rising, but is still only enjoyed by less than half of the population. Numerous energy entrepreneurs are hard at work trying to fulfill the need for electricity and spread it to more of the world’s people—people like Dozie Igweilo, whose startup uses solar lamps to help Nigerians through power outages.  

Sometimes, policy restrictions get in the way. For example, in the four years following the Fukushima disaster, there were 1,280 cold-related deaths due to the Japanese government’s ill-considered decision to end nuclear power production. And, of course, the invasion of Ukraine has revealed the folly of many European governments’ meddling with energy markets to ban hydraulic fracturing. Rather than helping the earth, these bans have enabled Russian energy blackmail.

Despite all the progress that humanity has made, today around 940 million people still live without electricity or reliable lighting. Due to Russia’s aggression, many Ukrainians are joining their ranks.

Remarkable photos of Ukraine viewed from space at night before and after the infrastructure attacks reveal the extent of the blackouts. Where there once were twinkling constellations of city lights, there are now vast stretches of darkness. The photos are vaguely reminiscent of the now-famous satellite images of North Korea at night: a field of eerie darkness contrasted with the light of prosperous towns and cities to the south.

The disparity between the images of Ukraine before and after the war, and of the authoritarian hermit kingdom and its free southern neighbor, both speak to a harsh but important truth. They show that progress is not automatic or irreversible. The conveniences of modern life are fragile, dependent on peace for their continued existence, and dependent on freedom to come into being in the first place.

So if you live in a community with abundant electricity, neither being immiserated by an oppressive communist regime nor bombed in a norm-violating war of conquest, take a moment to appreciate your situation. Remember just how life-changing electricity is, as you witness it warming homes and powering the numerous holiday lights (another modern marvel worth contemplating) warding off the winter gloom.

And if you’re interested in doing something to help the people of Ukraine as their lights go out, please consider donating to the fundraiser that’s former staffer is running to purchase generators so that Lviv schools might reopen and serve as warm havens for Ukraine’s schoolchildren.