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Changing Light to Change Lives

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What if there were a simple, cheap way to advance the education of millions of the world's poorest children, and to improve their health and that of everyone in their communities?

What if, at the same time, this simple, inexpensive solution would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Americans and other affluent societies throughout the world would clamor to offer their support, right? If only such a simple and powerful solution existed.

Well, such a solution does exist. It is called light.

Solar-powered light, to be specific. And I have seen with my own eyes the difference it is already making around the world in rural communities that currently depend on dangerous, noxious, dirty and expensive kerosene for their cooking fuel and lighting needs.

That's why in 2008 I founded OneMillionLights.org, with the mission of giving away one million solar lamps to some of the 1.3 billion people around the globe -- nearly 20 percent of the world's population -- who must depend on kerosene because they have no access to electricity.

What makes kerosene such a problem for so many people around the world? Here are a few specifics:

With all these awful impacts, tens of millions of families choose to burn as little kerosene as possible -- a decision that has its own negative repercussions. If they go to school at all, for example, children in developing countries generally go in the morning and spend the remaining daylight hours as farm hands. If their homes can't be lit at night, these children can't study, which means they're more likely to remain trapped in poverty. Without nighttime illumination, women can't weave the extra basket needed to make a few more pennies for their families. The consequences are unending.

Electricity is never going to be available to many of these people -- or never be consistently available, in any case -- because the areas where so many of them live are remote. That means that building the infrastructure needed to bring them dependable electricity would be prohibitively expensive.

Solar-powered LED lanterns and bulbs are an ideal solution. They're clean, safe, and, to us in the developed world, quite inexpensive. They cost between $25 and $100 each, depending on their quality and size -- we've distributed a variety, including reading lights and room lights. They're also long-lasting. Re-chargeable batteries in the lights last two to three years, and can be replaced inexpensively anywhere; they're not a limiting factor. The solar panels and the LEDs last for about 15 years -- long enough to greatly improve a child's prospects and a family's life.

With healthy, affordable solar light, children can use the evening hours to learn. Families can put the money they would have spent on kerosene toward other necessities -- food, medicines and clothing. And families can socialize and experience life together in new ways -- they can see and enjoy one another instead of co-habiting in the dark.

The whole community actually gains all kinds of new opportunities. To cite just one: Medical clinics gain greater capacity to provide emergency services.

It's life-changing, as the letters I get from some of those most affected attest. The letters come from places like rural India, where my father grew up, and where, in one of the most emotional experiences of my life, we made our first distribution of 250 lights in 2008. And they come from many of the other places where we have distributed lights since then -- nearly 30 countries in Central America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and East Asia.

We've also given out solar lights to help people deal with emergencies, such as the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and even Hurricane Sandy in New York. But most of our work relates to the chronic disaster of trying to live one's whole life with only kerosene as a source of illumination.

We’ve now delivered 50,000 solar lights, and we’re working to create a groundswell around the importance of clean lighting through a series of nighttime runs. The next one will be held in downtown Chicago June 7.

Light: I think it's as fundamental as food, water and shelter. And it's so easy to spread.