Tilting at windmills

One of the first Landscape Guardians

In Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote catches sight of thirty or forty windmills towering over the Spanish grasslands. Mistaking them for foul and dangerous giants, he sets out to slay them. He is convinced that the valour and honour of his quest is sure to warrant divine blessing. Quixote’s motives are pure. However, his perception of the nature of the objects before him is so off base it is laughable.

Half a millennium later, the successors of Don Quixote are alive and well and fighting to save the world from the scourge of industrial wind turbines. Some, like Don Quixote, have pure motives. Others, not so much. However, both the proponents and the opponents are failing to see the forest for the trees.

An example of questionable motivations is the long-standing linkage between wind energy protest groups and the nuclear industry. The most obvious such connection is Sir Bernhard Ingham, who serves as secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy as well as vice president of the UK anti-wind campaign group Country Guardian. There are similar links with Australia’s Landscape Guardians.

It’s not hard to figure out why those who financially benefit from the nuclear sector have a problem with wind energy. As countries the world over grapple with global climate change, nuclear has been repeatedly promoted as our salvation as it is far less carbon-intensive than fossil fuels. Industry advocates predicted that this would bring about a nuclear renaissance. However, it hasn’t happened – industry growth rates remain stagnant. With an annual capacity growth rate of more than 30% over the past decade, wind energy poses a serious alternative, and therefore a serious threat.

This raises some critical questions. First, can an objection have merit even if it comes from a biased objector? Second, if the objection has apparent merit, what must be done to confirm its validity? Third, even if an objection is valid, could other considerations eclipse it?

A common tactic in public discourse, especially in the political arena, is to attack the person rather than the argument. If the person presenting an argument is suspect, then their argument is weakened in the court of public opinion. However, it should not be so. The argument is the argument, and must be evaluated according to the evidence on both sides.

So any argument, even one that may appear absurd at first glance, must be evaluated. Healthy scepticism is a crucial tool in this endeavour. Not everyone can be trusted to collect, analyse, interpret, and present data – they may not be competent to do so, or they may deliberately distort the information. This is why science, with its time-tested tool of peer review to root out bias, shoddy work, and woolly thinking, is trusted above rhetoric.

All other things being equal, the burden of proof should rest upon whoever advocates a change from the status quo. This is called the precautionary principle. Sadly, it has not been followed as strictly as it should, and often it seems that the general public is on the hook to show that something is dangerous – and their task is harder and harder the more money is on the line.

The wind energy debate is often framed as a question of whether wind turbines are a good or a bad thing, and therefore whether society should accept or reject them. However, this is not the real debate. Without ample supplies of energy, society will grind to a halt, with the world as we know it ending in chaos, anarchy, and devastation on a scale never seen in human history. Hydro energy is largely tapped out, fossil fuels are causing global climate change, and nuclear faces huge public opposition in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi. The only way forward is a massive shift toward renewable energy, but no one such source is enough – we need a mix of every kind. So the question is not “Wind energy: Yes or no?” Rather it is, “Wind energy: How do we make it work?”

There are many arguments against wind energy, but at the end of the day, none of them is serious enough to overshadow the apocalyptic issue of climate change.

This is where the urban-rural divide comes into stark focus. City dwellers have long looked down upon their country cousins, or disregarded them entirely. When rural-based wind opponents raise issues such as Wind Turbine Syndrome, shadow flicker, bird strikes, and property devaluation, the urbanite response is to dismiss or debunk the concerns. This is thoroughly missing the point. The arguments are just the visible exterior of the problem. Behind them is something entirely different.

Nobody likes to be pushed around. Americans don’t like the UN telling them what to do. Canadians don’t like the US telling them what to do. The Canadian provinces don’t like Ottawa telling them what to do. And rural Ontarians don’t like Queen’s Park (the seat of the provincial government) telling them what to do. People are people, at all levels, and they rankle at being treated with disrespect.

Cities are in a constant state of change. Urbanites accept this. New high-rise condo complexes spring up seemingly overnight, highway bypasses are pushed through, derelict warehouses are gutted and replaced with studio apartments and trendy restaurants. City limits sprawl outward inexorably.

Change is far more gradual in the country, and those that live there are more likely to view it with suspicion and hostility. Wind turbines change the landscape, no question. Where there was once stillness and tranquility, a wind farm brings a view that is in near-constant motion. Trees, the odd grain silo, and the village church once dominated the vista; now turning turbines tower over them. And some corporation from the city is raking in the cash thanks to the rotating blades. What benefit does that bring the nearby farmer or cottager? The outrage is not just understandable, it is inevitable.

For wind energy to succeed, an entirely new approach is needed. Proponents of wind energy need to accept that, for the most part, the resource is located in rural areas. The inhabitants of these rural areas are the custodians and owners of the resource, just as surely as a farmer with an oil reservoir beneath his back 40 is the custodian and owner of that resource. They must be treated as such, and not as nobodies to be steamrollered.

Rural dwellers need to be engaged in an open, honest, and two-way dialogue. This conversation must recognize that although climate change and rising fossil fuel costs are everyone’s problem, urban dwellers will bear a disproportionate share of the pain just because there are more of them. Hence it is those from the city, not the country, on whom the social problem is most pressing.

What’s more, city folk are not the ones that that have to give up something they value – the very countryside that has remained largely untouched for time out of mind – to solve the problem. Urbanites need an attitude adjustment. They must accept rural sovereignty over the precious resource. They must respect the rural dwellers that hold that sovereignty. They must recognize what country folk will be sacrificing in the name of solving the problem. And they must explore appropriate compensation for that sacrifice.

That compensation could take many forms. As I suggested in my previous post, offering ownership stakes to residents is a powerful tool. So is working with village councils to identify new public goods funded from the proceeds of a local wind farm – perhaps a new public library, sports complex, or nicely landscaped green space. Another possibility would be to partner with a local school, training youth so they may take full advantage of the opportunities of green energy.

In the end, the arguments are beside the point. Beating someone in a debate does not make a friend of them. To bring them around, you must seek to understand why they are unhappy, and work collaboratively to find ways to right the wrong.

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2 thoughts on “Tilting at windmills”

  1. Very thoughtful post, Alex. It is easy to dismiss those that are far removed from ourselves and it’s difficult to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You are absolutely right that “country folk will be sacrificing in the name of solving the problem” and “urbanites need an attitude adjustment”. Having grown up in the country, now living in the city, but looking at moving back to the country within the next couple of years, I see both sides of this scenario quite clearly. That’s not to say I see an easy solution because I surely don’t. One way to move in the right direction is for everyone to realize that we “all” need to do something to solve the problem, not just rural folk. Absolutely everyone can reduce energy usage and fewer turbines, and nuclear plants, will be needed. Getting people, urban and rural, to be mindful of their energy consumption is where the big attitude adjustment is necessary. And we’re not there yet as evidenced by the number of super-sized houses popping up all around, many with little or no renewable energy sources.

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  2. It is typically more eveinspxe for you to designate “green” power. It is a method to subsidize the building of more wind power, but in reality wind power is not any more “green” than nuclear power. The intermittent nature of wind power makes it necessary to have some sort of “backup” power, usually gas, wind uses much more concrete and steel than nuclear power for the same amount of megawatts. Wind power actually has a larger “footprint” than nuclear power, it takes more land to produce the same amount of power. We need to explore all the methods of producing power while minimizing the effect on the environment, this is one way of donating to that cause and voting with your $$.

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