It is my habit to take a vacation each summer to Northern Michigan in the hopes that the deep pine forests and vast, pure lakes will sooth my troubled soul and allow me to forget things like green energy or the Toyota Prius. I was not so lucky this year. Somewhere north of Luddington, I came across something that wasn’t there last year. The beautiful and serene countryside was marred by something artificial and unnatural. I had entered what I now know to be the Mason County wind farm, whose 56 large turbines did more to mar the aesthetic purity of the countryside than one hundred factories could have.
I was hardly the only one not to celebrate the imposition of these machines on the landscape. A group of 17 local residents who live in the area have sued Consumers Energy, the company which owns the wind farm, complaining of noise, dizziness, headaches and nausea (to name a few of the complaints) resulting from the presence of the turbines. Such complaints have arisen elsewhere in the country but have fallen on contemptuously deaf ears. Environmentalist pundits have even gone so far as to compare those who complain of of “Wind Turbine Syndrome” to people who believe that the flu vaccine causes mental retardation in children.
Doubtless, some claims of turbine generated illness are exaggerated, but the very audible noise from the turbines is less than easy to ignore. That is, unless you’re on the city council. Mark McKeever of Scituate, Massachusetts, invited town officials to come to his home and see for themselves what the nearby wind turbine had done to his quality of life. Not one of them took him up on the offer.
Hearing the complaints of Mr. McKeever might have been too insignificant a task for the municipal government, but what kind of light bulb he used in his home was a sufficiently crucial issue to involve the federal government, which this year banned 75 watt bulbs. I don’t happen to know Mark McKeever’s personal tastes in light bulbs, but he might complain of the harsh and unpleasant light that florescent bulbs generate or he might object that florescent bulbs are more dangerous to dispose of, but none of this would matter in the end. The decision has been made for him.
The objections of little people like you, me or Mr. McKeever are of little consequence to the vast leviathan that is the state. Last month president Obama, impatient after his earlier failure to pass eco-legislation in congress in 2009, announced that he would pursue “sweeping” action on climate change by executive order. The fact that such policies could not pass congress in 2009, when democrats had majorities in both houses (indeed a super majority in the senate) might suggest that these new regulations, in the eyes of the American public, left something to be desired. But that is not important, says the president, because time is short and “we don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society.”
Most of the right-leaning pundits who weighed in on the president’s plan rightly criticized it for its economic consequences but few have considered the philosophical narrative of which it is a part. The great danger of the green movement is not its effect on the economy (serious though it is) but its underlying disregard, or perhaps disdain, for the wishes and lives ordinary people. It is little wonder that a movement which regards the human race as a virus destroying the planet should disdain people. Environmentalist policies need never fear serious public reproach because their proponents will always claim that the issue is too urgent to even be discussed. What are one man’s petty objections when weighed against the potential destruction of an entire planet?
That attitude was on flagrant display this week in the UK. Too few households (only two) in all of Britain had agreed, as part of a new and nominally voluntary program, to be visited by environmental “assessors” who make a list of requisite improvements to the property and sign the residents up for a costly loan to cover upgrade costs, so the government decided simply to send the assessors to peoples’ homes anyway. In order not to be visited by the assessors, British homeowners must now “opt out” of the system in a process which one must assume involves inconvenient visits to government offices and the filling out of many forms, meaning that unless you say otherwise, the government considers itself invited into your home. In this case, nobody even had to say that there was no time to discuss the issue: it apparently never occurred to British officials that people might not want “assessors” to come into their home and tell them how to live.
As unpleasant as this frenzied authoritarianism is, it is easy to believe that it is necessary if the earth is indeed facing an ecological disaster of apocalyptic proportions. There is, however, reason to doubt the urgency of environmental action. Much of the world is currently experiencing population decline. Japan’s population decreased by 284,000 people last year, the latest German census reported a population drop of 1.5 million people. Even Iran, a country whose population rapidly expanded in the second half of the 20th century is facing a rapid decline of its birth rate.
If, as environmentalists suggest, climate change is a result of the expansion and consumption habits of the human race, there should be little cause for concern, as that expansion is slowing down and in many cases even reversing. The “virus,” one might say, is in remission. But those facts don’t serve the narrative of fear that gives politicians and bureaucrats such an excellent excuse to encroach further on our private lives, and thus they must be ignored.
The strangest thing about the government’s urgency in environmental affairs is how little it actually accomplishes for the environment. Those wind farms which so tormented Mark McKeever don’t always enjoy strong winds, meaning that fossil fuel power plants must be kept running (and polluting) as a back up in case the wind falters or more people suddenly turn on their air conditioners. In much the same way that the Toyota Prius, so beloved among environmentalists, actually does considerable damage to the environment, the wind farms which produce a great deal of misery and a great many dead birds don’t seem to represent any real progress towards ecological sustainability.
Much of the urgency surrounding environmental issues is well intentioned, as there are real threats to our environment that should not be ignored. But we should ignore neither the practicality of potential solutions nor, more importantly, their impact on people’s lives and freedoms. The same political culture which questions any encroachment on peoples’ privacy done in the name of fighting terrorism, should similarly question encroachment on peoples’ everyday lives done in the name of fighting climate change.
Will McMahon | University of Missouri at Columbia | @WilliamAMcMahon