Environmentalists and windfarms: Beware the loss of vision

A couple of years ago I visited Te Apiti Windfarm near Woodville. I found the windmills both impressive and disconcerting.

The generation of ‘green’ energy is something I strongly support. I admire the engineering feat, and I have to say that the visual impact on the landscape doesn’t bother me too deeply. But I don’t live in the region any more. Besides, given that Woodville is at the heart of a farming area that only 130 years ago was known as the ‘Seventy Mile Bush’, my feeling is that the clear felling of this once forested region was a change to the landscape far more traumatic, for both tangata whenua and the natural world, than the installation of 55 windmills.

Nevertheless, standing at the foot of one of the 70-metre pylons, looking up at the rotor turning directly above my head, I immediately felt uncomfortable: there was something about those huge blades churning up the air that was more than a little disturbing. Although it’s not something a supporter of ‘green’ energy might care to admit, I have to say that I just did not enjoy being around the windmills. And so, since that visit to Te Apiti, I’ve had a certain sympathy for the opponents of windfarm developments.

The views I’ve just expressed reflect two quite different angles on my visit: what I think about Te Apiti and what I feel about the place. In just about every environmental conflict, these two ways of understanding the world – thinking and feeling – meet head-on. Environmentalists have often articulated the ‘subjective’ position of culture, values, beliefs, feelings and spirituality, and argued against the ‘objective’ scientific rationality of technocratic institutions. Undoubtedly, for many environmentalists, that value-based ecological sensibility is still the motivation of their activism … however, the scientific worldview has come strongly to the fore in ‘professional’ environmentalism, as we shall see.

But before we can do that, let us first explore the windfarming issue a little further through the work of John Barry, Geraint Ellis and Clive Robinson (2008). These researchers have recently studied the rhetoric used in documents produced by the two sides of the windfarm debate in Ireland and the UK, and in particular in relation to the Tunes Plateau offshore wind energy project located off the Derry and Donegal coast. In their work Barry and his colleagues seek to better understand how each writer taking part in the debate “sees the world and attempts to persuade others to adopt similar standpoints or to dissuade them of other opposing standpoints (pp.70-71).

Some of the windfarm opponents’ key themes presented in this research can be summed up as follows (pp.73-83):

A sense of sacrifice and disempowerment: This argument focusses on “place-based local values … and social/ community practices” of rural localities which are “being sacrificed for national or global ends.”

Lack of trust in government, regulatory processes and windfarm developers: Objector attitudes toward the public institutions involved vary “from mild scepticism to outright mistrust” and include, occasionally, scepticism about the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change.

Anti-colonial rhetoric: The anti-colonial theme emerges when windfarms are seen as being forced upon communities by outside agencies and developers, and rural lands being “cleared” for the benefit of urban power users.

Industrialisation of the environment: In this theme, wilderness or rural areas of “beauty and tranquillity” are portrayed as suffering development into “outdoor industrial production plants.” In particular, windfarm opponents go to great lengths to undermine the appropriation of the ‘natural’ idea of a farm in the term ‘windfarm,’ and replace it with the ‘unnatural’ concept of a factory.

Commercialisation of the environment: The business of windfarming is presented as primarily motivated by profit. The suggestion is that there cannot be any real sustainability or other environmental motive behind the development, thus “leaving those opposing wind energy to occupy the high moral ground of environmental protection and concern for future generations.”

NIMBY rebuttal: The NIMBY accusation suggests that objectors’ concerns are based on “ignorance of the realities of climate change, energy security and the need to move to a low carbon economy.” One approach to countering this highly damaging accusation is to “make visible the (legitimate and important) values” of objectors while “undermining or questioning the values and interests of supporters of wind energy.”

An example of windfarm opposition in Aotearoa New Zealand which uses similar arguments is the Upland Landscape Protection Society.

Windfarm supporters’ counter-arguments presented by Barry and his colleagues run along the following lines (pp.83-90):

The assumption of and imperative towards consensus: There is an assumption of “overwhelming agreement” about the need for windpower in arguments from government agencies and wind energy developers – agreement that is based on irrefutable facts and the reality of climate change and energy security. The suggestion is that once people know the facts, most will “come round to accepting the need for the rapid development of wind energy.” Opponents can then be portrayed as a “small, organised and vocal minority holding up progress.”

Rational knowledge-based scientific evidence: Much play is made of the rigorous process by which windfarm sites are chosen: impact assessments, consultations, planning hearings, etc. The suggestion here is that decisions can only be made on the basis of fact-based rational and objective criteria rather than ideological, NIMBY or other subjective grounds around which agreement is impossible.

Urgency and threat of climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy: A key supporter strategy accepts that wind energy developments do involve landscape change but argues that climate change will also dramatically affect the landscape. There is no choice about landscape change – one way or the other it will inevitably happen.

Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand have put the local environmentalists’ pro-windfarming case on their Yes2Wind website

Overall, then, we have the rather ironic situation of environmentalists and environmental NGOs making common cause with supporters of industrial developments in rural landscapes. How do we make sense of this?

I feel it is reasonable to decide, on balance, to support windfarm developments on a number of grounds, and parts of the anti-windfarm case do lack substance; for example, the suggestion that the jury is still out on climate change is just feeble these days. But it is quite clear to me that there are several good reasons for deciding to oppose windfarms too; arguments focussed around place-based local values and the lack of trust in outside agencies imposing decisions upon the affected community carry a lot of weight. These views must be given serious consideration. Indeed, in other circumstances, such as the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign in North Mayo, Ireland, these exact same arguments in opposition to industrial energy developments win significant support from environmentalists.

The critical difference from the windfarm supporters’ perspective is, of course, in the nature of the development project. They oppose Shell’s North Mayo gas terminal primarily because it is seen to be contributing to climate changing CO2 emissions, while they support windfarms because windmills are seen to be reducing such emissions.

Windfarm opponents may or may not take this point about CO2 emissions (many do and some don’t) but it is not the ground on which they are arguing. Opponents are arguing that they have the right to decide what happens because the locality chosen for the project is their place – and any global concerns about climate (or anything else) do not override that right.

The approach of environmental NGOs, as part of the pro-development lobby, to resolving this impasse offers two very interesting insights into the realities of 1) the environmentalist commitment to democracy, and 2) the environmentalist commitment to an ecological worldview.

Windfarming and democratic decision making

In circumstances such as the impasse on windfarm developments, resolving the matter becomes a question of good process, and greens have never – in principle – dismissed good process as a critical factor in robust decision making… But does the urgency of global climate change defeat the need for participatory decision making? I am not at all convinced that there is any situation that justifies the exertion of oppressive power. But it seems that those who support windfarms are so keen to build their shiny towers that they are willing to exert all the power they possess.

This worries me greatly; it shows how easy the road to green authoritarianism or even a green police state is when green ‘experts’ think they know best and reject a democratic, participatory approach. It makes me wonder: would the pro-windfarming environmentalists support a windfarm project in North Mayo? Would locals who refused to give access to land be imprisoned for contempt of court, as happened with the Rossport Five who defied Shell over a gas pipeline route?

‘Appropriate decision making’ and ‘non-violence’ are key principles of the green movement. Environmentalists and environmental NGOs must hold true to these movement principles and recognise that urgency is no justification for the oppressive use of power over communities in any circumstances.

The philosophical position taken in support of windfarming

It seems that repeated defeats on all sorts of issues in a myriad of planning/consent hearings, in court cases and in legal systems designed by (and for) the technocracy have had their effect on environmental organisations around the world. Many environmental NGOs now take a ‘professional’ approach to their advocacy role, shying away from overly subjective arguments based on culture, ecological values, ethical beliefs or (Heaven forbid!) spirituality. They have learned to fight their battles primarily on the grounds of scientific data, cost-benefit analyses, impact assessments and expert opinions. Many grassroots organisations try to reproduce this model too, ably educating themselves in the ways of the technocracy and articulating themselves in its language. They know that ‘value-free’ positivist science rules.

Indeed, it seems that the environmental NGOs that support windfarm projects have learned the lessons taught by their own oppressors so well that they can slip with consummate ease into the language of technocratic power. At times in the windfarm debate we see an environmentalism that not only adopts the positivist scientific mindset and presents a rational, analytical (objective) face for pragmatic reasons but, in search of a policy triumph, is willing to completely deny local opponents’ cultural and value-based (subjective) opinions (“debunking the myths“, as the Yes2Wind website puts it, mimicking the dismissive language of the technocracy to perfection).

This also worries me; an environmental politics such as this appears to have cut itself free from a holistic green philosophy. Without such a philosophical anchor, the environmental organisation becomes an end in itself, and attitudes and approaches are purely instrumental, entirely defined by organisational priorities rather than communities’ needs.

Summing up

We are seeing worrying signs of some environmentalists and environmental NGOs – consciously or unconsciously – ditching core principles in their urgent demands for action on climate change. It may well be done with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions can lead. This is a very slippery slope.

Even in the urgent circumstances of climate change, green action by its very definition must involve participatory, democratic decision-making processes and must be driven by the culture, values, and beliefs of people at the grassroots. A green society cannot be imposed by experts from on high – it must grow from the ground up. If greens deny that, they deny the vision on which their movement was founded.


John Barry, Geraint Ellis and Clive Robinson (2008) Cool rationalities and hot air: A rhetorical approach to understanding debates on renewable energy Global Environmental Politics, 8(2), 67-98.


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