Bird-huggers vs. tree-huggers

We can’t build a wind farm because it might imperil Margaret Atwood’s love of spotting a rare fruited warbler

John Alex Maguire/Rex Features/CP

If her recent writing is anything to go by, Margaret Atwood is seriously worried about the future of the human race. In her novels Oryx and Crake and its successor, Year of the Flood, she deals with the apocalyptic themes of runaway technology, the commodification of the body, and environmental devastation. She always describes her work as “speculative fiction” that explores the consequences of social trends that are already underway.

But if her recent environmental activism is any indication, Margaret Atwood appears to think that everything is more or less peachy. At the very least, global warming doesn’t appear to her to be anything worth sacrificing a few birds or a nice view over.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski reported on the latest kerfuffle brewing over the Ontario government’s plan to put as many as 150 wind turbines in Lake Erie’s Pigeon Bay. The project has annoyed people throughout the region, with signs reading “No wind turbines in our lake” sprouting up on lawns all over. Atwood herself has gotten involved, posting stories opposing the turbines and information on new guidelines on her blog, tweeting details about wind-turbine protests from her Twitter account.

There are good reasons to oppose the development of large-scale wind power, most of which have to do with the fact that it is very expensive and—to boot—does almost nothing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. As analysts have been pointing out for ages, the main problem is that wind doesn’t blow all the time. As a result, electrical utilities have to keep virtually all of their conventional generation capacity online, to make sure there is enough electricity to keep the dishwashers running and the iPods charged even when the windmills are becalmed.

Because of this need to double up on generation capacity, even if we were to seriously ramp up on wind-powered electricity generation, it would have a negligible impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It would also be extremely expensive, requiring subsidies (according to some estimates) as much as 200 times greater than those provided to conventional generators.

But if you object to a wind farm in your backyard on the grounds that it is both useless and expensive, you risk being dismissed as a right-wing crank. That’s why the serious NIMBYists wrap their arguments in the cloak of a more principled environmentalism. And so down Pigeon Bay way, what is being peddled are profoundly self-serving concerns about the possible effect of the wind farm on water quality, on the fishery, and, more than anything, on the birds.
It turns out that Pigeon Bay is close to Point Pelee, which happens to be one of the most popular rest-stops in North America for hundreds of migrating bird species. Margaret Atwood has a house down there, and she and her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson, are avid birders.

Nobody welcomes the prospect of a bird massacre, but we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. The central thesis of the call for renewable energy, and thus the entire rationale for building wind farms, is that the future of the human race is at stake. Even the more optimistic global warming scenarios anticipate large-scale social and economic disruption, much of it in some of the poorest and most politically unstable parts of the planet. Global warming, in short, is exactly the sort of technology-driven ecological disaster that Atwood has been warning about in her writing. Yet we can’t get a wind farm built because it might imperil the pleasure she gets from sitting in a bush, swatting bugs, waiting for a rare fruited warbler to wing by.

What takes the discussion from stupid to ultra-stupid is that it is taking place as though no one had ever heard of evolution. Think of all the hazards in a migratory bird’s life: being preyed upon by other birds, navigating safely from one end of the planet to another. Birds are pretty resourceful creatures, and if they can’t evolve the ability to avoid gigantic whirly white things, they would never have made it this far. It might take a number of generations, and we might lose an attractive species or two along the way, but come on. This is the future of humanity at stake here—isn’t it?

For decades, the environmental movement has relied heavily on good old-fashioned self-interest to advance its agenda. Nothing puts a halt to fresh landfills, highway extensions, or new housing developments like the belief that while we might need all of these things, they are best built in someone else’s backyard. NIMBYism, as much as principled environmentalism, has time and again proven to be the best friend of wilderness, watersheds, and wetlands.

But a globalized economy leads to globalized environmental problems. Now, rather than aiding the cause of the environment, NIMBYism is making things worse, and nowhere is the problem more obnoxious than in the recurring opposition to wind farms wherever they are scheduled to be built, from Cape Cod to the Scarborough Bluffs.

Climate change skeptics have long worried that global warming alarmists were going to force changes in our energy consumption habits that would cripple the oil-driven consumer economy.

They can relax: a reliable guide to how seriously someone takes a given threat is how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to avoid it. If the most concerned environmentalists out there aren’t willing to give up bird watching, that most upscale of hobbies, the oil industry has nothing to worry about.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.