“The world is a filthy mass of coal dust and carbon emissions,” you say?
“Why yes, yes it is,” is my response — a response that is echoed by billions and one that should always include “how about we fix it?”
Now that’s a great question. But are you genuinely interested in the answer? Or are you looking to find fault with every possible solution? “What about the batteries?” “What about the turbines?” “What about the birds, the fish, the land?”
I’m a solution-oriented person. Thankfully I’m not the only one or we’d still be staring at rocks not realising their potential for tools. And yet, despite this natural human propensity for problem-solving, there are still so many among us who are either a) overwhelmed and thus fearful of changes, or b) are unwilling to accept any changes unless not a single new problem can be identified with it.
The first are the naysayers. The second the perfectionists. And of course among both groups are the covert denialists who masquerading as concerned citizens who feel it is their job to point out that every step towards the wicked problem of sustainability is fraught with oversights and should therefore be dropped altogether. For the naysayers it’s all just too overwhelming. For the perfectionists it’s all just too problematic.
Wind Farms; a case study
I participated in a 1 Million Women thread today focused on a specific offshore wind farm which, according to the International Energy Agency, could generate 18 times the amount of electricity the world currently uses. Soon to be the planet's biggest offshore wind farm, the Dogger Bank project is intended to power 4.5 million homes in the UK. In a world that really is a filthy mass of coal dust and carbon emissions, the Facebook post was a message of hope. Hope that was quickly met by objection.
“All that sound and vibration will have a devastating impact on marine life,” said one highly (un)qualified scientist.
“More windmill arms that are not recyclable to be buried in landfills,” said another.
“A lot of greenhouse gasses will be generated manufacturing these,” was the cry of many.
“This will have a significant impact on seabirds,” popped up a few times too.
Often these objections are valid concerns by real bonafide environmentalists. At other times, they are feigned concern by those who reject the existence of anthropogenic climate change in the first place and whose objections are more about derailing the green movement than having any genuine concern for bird populations or landfill. And sometimes they don’t fall neatly into either group because the human brain is both blessed with problem-solving capabilities and cursed with resistance to any facts that make them uncomfortable.
The thought that as we come up with a solution to each problem there are those among us who resist them (whether for genuine or nefarious reasons) is gobsmackingly frustrating. Their motives are not always clear, their signals mixed, but their objections, when spoken truthfully, often sound something like this:
“All that sound and vibration will have a devastating impact on marine life which I am genuinely worried about, but I’ll ignore these same impacts caused by offshore drilling because I’m not yet ready to let go of the fossil fuels that devastate all life.”
“Turbine propellers will be buried in landfills, along with all the shit I myself send to landfills, which is only small stuff so isn’t as confronting as those massive propellers so if I can make you feel bad about that I won’t need to feel bad about wanting a new car every two years.”
But, I don’t want to be too pessimistic and dismiss the possibility of this:
“A lot of greenhouse gases will be generated by manufacturing these, and I’m really concerned about greenhouse gases and think we need to just stop, entirely, and find a zero-emission solution.”
“This will have a significant impact on birds/marine life, and what I want is a solution that will have absolutely no impact whatsoever. Utopia. That’s what I want!”
Which brings me back to the wicked problem of sustainable energy production and facing it with a solution-oriented approach.
I recently wrote that puritanism doesn’t help in the shift towards sustainability. I was referring at the time to individual action, in which case a puritanical approach only serves to alienate people who become overwhelmed with the task at hand. Perfect solutions are unrealistic. The entire human race isn’t going to go zero-waste, or vegan, or turn their backyards and balconies into urban farms. Likewise, as a species, we are not ever going to find a way to exist on this planet without impact, without repercussions, without some sort of footprint.
Mitigating climate change is all about mitigating our human impact. And to do that, we start by fixing something that is broken. Our unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels is a great place to start.
Will offshore wind turbines be the perfect solution? No. As another highly (un)qualified, and not particularly bright scientist pointed out; “what about countries that don’t border the sea?” I hope I don’t even need to explain the level of naysaying being expressed there. No. Turbines, whether on the land, on the sea, or under it, are not without problems. But can we keep improving them? Yes.
Should we be concerned about offshore wind farms impacting marine life? Of course we should. Fortunately, research has shown that marine life is actually thriving around the environment created by wind turbines; much-needed reef like sanctuaries previously decimated by the dragnets of large scale fishing are now emerging.
But, it is not perfect. The construction phase has messed with echolocation for whales and dolphins, a problem that can be mitigated going forward by scheduling construction around migration; which is again not perfect as not all echolocating marine life migrates.
While whole eco-systems have emerged around the bases of the wind turbines the electrical pulses leaking from the cables on the seafloor interfere with the electromagnetic systems used by sharks and rays to hunt among that ecosystem. So, while we are repairing the food chain by creating reef sanctuaries for small marine animals, the larger ones that feed on them are not faring as well. Solution? We’re working on it.
And what about the impact of those blades on birdlife? It’s a very valid concern. One wind farm in Norway reported the deaths of between six and nine eagles a year. The proximity of the massive offshore wind farm previously mentioned is located 75 miles from Englands largest kittiwake colony and modelling expects up to 73 of them to die each year as they navigate a coast now spattered with a gauntlet of deadly blades. Is there a solution? There’s always a solution, we just need to find it. One is the suggestion that painting one of the three blades of a turbine black, or the tips red, which will reduce the motion smear of the blades and make them more visible. Will it work? So far the results are promising. So let’s keep going with that line of thinking.
Reducing the amount of stuff we send to landfill is a huge focus for sustainability junkies like me. It’s not just about the way we’re transforming our planet into the one depicted in Disney Pixar’s WALL-E by tossing out hundreds of millions of tonnes of solid waste every year. It’s also about the impact of manufacturing that stuff and the system that both encourages and forces us to consume it at such a wasteful level.
As one of the commenters I quoted above said, a lot of greenhouse gases go into manufacturing stuff (including wind turbines). Naturally, we’d want to address that. And we are. Repurposing them is one way; art installations, furniture, playground equipment, and pedestrian bridges to name a few. But, like saving up and reusing glass jars, the saturation point is reached very quickly. The ultimate goal is to make them last longer before then recycling as much of the materials as possible. We’re not there yet, but it is on the way.
Marching forward with a positive attitude
The obvious question is this: do we keep using the fossil fuels that are killing the planet, or do we keep striving for a better way? Do we complain about the manufacturing emissions of renewables and the current use of fossil fuels in that process, or do we meet each new problem with a new solution as we have been doing consistently since we first figured out we could use a stone as a tool to crack open a nut?
Objectionists and naysayers want us to think they are realists. Some are paving the way with good intentions. Others are very much trying to block the way. What both groups have in common is a demand for perfection, seeing any solution that is fallible as no solution at all. But humans are, in their very nature, problem solvers. We do it without even thinking. But we also do it on purpose.
The world faces many problems, wicked problems, meaning they are incredibly difficult and even impossible to solve; perfectly that is. The problem of energy production is perhaps the biggest one we face right now. As we rise to face that challenge there will always be those among us who see every solution as abject failure.
As an environmentalist, I’ve already had my fair share of climate change debates — eventually recognising the futility and harm of such a distracted approach. I accept the science of those qualified to present it and choose to invest my time, energy and discussion spaces (particularly online) to unpacking the solutions rather than debating whether or not a problem exists.
My challenge, our challenge, now is addressing the attitudes of those who demand perfection in our response to climate; not just the denialists who scoff at climate change protesters who arrive by car and organise via computers and smartphones, but also my fellow environmentalists who see the problem but are only able to see solutions in perfection.
© Sarah J. Baker 2021. All Rights Reserved.
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