Ignorance is the enemy of humanity
Melanie Phillips, a columnist in the UK’s Daily Fail snoozepaper, once denounced the veteran environmental campaigner – and now Chancellor of Keele University – Johnathon Porritt as “not so much a friend of the earth [sic] as an enemy of the human race”. But I think the real enemy of humanity is the ignorance that enables scientifically-illiterate journalists such as Phillips to make a successful career out of endlessly repeating such nonsense; and have so many people treat their views with anything other than contempt.
Yesterday, it was announced that approval had been granted for the largest onshore wind farm in the UK, to be built along the tops of many ridges in the former South Wales Coalfield. This is an area I know well, and I used to work for the firm of consultants that undertook some aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment required in order to submit an application for planning permission for the development. I was even asked to assess the potential hydrogeological impacts associated with the development.
The Pen Y Cymoedd windfarm will be the largest in the UK, capable of generating nearly 300 MW to power over 200,000 homes. And yet, people will protest that the development will scar the landscape and/or despoil an area of outstanding natural beauty. Apart from being a predictable “not in my backyard” response (i.e. so-called NIMBYism), why is it that wind turbines are treated in the same way as landfills or waste incinerators? Why are they seen as such a bad thing? To me, there is only one legitimate excuse for this response – ignorance of the nature and scale of the problem we are causing by burning fossil fuels and, therefore, of the urgency of our need to de-carbonise our energy generation systems.
In the Amazon Rainforest, people chop down trees to sell tropical hardwood, rear cattle, and/or grow cash crops but, would they still do so if they understood the long-term consequences of their actions? You may argue that they would; because they need a source of income and have no other assets. However, that is clearly not the issue when it comes to opposing wind farm developments in the UK. On the contrary, opposition to wind farm developments is driven by ignorance; and is comparable to someone going to live in the Amazon Rainforest and chopping down the trees claiming they obstruct their view of the countryside.
Even though the Pen Y Cymoedd scheme is in the Brecon Beacons, one of the major opponents is The Cambrian Mountain Society, which has claimed that “wind energy is dying and in its death throes”. This is a common argument amongst “sceptics”, which is all about subsidies, hidden costs, and the supposedly unsustainable or unreliable nature. With regard to the latter point, there are many things that could be said but, for now, I will just say this: Have you ever noticed that when it is calm it is usually sunny? However, this opposition sounds to me like an organised attempt to deny the reality of our need to move away from fossil fuels: Even though diversity is in fact the solution to any supposed problem of unreliability (tidal power would be very reliable), the same people make the same arguments about all alternative forms of energy.
The reality of the situation is that new technology is always expensive; and subsidies are always required initially in order to encourage investment. However, in the long run, the price of everything comes down. Everything, that is, except things that are becoming evermore scarce – like fossil fuels. One day, they will run out; and what will we do then (if we have not invested in alternatives)? If we accept the reality that burning fossil fuels is causing our climate to change, would it not be a good idea to invest in those alternatives; rather than investing in pursuing every last drop of fossil fuel (in places only being made possible as a consequence of the change we want to stop)?
As someone once said, “failing to plan is tantamount to planning to fail”: Humanity needs to plan for a future without fossil fuels and, since achieving this goal will take some time, we need to work out a plan of how to get there; and start implementing it. If we wait until we have no choice, climate science tells us we will have no future. This is not environmental alarmism or doom-mongering. This will be the consequence of failing to learn from history – Earth history.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair famously once remarked that his priority in government was, “Education, education, education”; and education is the key to solving our climate change problem. This is because there are some very powerful special vested interests (see this very recent post on Climate Denial Crock of the Week) behind the disinformation campaign that feeds on the ignorance of the general population. Thanks to this, these Merchants of Doubt succeeded in delaying effective regulation of tobacco for decades. However, having eventually failed to prevent it, exactly the same tactics have been used for at least 20 years now to prevent effective regulation of fossil fuel use.
If people could appreciate what damage burning fossil fuels is doing to our environment, I think it would become as socially unacceptable and morally reprehensible as paedophilia or palladium poisoning… I also think the fossil fuel companies know this (just as tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking causes cancer); but they don’t want to admit it because, to do so, would require them to sacrifice their “golden goose”. But, I have to ask this question:
Why not sacrifice the golden goose for the greater good of humanity; and invest in a “cattle ranch” instead – the cattle ranch of alternative energy?