No one wants “unpleasantness” in his or her backyard. For nearly as long as Europeans have lived in the Americas, the wealthy have tried to separate themselves from industry, people, and environments they consider uncouth. What has moved Americans to escape undesirables has changed over time. Wealthy Spanish colonists tried to avoid living near the massive pollution of Potosí’s silver mines. Mid-nineteenth century New Yorkers moved north in order to flee neighborhoods clogged with immigrants and garbage-strewn streets. Growing African-American migration to northern cities combined with racism to encourage all-white suburbs after World War II. Not In My Backyard ideologies help explain much of American history.
While one can certainly understand this line of thinking, it also has real and negative consequences. We might not want a chemical plant overlooking our house, but we still buy those chemicals. We might not want a train rattling our windows at three in the morning, but we need those railroads to move products around the country. If I have power and I can get stop that factory from going up in my neighborhood, where does it go? To the neighborhoods of the poor and people of color, of course. Chemical plants line the Gulf Coast, causing high cancer rates. Companies seek out African-American and Latino communities for toxic waste dumps. Freeways and railroads split urban black neighborhoods, skirting white homes and their high property values.
This Nimbyism directly feeds into environmental inequality. Environmental justice movements have fought against this unfair distribution of hazards for years, with moderate success. But unequally enforced property rights laws in the United States mean that the rich and powerful can influence the political system to place unwanted industries more or less wherever they want.
Today’s Nimbyism has taken on a new form. People around the country are outraged that wind turbines might go up near their homes. Sightlines have become the new battlefront. Infuriated that their clear views of distant mountains might soon include turbines, Americans in many parts of the nation have protested wind farms. Kittias County, Washington passed a law requiring turbines to remain 2500 feet from any homes. This would have killed a wind project had a judge not overruled the county. Wealthy whites who have purchased homes in majority Latino northern New Mexico have proposed an eight-mile setback for all turbines, which would also make such projects unfeasible.
Ironically, Wyoming residents are using environmental arguments to undermine the most important environmental technology of our time. Claiming that wind turbines will damage wildlife populations, including the endangered sage grouse, Wyoming residents have attempted to halt the many projects planned for their state. Working closely with local residents are petroleum companies, worried that Wyoming might reduce its dependency on their industry. Wyoming could potentially produce an incredible amount of wind energy so this protest deserves very close attention.
I too worry about unintended effects of wind energy on wildlife populations, particularly birds. We clearly need to minimize these impacts as much as possible. However, to limit wind production in a core wind-producing region because corporations and landowners worry the state will change makes no sense in the face of an urgent energy and climate change crisis. These localized concerns have far-reaching implications that affect national and international events, from funding for wind projects in Congress to rising sea levels and growing numbers of climate refugees in Bangladesh.
While I do have some sympathy to these complaints, these protests’ effectiveness suggests the difficultly the United States has had in creating an alternative energy policy. The decentralized nature of the government gives states and localities a great deal of control; corporate donations and small groups of angry constituents easily sway these entities. The massive power petroleum-dependent state senators hold in the Senate makes it difficult to pass far-reaching climate legislation, as President Obama is finding out. Meanwhile, the climate continues to heat up and the window of opportunity to fix the problem closes.
Unbelievably, pro-energy, anti-environmentalism Texas has led the way on wind production. My state has seen energy developers like T. Boone Pickens look past their normal disdain for environmentalists to recognize the potential money in wind energy. Using devalued land with consistent winds, west Texas has turned into a giant wind farm over the last five years. One can hardly drive in much of the state without seeing trucks loaded down with a turbine, heading to another energy site.
Compare the United States to Europe. Europeans have at least as much concern for environmental issues as Americans. Yet they welcome wind energy as the answer to many of these problems. New off-shore wind energy production rose 54% in 2009 compared to the year before, and is estimated to rise an additional 75% over last year’s numbers in 2010. That’s a remarkable growth rate and suggests Europe can achieve clean energy sustainability in the next generation. Denmark now receives 20% of its energy from wind, while the United States lags at 1%.
Without a national wind energy policy, Americans continue to use fossil fuels at unsustainable rates. Most Americans don’t think about where that energy comes from because they don’t have to see it. Like other dirty, loud, and undesirable industries, energy is produced far away from our homes. It’s on the remote mountains of rural West Virginia and Kentucky, in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, and in the petroleum processing plants of impoverished sections of Texas and Louisiana. In these places, people suffer every day from the byproducts of energy production. Nimbyism continues to have its insidious, far-reaching, and largely unrecognized effects, forcing the impacts of energy production on those who can least fight back against it.