Windmills of the mind
A minister’s pledge to make opposition to windfarms as unacceptable as refusing to wear a seatbelt is revealing.
Speaking recently at the London screening of environmentalist skin-flick The Age of Stupid, the UK energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband clearly knew his audience. ‘The government’, he announced, ‘needs to be saying “It is socially unacceptable to be against wind turbines in your area – like not wearing your seatbelt or driving past a zebra crossing.”’
Comparing opposition to windfarms to not wearing a seatbelt? To those greens long convinced of the blind, selfish stupidity of the public, Miliband’s authoritarian strains must have been music to their ears. At long last, they must have thought, here’s a politician prepared to call objections to green-approved energy what they really are: dangerous, selfish, and very, very rude.
To give ‘the-one-who’s-not-PM-in-waiting’ Miliband his due, he was at least candid about his intentions: if you can’t win the support of the public for a particular policy through that hoary old democratic mechanism known as debate, why not seek to shame them into changing their behaviour instead? If it had been any area of policymaking other than ‘energy and climate change’, Miliband’s demand would have looked absurd. Can you imagine someone saying that the government should make it socially unacceptable to oppose private finance initiatives? Or that it ought to be taboo to question the basic rate of income tax? Yet when it comes to the environment, a statement by a member of the cabinet calling for the suspension of democratic debate barely raises an eyebrow.
Yet a suspension of debate is precisely what Miliband is suggesting. He is effectively calling for the government to stage-manage social mores and customs, to regulate those often informal codes by which we live. Everyone knows, for instance, that it is socially unacceptable to unleash a bowel movement at a dinner party, even, I imagine, chez Miliband, where wind is sacred. Now, it seems, to object to the building of wind turbines ‘in your area’ is likewise to be considered a violation of custom, a form of behaviour to be frowned upon. Like smoking and ‘hate speech’, opposing wind farms might get you expelled from polite society.
The ramifications of such state-forged etiquette have not passed unnoticed by all. James Lovelock of all people, proponent of the Gaia thesis and veteran environmental campaigner, wrote a scathing response to Miliband. Citing the novelist Wole Soyinka, he argued ‘that while brute force is one way to take away our democratic rights, they can be lost as easily by the social rejection of political correctness… It seems that we are now subject to a campaign that uses social rejection as a force to make us accept industrial-scale wind energy stations across the UK.’
Lovelock is right to highlight the profoundly undemocratic impulse underpinning Miliband’s casual stigmatisation of opponents of windfarms. Over 200 groups oppose the construction of windfarms, some because they live near the proposed sites, others because they feel there are better energy technologies in which to invest time and money. But instead of seeking to engage with these groups, instead of trying to persuade the public of the wisdom of a particular energy policy, especially those who will be directly affected by their construction, the government prefers to demonise dissent, to push certain objections beyond the pale.
The authoritarian urge to moralise policymaking, to portray one side as being on the side of truth and the other as heretical Not-In-My-Back-Yarders, is no accident. By looking down its nose at human self-interest, the very basis of democracy, environmentalism necessarily makes for an anti-democratic movement. All policy decisions, if justified in terms of the needs of the planet, can easily eschew the needs of people. In a political context dominated by climate change, to complain that a windfarm ruins one’s view, or interferes with one’s television reception, appears as selfish as, well, ‘driving past a zebra crossing’. The long-term interest of the planet, enshrined in EU-approved carbon-emission targets, serves to trump the short-term interest of living, breathing members of the demos. It is not a wind-based energy policy that is sacrosanct, but the planetary end which it serves.
As for the scientists and engineers engaged in developing new energy technologies, such a politically, indeed socially, censorious climate can only inhibit genuine technological innovation. The argument for meaningful innovation can only be won through public debate, not through blackmail and threats and the creation of outcasts. To misquote Henry Ford, the message today seems to be: you can develop any energy technology as long as it’s a wind turbine.
The consequences affect us all. In the name of the planet, to be compelled and humiliated into toeing the line has gained state approval.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
spiked hosted an online debate on the future of energy. James Woudhuysen criticised the government’s energy policy. He believed it was knocking the wind out of the energy debate. Rob Johnston said the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.
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