Monday, March 21, 2011

Rational Optimism about wind power

Last week I found the Rational Optimist blog.  The author of the blog is Matt Ridley, who wrote The Rational Optimist, a book about the environment and the future of civilization that I found tremendously enjoyable and informative.  In the book Ridley takes the viewpoint that many of the environmental concerns we are warned about by activists these days are very real but that we must be careful about how we go about solving them and especially careful about mixing up environmental solutions with anti-capitalist propaganda.  This speaks to me because I really do think environmental quality is important but I also think that an awful lot of the people most stridently advocating for the environment do have completely unrealistic ideas of what is actually feasible.  There are plenty of people who really have a hate on for the capitalist system and advocate tearing our entire financial structure down in favour of communism / benevolent autocracy / whatever as part of their environmental platform.  This is all nonsense since it is entirely clear that nations care more and more about the environment the richer they become and although capitalism has many flaws it is the best option we have come up with so far.

I read a post by him on Friday though that shredded my 'Ridley has left wing values mixed with pragmatism' image.  His post has all kinds of criticisms of wind farms including the new and surprising revelation that offshore wind farms kill whales!  His support for this shocking new claim was an article by the author of 365 Ways to Drive a Liberal Crazy in an online publication, which itself linked to its source .... a page that said "We cannot find the page you are looking for."  It turns out that they original article had been removed as of Thursday last week and replaced with an apology and correction since the researcher involved claimed his remarks had been taken out of context and badly misinterpreted.  It is easy to become confused about various subjects by reading commentary on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter) and listening to writers spin things their way.  However, quoting a ridiculous and wholly biased pundit who makes very serious claims and supports them with nothing other than a broken link is shoddy and extremely disappointing.  The rational approach to a new and surprising find is to click around and read a little bit about it *before* trumpeting it to the world.  This sort of thing is exactly how myths like 'the scientific consensus that the world is cooling' become entrenched in the public mind.  I know, because I bought into it when I saw it repeated in enough places.

Here is the thing:  There are problems with wind power.  It does kill birds (in numbers that are a miniscule fraction of things like domestic cat predation), it does change the view (I actually like the look of windmills, some don't) and it is very costly for the amount of electricity produced.  That last point I think is the only negative one about windmills that I actually buy into.  Most of the other issues with windmills are seriously overblown or completely fictional (affects people's minds or health through scientifically inexplicable means, kills schoolchildren by throwing ice tremendous distances) but the cost in terms of land, steel, concrete and manpower is very real.  We as a society have limited resources and there is much good we could do all over the world with those resources; whether or not we want to devote those resources to windmills is a very good question.  Ridley did a good job of presenting that rational viewpoint in his book and advocating for a scientific approach to decision making rather than a surrender to panic.  On his blog though he sure comes off as much more of a right wing activist than a rational optimist.


  1. Just wrote a huge comment and had it deleted... arg....

    The gist is that I loved this post! Bravo! Great research. I feel this way about the perception of nuclear power too.

  2. I always wonder about unintended side effects. In particular, taking energy from wind is going to slow down the wind... almost certainly not appreciably, but dotting the entire landscape with windmills is going to have some effect. I find it interesting to try to imagine what those effects would be.

  3. I'm with Bung. I've always enjoyed thinking about what kinds of unintended negative environmental side effects we will get from wind farms and solar power. I support both things, but the idea that there won't be any kind of spin-off effects is silly.

    Anyway, I look forward to people creating bacteria that just eat CO2 from the atmosphere and excrete refined fossil fuels in a usable form to solve our energy problems (bacteria that do this were patented last September by a company called Joule Biotechnologies). If that works then we can probably forget all about wind farms and their school-children seeking ice projectiles.

  4. Bacteria that eat CO2 and poop oil eh? I guess the optimism that humanity can innovate its way out of nearly any conundrum is warranted!

    On the unintended consequences of putting up wind turbines - while they certainly exist I am unconvinced we could even notice the differences. Cities massively change the windscape, as does mining, removal of forests any many other human activities. Those changes *must* be an order of magnitude or three greater than the changes created by windmills. It doesn't mean that the changes from windmills are nonexistent but it does suggest we really shouldn't worry about it.

  5. Yeah, I don't think that either wind or solar energy are actually going to change much of anything, but as things get better and better our threshold to notice problems gets smaller and smaller. I'm sure someone will figure out something.

  6. It is worth taking a look at this video:
    I'm still in favor of wind turbines in appropriate locations!
    Mike Z.