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Giving environmentalism a bad name; the death of good sense

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Monday, July 23, 2007]

An acquaintance of mine set me a link to a webpage berating a plan in Santa Monica, California to build the nation's first sustainable parking garage. The project includes photovoltaic roof panels, a storm drain water treatment system, recycled construction materials, and energy efficient mechanical systems. It will also feature ground floor retail shops.

So what was the writer's complaint? Their complaint was that "motoring" is not a sustainable activity and that the parking garage was ugly. They also claimed that the automobile age was going to be over in 17 years. Southern California giving up the automobile within 17 years would be like residents of northern Siberia giving up parkas; it is not going to happen. While better mass transit may be a noble objective, the reality is that new parking garages are still going to have to be built in cities like Santa Monica. Building parking garages to be as sustainable as possible and to make the best possible use of the space (e.g. retail space on the ground floor and roof top solar collectors) is a laudable effort.

We have seen a similar disconnect with some "environmentalists" (obstructionists would be a better term) up here in New England. In our case it deals with various wind farm proposals. Wind farms would seem to be the very picture of environmental sustainability, yet several recent wind farm proposals were blocked on "environmental" grounds. One proposal that has been fought using every method possible was a plan to put wind turbines on platforms out to sea off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The plan was to put them far enough out to sea that they would appear very small or would be obscured by the curvature of the Earth, yet residents fought against this plan primarily because it would spoil the scenic ocean views of their multimillion dollar waterfront homes. Wind farm proposals here in Maine have run up against the same "environmental" claim of spoiling the scenic view because they would be placed on mountain tops.

Another claim often used to obstruct wind farm proposals is the claim that they will result in high bird mortality rates, which just is not true. In fact, one recent study by the National Academy of Sciences on the environmental impact of wind turbines I was reading and had planned to blog on but didn't, found that the bird mortality rate of modern slow revolving wind mills was lower than with other man made structures like tall buildings, power lines, etc. In fact, feral cats are much more devastating to bird populations than anything else and there is an up cry every time there is any effort to exterminate or otherwise remove feral house cats from the wild. Even the National Audubon Society supports wind farms and collaborates with wind farm developers "to best determine how to maximize the benefits of wind power while reducing the potential for harm to birds, wildlife and the environment."

Would the "environmentalists" fighting against wind farms and/or sustainable parking garages prefer that we build more coal fired power plants that spew mercury and greenhouse gases or build new nuclear reactors instead of wind turbines? The reality is that everything human civilization does has an impact on the environment. Cities like Santa Monica, California will continue to grow in population and thus will need more parking garages, and all of society will continue to need more energy. Not everyone can use mass transit from their home, but they could drive to well situated parking garages to pick up mass transit to complete their trip. Building sustainable parking garages that make use of the wasted space on top of the structure by adding solar panels and constructing them out of recycled materials is the right thing to do. So is building mountain top wind projects here in Maine or sea based wind projects off the coast of Cape Cod.

Yes, the true environmental impact of renewable energy projects like wind farms needs to be evaluated and minimized, however, it must also be recognized that all energy sources have environmental impacts, and we can not do without energy. The question we must ask when evaluating the environmental impact of renewable energies like wind farms is what are their net environmental impact compared to the traditional alternatives?

The simple fact of the matter is that many people try to wrap their arguments and obstructionism against projects like the sustainable parking garage in Santa Monica, California and wind farms in environmental terms when the real reason for their opposition is NIMBY (not in my back yard). They simply don't want their aesthetic sensibilities offended by the infrastructure required to sustain our civilization. This NIMBY attitude wrapped in a cloak of environmental concern is giving environmentalism a bad reputation and is wrong headed. From a big picture perspective, being environmentally responsible requires occasionally offending our aesthetic sensibilities. Personally, I would be thrilled if the next parking garage project here in Portland, Maine followed the sustainable parking garage model and would love to see some local mountain tops dotted with wind mills. For me, these things would mean we were taking local responsibility for the environmental impact of our energy needs.

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5 comments:

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bob said...

"The simple fact of the matter is that many people try to wrap their arguments and obstructionism against projects like the sustainable parking garage in Santa Monica, California and wind farms in environmental terms when the real reason for their opposition is NIMBY (not in my back yard)."

I think you nailed it here.

True environmentalists are now busy fighting coal-fired power plants and struggling to clean up air pollution so children are not saddled with a life of asthma.

Well-heeled organizations against wind power should be labled "Nimbists" not environmentalists.

To counter global warming, we will all need to give a little.

Anonymous said...

Esthetics vs NIMBY actualy touches on a socialist concept and sets up an argument in a supposedly capitalist society: should social good trump private right ? and who, what and how decides about that issue ?

There is no need to counter some global warming. so-called global warming is a faulty scientific computer modeling bandwaggon issue for white political men to raise new taxes ("I have a solution for you" types).

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Bob, I love your coining of the term "nibists" it is perfect.

Anonymous above is actually the acquaintance I was referring to in my post above. As one can imagine we have some rather interesting discussions. We disagree constantly about the global warming issue but that debate is for a different post.

The political men raising new taxes comment is in relation to another article this Internet acquaintance told me about at: http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/85773.html

In regards to social good vs. private rights, I actually think the argument could be taken further than that. This is also about private rights vs. private rights. From a capitalist society and private land rights standpoint one could argue what right the public has to stop a land owner from putting up a wind farm or parking garage on private lands purely because the wind farm or parking garage would offend aesthetic sensibilities?

Really this isn't so much an social good vs. private rights issue as there are private rights and social good arguments on both sides of the debate.

The real issue is being honest about the reason for opposing any project. Too often NIMBY opposition is wrapped in a false cloak of environmental concerns. In the end these "nimbists" masquerading as environmentalists give other REAL environmentalists a bad reputation and cloud legitimate environmental concerns.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

It is very rare for me to delete a comment, but being patronizing and/or posting only to promote a specific website are two sure ways to get a post deleted (especially if the post by an anonymous individual or the promoted site is spreading disinformation). I just deleted a comment that violated both "rules" of etiquette. The comment was by an individual promoting one of the nimbist organizations I was railing against in my blog post above. The core argument of their patronizing post was "wind energy, does not generate useable capacity sufficient to justify the impacts." The basis of their website, which will not be promoted here (and any comment mentioning it will be deleted), is that they don't want the "industrialization" of mountain tops and/or wild areas. Basically they want to protect their pristine scenic views.

Now granted, not every mountain top or locality is appropriate for wind farms, nor would we want every mountain dotted with wind farms. This is why environmental impact and feasibility studies need to be part of the permitting process to help ensure appropriate locations are chosen. HOWEVER, I will ask, would these groups prefer to have coal fired or nuclear power plants in their back yard instead? How about we damn up every river in their communities to produce hydroelectric instead? Maybe they could build giant solar plants in their wild areas instead? EVERY source of energy has some negative environmental impacts and has some kind of limitations. This is why we need to use a mix of energies.

The simple fact of the matter is that per megawatt produced, ignoring the aesthetic issue, modern wind turbines that are properly sited to avoid major bird flyways and/or wetlands have very low net environmental impacts compared to traditional energy sources. This claim isn't marketing hype by the wind power industry; this is a fact based on studies like the one I referenced from the National Academy of Sciences and real environmental organizations that are trying to find real answers to the serious environmental and energy issues our society faces.

Our nation is facing some very serious energy and global climate issues which will require some very hard choices. Sure it would be nice to leave all the scenic views unspoiled by man made structures like wind turbines, however, if communities want the conveniences modern society like electricity, those communities need to share in the burden of producing said electricity. Wind farms may not be a dense source of power; however, they can share the land they use with other uses like farming or at least can be designed to have a very minimal impact on wild places like mountain tops (especially compared to energy sources like coal fired power plants, which result in the complete removal of mountains just to provide fuel).

For those who fight against wind farms in their communities and want to wear an environmentalist label rather than a nimbist label, I would suggest providing alternative solutions to provide the electricity their communities need locally rather than simply relying on some distant place sacrificing their environment and/or scenic views to provide the needed electricity. Failure to do this only proves that the obstructionism is a matter of NIMBY falsely disguised in an environmental cloak.

environmental articles said...

The environmental laws, created to control air pollution, are working and will continue to work if the laws are enforced....

do you personally agree with this statement or disagree?
do you have any article to support your statement?

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