Monday, September 17, 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons

Mars Hill wind turbines behind an International Appalachian Trail shelterMars Hill wind turbines behind an International Appalachian Trail shelter
It's an environmental problem so old that it's named for a relic of medieval agriculture, and now, the age-old "tragedy of the commons" is keeping us from building renewable energy projects.

When farmers of the Middle Ages left the village to tend their fields every day, they typically left their livestock on a publicly-owned patch of grass near the center of town.

But since these "commons" were owned by everyone, taking care of them was typically left to an inadequate collection of do-gooders who received little in return for their work. Meanwhile, everyone in town had an incentive to put as much of their livestock as possible on the common - it was free, and if their animals didn't eat all the grass, someone else's would. As a result, the Common pastures quickly became desolate patches of dirt, at least until City Beautiful movements closed them to livestock and resurrected them as public parks like the one in Boston.

Since the Middle Ages, the "tragedy of the Commons" has afflicted everything from fisheries to dorm-room kitchens. Right now, it's being felt most keenly on a global scale with the global warming crisis.

Here in Maine, we have a promising way to slow down climate change by developing our state's wind resources into a source of electricity. But an article by John Richardson in today's Portland Press Herald cites a brand-new tragedy of the commons, in the state's failure to approve new wind power developments:

"A study completed this year by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found conflicts like those in Maine are widespread because of a fundamental reality of wind power. The environmental costs -- visual impacts, noise, landscape and wildlife disturbances -- are primarily felt by those near the wind farm. The benefits, however -- reduced global warming emissions and other air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil and less mining and drilling -- are felt more on the global scale."
The people who live near and object to proposed wind turbines are a lot like the medieval villagers who sent their cows overgrazing. They hold their own self-interest high above the interests of everyone else (only now, they use the mantle of "environmentalism" to justify it).

Meanwhile, the rest of us who "own" the atmosphere would collectively benefit a lot more from having the windmills built, but it's hard for any single one of us to justify the travel and effort involved in supporting these projects.

As a result, a few people whose delicate aesthetic sensibilities cause them to "suffer" from wind farms have a stronger incentive (not to mention lower travel costs) to complain at local planning hearings than the 6 billion people who will share the benefits of healthier lungs and reduced greenhouse gases. The tragedy continues...


Anonymous said...

Oh how easy it is to sit back from your house and criticize those who live with turbines. Watch the fish kills, the rivers damaged, wildlife flee, the value of your house drop, sleepless nights, headaches, and living with your blinds drawn like a mole. Then come back and tell me how those of us who live by them need to suffer so the rest of you think you benefit.

do a little research and you will find that wind turbines will never supply enough energy to throw a stick at. The only people benefiting from wind energy are the foreign companies grabbing our tax dollars and running.

C Neal said...

I can't tell if anonymous is being tongue-in-cheek or not. "Watch the fish kills"? Are these flying fish we're talking about?

Incidentally, I have lived with wind turbines, while working with the Appalachian Mountain Club in their White Mountain Huts. These were smaller turbines that spun at much higher RPMs and produced more noise than the large turbines ever will, and all of them were installed on the roof of backcountry huts within clear sight of the Appalachian Trail.

Nevertheless, these noisy turbines didn't diminish our home values or keep us up at night - in fact, they made living in the huts a lot more comfortable, with refrigerators, an emergency radio, and lights.

As far as I know, they never killed any fish, either.