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Who tilts at windmills? Explaining hostility to renewables

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The Conversation

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Studying the catastrophe that has been Australian climate and energy policy these past 30 years is a thoroughly depressing business. When you read great work by Guy Pearse, Clive Hamilton, Maria Taylor and Phillip Chubb, among others, you find yourself asking “why”?

Why were we so stupid, so unrelentingly shortsighted? Why did the revelation in 2004 that John Howard had called a meeting of big business to help him slow the growth of renewables elicit no more than a shrug? Why did policy-makers attack renewable energy so unrelentingly?

About now, readers will be rolling their eyes and saying either “follow the money, stupid!” or “they are blinded by their marketophilia”. Fair enough, and they have a point.

My recently published paper, titled “Wind beneath their contempt: why Australian policymakers oppose solar and wind energy” outlines the hostility to renewables from people like former treasurer Joe Hockey, who found the wind turbines around Canberra’s Lake George “utterly offensive”, and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who funded studiesinto the “potential health impacts” of wind farms.

It also deals with the policy-go-round that led to a drop in investment in renewables.

In a search for explanations for this, my paper looks at what we academics call “material factors”, such as party donations, post-career jobs, blame avoidance, diminished government capacity to act, and active disinformation by incumbents.

I then turn to ideological factors such as neoliberalism, the “growth at all costs” mindset, and of course climate denial.

Where it gets fun – and possibly controversial – is when I turn to psychological explanations such as what the sociologist Karl Mannheimcalled “the problem of generations”. This is best explained by a Douglas Adams quote:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Over the past 50 years, white heterosexual middle-class males with engineering backgrounds have felt this pattern particularly keenly, as their world has shifted and changed around them. To quote my own research paper:

This loss of the promise of control over nature occurred – by coincidence – at the same time that the British empire disintegrated, and the US empire met its match in the jungles of Vietnam, and while feminism, civil rights and gay rights all sprang up. What scholars of the Anthropocene have come to call the “Great Acceleration” from the 1950s, was followed by the great (and still incomplete) democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s.

The rising popularity of solar panels represents a similar pattern of democratisation, and associated loss of control for those with a vested interest in conventional power generation, which would presumably be particularly threatening to those attracted to status, power and hierarchy.

Consider the cringe

Here are a couple more ideas and explanations that didn’t make the cut when I wrote the research paper. First up is the “biological cringe” – analogous to the “cultural cringe”, the self-loathing Australian assumption that all things British were better.

In Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, the historian Tom Griffiths notes that:

Acclimatization societies systematically imported species that were regarded as useful, aesthetic or respectably wild to fill the perceived gaps in primitive Australian nature. This “biological cringe” was remarkably persistent and even informed twentieth-century preservation movements, when people came to feel that the remnants of the relic fauna, flora and peoples, genetically unable to fend for themselves, should be “saved”.

Second, and related, is the contempt and hatred that settler colonialists can feel towards wilderness, which in turn morphs into the ideology that there should be no limits on expansion and growth.

This means that people who speak of limits are inevitably attacked. One good example is Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), an Australian scientist who fell foul of the boosters who believed the country could and should support up to 500 million people.

Having seen his textbook banned in Western Australia for using the words “arid” and “desert”, Taylor set sail for the United States. At his farewell banquet at University of Sydney, he reinterpreted its mottoSidere mens eadem mutate (“The same spirit under a different sky”), as “Though the heavens fall I am of the same mind as my great-great-grandfather!”

I am anticipating that at least four groups will object to my speculations: (vulgar) Marxists, for whom everything is about profits; positivists and Popperians, who will mutter about a lack of disprovability; deniers of climate science, who often don’t like being described as such; and finally, those who argue that renewables cannot possibly provide the energy return on investment required to run a modern industrial economy (who may or may not be right – we are about to find out).

Reader, of whatever category, what do you think?

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

  

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  • trackdaze

    LNP Its seems, stands for Ludite, Neanderthal party.

  • MaxG

    We are not stupid… just wilfully ignorant…

    The lack of leadership is due to stupidity 9is there anyone who actually studied politics?), and influence by corporations where greed rules, with the fullest contempt for the environment.
    Basic questions are met with disbelieve when I ask them: The tragedy of the commons; why can corporations pollute the elements, and have free access to water resources, which will through digging/mining ruined anyway. Why would anyone allow fracking? Why do we have the highest car pollution (lowest emissions standard)? Why is there no forward thinking given the rapidly shrinking job market… and the list goes on.

    • Coley

      Willfully ignorant but also shortsighted, Australia has the solar and wind resources to develop a world leading renewable economy, it’s just that the political class come from a generation where coal, the unions and political donations all dominated.

      • MaxG

        🙂 Looking at root causes… if ‘wilfully ignorant’ exists in this context then there is also no ‘foresight’ (be it short, mid, long term). I am saying: one comes with the other.
        The political class is one thing; but for change to occur the people need to participate in democracy; yet, (and as confirmed recently in a conversation with a bunch of young mothers) they find it too depressing to even listen to the contemporary issues, let alone contemplating or doing something about it.
        There is theory about change; that it can only happen after the problem is acknowledged, then understood, then planed on how to change, and then action the plan. The people fail on the first, hence, (in my view) no change in sight.

    • Alastair Leith

      There’s only one party that can form government that even pretends to be progressive, and they hitched to fossils almost as much as the other side thanks to personal relationships (a la Martin Ferguson, Greg Combet — first minister for CC in Australia if you don’t mind the irony) and the intransigence of much of the blue-collar union movement to transformational change to emissions heavy industry.

      And nobody in this country even mentions Land Use emissions. Methane emissions alone are rising rapidly, are nearly three times pre industrial levels and are certain to mean we hit 2ºC and higher even if we halved global CO2 emissions from present level to 2050. Most of the rise in methane is livestock related, to a lesser extent fossil gas extraction and wetlands (some of which are still being removed around the world).

  • DevMac

    I think there is a genuine fear that the economy of Australia and possibly the western world, cannot survive the disruption that a fast transition to distributed (or at least less centralised) energy generation. Just because the fear is genuine, however, doesn’t mean the cause of the fear is genuine.

    What I don’t understand is why incumbent energy companies haven’t taken more of a leading role in helping make the transition. I thought it would have been in their long-term interests to do so. Maybe that’s just how profitable fossil fuels are; worthy of turning a blind eye to the future for the sake of stretching the amount of time they can make larger returns.

    I think it’s similar to the LNP’s reticence in dealing with negative gearing. They fear any change will cause the bubble to pop, which will have long-term effects on society as a whole – not just those (ab)using the existing system.

    The longer the inaction, the worse the consequence (just an inversion of “a stitch in time saves nine”

    • Alastair Leith

      They’re milking the value they can from their market dominance as long as they can, that simple. When they simply must change course they’ll try, but be up against multinationals with much better understanding of renewables. And some have mind-capture to coal and gas, some lobbyists I sure feeling a certain loyalty to these industry for putting the kids through private schooling and all those properties acquired in the leafy suburbs.

      Side-effect, end of civilisation as we know it and the loss of most natural ecosystems in their current glory. Shrugs.

  • Chris Fraser

    Add Conservatives to the objecting groups. A fear of the untried.

    • Alastair Leith

      A fear of displacement more like.

  • Robin_Harrison

    The reason our political systems are totally owned by the fossil fuel industry is simple.
    Our democratic systems split society almost exactly in half on ideological grounds. Whilst the population squabbles effectively neutering the voice of the people the wealthy and influential carry on regardless, manipulating the political system and every other social operating system to their heart’s content.
    Democracy; feudalism for the 21st century.

  • Which, in part, explains why so few fossil fuel companies successfully become renewable energy companies. Culturally, it’s more about their control ~ over nature, people, profits ~ than is about making energy and the difference that makes.

    While there is a chasm between these two worldviews, the jump is more about changing emotions and beliefs than it is to do with engineering and finances, so to speak.

    For all of their ‘success’ in conquering nature, many of the same people sure are afraidy cats when it comes to letting go of control and going with a change.

    That’s why crises are so often the trigger for a worldview change. The control breaks.

    I don’t want these crises coming down the line though.

  • Ian

    Who would have guessed, solar panels are gay feminists. They are flat and black, and only produce energy when the sun shines. Wind turbines must be phallic symbols with spinning peace signs attached. They are to the environment,what Greenpeace was to the Nazca lines.

  • jamcl3

    That was a trippy rant, and I tend to agree completely. I suppose that should worry me somehow…

  • Coley

    Interesting article, though there is more than a sniff of anti British sentiment.

  • Farmer Dave

    Good stuff, Marc, but don’t forget testosterone. Fossil fuel operations are big and dangerous – deep underground extracting coal, flying to an oil platform on helicopters, building and operating large power stations – it is all very satisfying for a testosterone fuelled ego. Back then, when most of these industries had their growth spurt, most engineers were male, too. Just about everything was a one-off, a unique piece of engineering that those who designed it, built it, and operated it could be proud of. It’s harder to be proud of the 100th row of identical panels in a solar farm if you grew up in the macho fossil fuel industry culture.

    In some ways, what I am saying is another view of that great quote from Douglas Adams, which I had not seen before. Thank you for telling it to us.

    • Alastair Leith

      And the pay checks that come with such projects, especially in “remote” regions.

    • jamcl3

      Interesting thesis, but does that mean Henry Ford was not manly? He made lots of copies of things. And invented the middle class, which was the greater achievement probably.

  • Richard

    There is a lot of political waffle here. The reality is, investment is not going into fossil fuel power plants anymore. They are not economic and won’t be replaced once they have reached their economic end point and for many that is not far away.
    But there is a huge amount of investment going into renewable energy in Australia right now.
    At the end of the day money talks and bullshit walks. If you are a fossil power company and not investing heavily in renewable power infrastructure, then pretty soon you wont be a power company anymore.