Say something right, the wrong way, and it’ll do more harm than good.
Here’s a cute example: in 2013, I tried making an infographic that illustrated the fallacies underpinning the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ myth. I didn’t quite get the graphic design right, because Donald Trump literally thought it was a graphic proving wind turbine syndrome. I tried telling him he’d got it wrong, and he blocked me.
Six years on, Trump still thinks wind turbines cause cancer, and anti-wind groups still distribute a doctored version of my graphic as proof of the apocalyptic disease. Man, there were lessons learnt, my friends. I still feel nervous walking through airports, in case Trump’s Twitter block list has been matched to incoming passenger manifests.
Bob Brown’s recent involvement in opposition to a wind farm in Tasmania highlights the same style of fuck-up that resulted in me providing fuel to Trump’s anti-wind fire. Embark on a good-faith mission in the wrong way, and your words end up weaponised to cause more harm than good. It sucks. No one wins, bar the robotic bad-faith political players operating on ideological autopilot.
If the goal here was to nurture informed debate about the costs and benefits of emissions-free energy, it didn’t work. Having the progenitor of the modern Greens movement in Australia object in strong and general terms to a wind farm was always going to be a sizzling, tense, reactive fuel injection on a long-burning ideological fire.
How it went down
Bob Brown, a former leader of the Australian Greens and easily Australia’s most recognised and credentialed environmental campaigner, published an op-ed subtly headlined “METROPOLIS OF HULKING WIND TURBINES WILL KILL SHOREBIRDS” in a Tasmanian paper on July 8. This was in opposition to a large proposed wind farm on Robbins Island, in Tasmania. Brown objects because:
“Its eye-catchiness will divert from every coastal scene on the western Bass Strait coastline”
“Besides the impact on the coastal scenery, wind turbines kill birds. Wedge-tailed eagle and white-bellied sea eagles nest and hunt on the island. Swift parrots and orange-bellied parrots traverse the island on their migrations”
“Beyond the indisputable environmental losses, what is the guaranteed money this giant venture is returning to the state of Tasmania as against UPC’s foreign stakeholders?”
Roughly one week after Brown’s letter The Australian published a piece by long-time anti-wind farm guy Graham Lloyd. This kicked off digital and print articles, opinion columns and TV and cable segments on Brown’s comments. His letter created a national conversation on every major media outlet (bar Nine/Fairfax) about the merits of placing barriers around decarbonisation (at roughly the same time Europe is being literally cooked).
Like clockwork, it fed into a network of anti-wind farm groups. It’s featured prominently on the notoriously abusive blog ‘Stop These Things’, but it’s also seeped quickly into global aggregators, like ‘Wind Watch’ and ‘Alabama wind’ and climate change denial blogs.
That right-wing media picked this up doesn’t invalidate criticisms. The Robbins Island Wind Farm proposal has serious potential impacts relating to endangered local bird life and migratory pathways. “Its turbines will threaten migratory Arctic shorebirds, some already listed as critically endangered, that make the Robbins Passage-Boullanger Bay wetland complex their southern summer home,” said Birdlife Tasmania spokesperson Eric Woehler. This is a problem worth paying attention to.
It also has some major issues around a planned transmission line stretching from the privately-owned cattle-farm island into the transmission grid in Tasmania. There have been some community engagement failures on a very impactful scale:
“Mr Winkel said when he received a letter on April 3 this year stating that the company could compulsorily acquire his land, he almost fell over. “It was quite threatening,” he said”
A wind project playing out in a way that’s disenfranchising nearby residents isn’t new. But given the importance of decarbonisation, as heat records are being broken daily, figuring out a way to help these projects shape into something that’s accepted by everyone is extremely pressing. We need consensus builders, not blockaders. What went wrong here?
Down with this sort of thing
Bob Brown came out swinging against this project not just based on birds and the transmission line, but on a wide range of complaints, including foreign ownership, grid power flow, visual amenity and profit motives.
The ‘foreign company’ objection has strong precedent. “They’re having money ripped out of their pockets so some Thai company, or Chinese wind turbine company is going to make a big, big quid”, says Alan Jones, a lot. Every wind turbine in Australia is built and sold by a company from overseas, and a decent percentage of them are operated by companies that aren’t based in Australia. Brown’s worries become more general in later comments to the ABC’s 730 program. “It’s now become an avenue for big business to be pursuing profits”.
Remember Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey quaking with nausea when they cast their eyes upon wind power, just before cutting the renewable energy target? Remember Josh Frydenberg banning small, tilting turbines on Lord Howe Island because they’re too ugly? Remember Ted Ballieu creating no-go zones for wind turbines in Victoria based on their visuals? These had real impacts on keeping clean tech out of the system, and consequently increasing the profits and emissions of fossil fuel industries.
The visual impacts argument is powerful, and the generalised nature of these objections are significant. They’ll be quoted and transferred to every wind farm development in Australia, because every wind farm will be visible from somewhere, and have some involvement from foreign companies or businesses that profit. This is bad for discourse.
Wrong for a reason
“Its eye-catchiness will divert from every coastal scene on the western Bass Strait coastline”. It’s a huge project, and it’ll be visible from a range of spots, but that coastline is around 50 kilometres, and there’s zero possibility it’ll be “diverting” eyes from ‘every coastal scene’. Why the exaggeration?
It isn’t just the weirdly huge distance. I visited Woolnorth Wind Farm in 2011, very close to Robbins Island. It’s big, visible, but we were on a paid tour – a businesses that makes money because people want to see the project. It’s wrong to state that the presence of wind turbines is perceived, consistently and in every location, as unpleasant or unwanted.
Brown also repeats, on a few occasions, that “The one gigawatt of wind power from Robbins Island will not warm one Tasmanian home”. This is a little worse than weird, for me. Tasmania is connected into Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) by the Bass Strait interconnector. Tasmania, which is mostly hydro and wind, sometimes imports power, and sometimes exports it:
If the goal is to inspire a healthy, informed public debate about the flow of benefits, repeatedly stating a very literal falsehood about where benefits flow is, to put it really politely, counter to that goal. Why does stuff like this get let off the hook?
Something important I learnt about the anti-wind farm movement during my time in the wind industry is that falsehoods exist for a reason. They’re gap-fillers. They’re collected, assembled and hurled with absolute abandon at projects as part of generalised protest.
Mythology is an incendiary addition to public discourse. Instead of clear-headed assessment of costs and benefits, conversations swirl down a whirlpool of debate where no one really gives Instead of building consensus, they aggravate backlash. If you’re keen on democratic debate, you shouldn’t be ignoring errors like this.
There’s no escape hatch
In the 1980s, when Brown opposed the Franklin Dam, there were a range of very specific alternatives when it came to supplying power to Tasmania. Brown proposed converting the oil-fired Bell Bay power station to 240 megawatts of coal-fired power, at a cost of $100m (this was an alternative to a much larger $500m coal-fired power station suggested by the federal government, and was much before the impact of greenhouse gas emissions was widely known or accepted – so don’t fault Brown for that).
There is no clear outline of exactly what course of action needs to be taken here. Brown simply asks that environmental, social and financial modelling be done to outline the balance of local impacts and the spread of benefits. Okay – he wants more info. Fair enough. But his Twitter account also describes the project as a ‘bird killer’.
So shouldn’t that make the project unacceptable, regardless of the benefits? Would environmental approvals be sufficient? Are we waiting on more information, or should we be laying ourselves down in front of blade transport trucks?
“Should the profit-seeking multinational UPC Renewables be waved through, or should we draw the line on this farm in order to obviate its contribution to our self-made mass extinction crisis?”
Wrote Bob, in his Saturday Paper piece. Wait. Are we drawing lines now? I thought we needed to see more information? Why isn’t there a third option, to figure out a way to capture some wind resource without impacting wildlife, or increasing the local benefits through arrangements with the developer? Are we just asking questions to inform debate, or are we building barriers and bans?
There is no clarity on whether the project is potentially fine contingent on some variables, or whether it’s inherently unacceptable forever. Statements sway from either position depending on context. In one case, Brown suggests an extremely non-specific alternative. “There is a lot of untapped renewable energy, solar, wind and other resources potential in Australia”, he offers. “We have alternatives for renewable energy”. Won’t those turbines be visible, too? I thought “wind turbines kill birds”? Won’t those solar farms be developed and operated by foreign companies, like the French-owned Neoen solar farms or its famous battery system in SA?
Slamming the door on any possibility of a single turbine on the island isn’t a healthy contribution to public deliberation. Having that approach come from someone of Brown’s status is unique, new and particularly intense.
Why shun collaboration?
According to the developer, Brown never contacted them before beginning his campaign against the project. They’ve invited him out to tour the site and learn about the project, but there’s no word on whether it’ll happen.
In 2003 and 2009, wind farms were proposed on the island. The 2009 proposal, the ‘White Rock Ridge’ wind farm, at a size of 440 megawatts with 220 turbines, was running publicly through the development process when Bob Brown was leader of the Australian Greens. I’ve dug deep and I can’t find a single instance of public opposition to the 2009 proposal. If previous projects were less bad than this, to the point where essentially no one objected to them, isn’t there a possibility of compromise?
“We are committed to working with UPC to find less invasive options for electricity transmission, including using submarine and/or underground cabling!” writes the Nietta Action group, formed to oppose the transmission line element of the project (who seemed annoyed that Lloyd incorrectly wrote they were opposing the wind farm). Actual props to them for having better community engagement than the company building the wind farm. This style of objection and engagement is rare, and they deserve credit. It doesn’t pour fuel on a fire. It dials down the scattershot objections, and it gives science, evidence and reason room to breathe.
Brown could have suggested a large-scale benefit sharing scheme, for neighbours of the power lines. Or an alternative lay-out for the turbines. Or specified a different technology for the island. Why was working with the developer to come up with a better plan never an option?
Digital systems that aggregate chunks of mythology and broadcast it to disparate, closed-off communities are relatively new. ‘Wind turbine syndrome’ became such an effective anti-decarbonisation tool partly because googling it and hurling hundreds of sciencey papers at bewildered councillors was easy, but understanding or debunking them was hard.
In a case study of Brown’s campaign against the Franklin Dam, the advent of colour television played an important role in their campaign.
“Colour television had recently been introduced and they believed documentaries and films showing the beauty of the areas to be flooded would be compelling… Brown remarked at the time that if colour television had been around a few years earlier, he believed Lake Pedder would have been saved”
In the 1980s, The Australian wasn’t running campaigns against science and technology (they granted Brown ‘Australian of the year’ for his campaign). Information, debate and discourse have changed. Colour television didn’t have a share button. These days, ‘more speech’ doesn’t equal better speech, or healthier debate, as the man who invented the retweet found out.
The advent of the internet and content aggregation – in which bad-faith players decontextualise and slice packets of information, means a new and appropriate care must be taken. Graham Lloyd, who basically operates as a blogger on anti-wind farm networks, is always on the case. Anonymous opposition groups are hyper-vigilant. They will never change – they operate on autopilot. We need to slash a pathway for deliberative community debate in full awareness of this, not in denial of its power and presence.
This is why the ABC’s interview with Steve Bannon was received by fellow journalists as an evisceration of his ideas, but took longer-lasting life on Youtube as a series of edited clips showing him owning an elite, establishment journalist. That too was defended on the grounds of civil discourse – with efforts to suggest that it was done wrong branded as an assault on free speech and unacceptable censorship.
That, like this, is the wrong debate. Don’t throw up your hands if you find your words weaponised, causing more harm than good, and don’t perceive calls for caution as an attack on free speech. We have all the freedom we want, to say whatever we like. We now have to learn to say it right.
In a recent Guardian piece, Bob Brown’s former strategy adviser Richard Denniss argues in favour of Browns intervention, and in criticism of the far-right mischaracterisation of his views. “Exhausting or not, democracy needs debate”. Brown says the same in his Saturday Paper piece: “The right of the public to get informed public debate is at stake here”.
The question of whether Brown’s statements provided assistance to Australian communities considering wind power, in the democratic, deliberative process of gauging risk, impact and benefit is a question that, eventually, perhaps in two or three year’s time, we’ll be able to answer with a strong evidence base.
Many of Brown’s objections strike at the heart of an ongoing tension underpinning clean energy growth. Should it be built by companies, or communities? How do we spread its benefits among the people who host it? Letting these massively important questions be hijacked by the ideological automatons destroys any chance of an outcome where we reap the benefits of decarbonisation and distributed power.
Bob Brown’s words on this have a hundred thousand times more potential energy than mine, or yours. We’re in an era in which the emotional stakes of preserving ideological campaigns are higher than ever, and digital tools to mutate information to serve those goals are ubiquitous. Brown could have engaged with the developers, avoided generalised arguments against clean energy, or created an escape hatch that urged the developer to spread benefits to locals.
He didn’t, and so, the ingredients of this situation combined to an unsurprising output – a national, politicised media firestorm of noise and fury, rather than a cool-headed, deliberative, local process filled with fairness and justice. It’s pointless, tragic and wasteful. Only the worst of us win anything with this approach, and I hate that.