COP26 Part 3

Who Owns The Wind?

By David McDermott Hughes
Published by Verso, 2021 Paperback, £16.99 rrp

Review Tim Barton

Here we are post-COP26, hopefully angry at the usual greenwash and fig-leafing on display. It is not as if the now urgent issues weren’t known decades ago, when addressing them was much easier. L H Lamb, in his 1982 book Climate History and the Modern World, noted that ‘the systematic exploitation of resources to the limit […] maximises the risks’, and that our ‘complex world-wide community, with its interlocking arrangements and fine adjusted balances’ is most unlikely ‘to absorb the effects of long-term shifts in climate – particularly if they come on rapidly – entailing significant geographical displacement of crop areas and areas suited to various kinds of food production [and] accompanied by mass migration of people’.

The role of fossil fuels in climate change is well documented, as is its role in the so-called ‘green revolution’, as artificial fertilisers are fossil fuel intensive as well as depleting the underlying fertility of soils. Naturally, energy use in general is a large part of the problem. Our global leaders, political and corporate, are letting us down badly.

Hughes quotes Thomas Edison: ‘Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and tides are forms of energy. Do we use them? Oh, no; we burn up wood and coal […]. We live as squatters, not as if we owned the property’. Whilst we increasingly do try to use sun, wind and even tidal energy, fossil fuel use still dominates, and indeed all too few of us have a say regarding ‘the property’. Hughes notes that ‘Oil companies are among the most powerful entities the world has ever known. They have captured states [and] are not eager to relinquish their chief product and, in consequence, are fighting regulation and the very idea of climate change itself’.

Amongst the many issues slowing development of alternative energy provision is what we call ‘NIMBYism’. NIMBY is an acronym for ‘Not in MY Back-Yard’. Many people support solar and windfarms – until it is close to homes, or requires access to their land. Indeed, here in Hastings, every sensible suggestion for green energy gets poo-pooed and sidelined by community pressure to not do it where it needs to be done. There is, though, also a lot of community support to supply alternatives. Offshore windfarms have serious sustainability issues, as do solar-voltaics, and these are amongst an increasing number of ‘elephants in the room’. However, NIMBYs are not a monolithic group of people deliberately obstructing progress. There are, on occasion, a number of entirely reasonable issues many so-called NIMBYs bring to the table, and also reasonable ways in which to get many of them on-side.

Who Owns the Wind? addresses some of these issues, not least via the question in the title. Hughes is an American, but his book is about a Spanish village close to Gibraltar, which he calls ‘Sereno’ – presumably close to Zahara de los Atunes. Here is a microcosm for many of the issues facing ‘the hope of renewable energy’ everywhere, including of course Hastings & Rother. At the heart of the book lie issues of land rights, economic and political inclusion, tradition, political failures, and of course the question of whether the wind itself is ‘free’ or ‘owned’, and if the latter, who by. Answers to such questions can help us all address renewables provision here in Sussex as much as in Andalusia. Hughes quotes Murray Bookchin – ‘collective abundance and cooperation transform labor into play and need into desire’: conversely, artificial scarcity allows profiteers to stultify and put a stopper on reform.

Sereno has wind, lots of wind. The Atlantic fetch batters it from the west, and now and again the direction of the wind reverses and blows down from the hills to the east. It rarely stops – windfarms here can prosper. But the community has fought hard to stop them being built as close to their homes as planned. The resistance is a product of all the usual local community perspectives: aesthetic distaste, lack of consultation, no offer of compensation, and certainly no offer of community ownership or control.  As here in England, the locals suffer from an almost complete enclosure of lands, and a quasi-feudal system of autocratic control.

Money talks, and between profiteering landowners and oil-industry lobbying, it is hard to make progress, and even harder to do so equitably. In terms of infrastructure, wind energy is clearly worthwhile. Unlike fossil fuels, ‘wind, by contrast, escorts itself to the turbine.’ Current models of resource ownership are geographical, dependent upon whose land it is on, or under. With wind, the air itself adds another layer of potential ‘ownership’, presenting us with an ‘atmospheric phase of capitalism’. As Hughes says, ‘long-settled disputes over unused, even worthless, soil will resurface’, and there will be winners and losers.

As Sereno landowner ‘Baptista’ says ‘You will not enter my farm without permission’, but adds, ‘unless there is a contract with me’. This could be a ‘new enclosure’, with the resistance such battles entail or a new open future.  We must fight for ‘a new deal for energy, wherein the sky remains free for all’; ‘The legal status of airflow has yet to be fully adjudicated’ and doing this in the right way can enforce community inclusion in the value of wind-energy generated locally, which alone may convince at least a few NIMBYs to compromise. ‘Moving air carries the energy of the future, and it is worth fighting for, it should become ‘a public resource’. In Sereno, citizens became activists, whether as pro- or as anti-. Both sides had to be heard. We, too, can learn from their successes and failures.

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