books climate change social justice technology

Book review: Who Owns the Wind? by David McDermott Hughes

Here’s an unusual approach to the topic of renewable energy, climate change, and wind power in particular. David McDermott Hughes is an anthropologist, and his interest is the social aspects of wind power. How do people feel about it? Who supports it and who doesn’t, and what makes the difference? By understanding the cultural and social aspects of wind power, we can ensure that we avoid potential pitfalls and build a broad support base for a major climate solution.

In true anthrolopological style, McDermott Hughes sets out to live amongst the relevant people, gain their trust and ask probing questions. So he chooses a village in Spain that has possibly more wind turbines per person than anywhere else in the world. He doesn’t name it, but calls it Sereno for the purposes of the book.

Here he hangs out in the bars and talks to residents. He goes on hikes. He visits artists in their studios. He spends time with local politicians, farmers, wind power engineers, ordinary people going about their business under a radically changed landscape, in a village now dominated by huge turbines. All kinds of observations surface from these conversations, with changing opinions tracked over time as he visits over several years. Theories are tested and developed, all grounded in the views of real people in a rural commmunity that readers will come to know very well.

Various themes emerge. One is the importance of a political voice. Sereno residents feel that the turbines were imposed on them by outside interests. They are a marginalised village with no formal political representation. Their anti-wind protests were not successful. This is a disenfranchised community, and the book compares their experience with other towns and villages where the story turned out differently.

Aesthetics is another theme. Why do some people like the look of wind turbines and others don’t? Can people learn to see beauty in them? He talks to artists on both sides, and sees some people changing their minds about them over time. In the village, a new restaurant opens with a view of the turbines as a selling point.

These aesthetic questions are not trivial, and we’ve seen that in Britain. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of electricity in the country, at a time of rising energy prices – and yet the Conservative party has choked the industry to a stand-still. The number of new onshore wind farms coming online each year has dropped back to where it was in the early nineties. It’s a live demonstration of the book’s theory that “an aesthetic grudge will keep turbines from the hillsides,” and understanding how turbines are viewed is important to their success or failure.

Other investigations include whether or not people find wind power heroic, or see spiritual resonances. Interesting questions arise – why do people think the Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful, but get sniffy about turbines? McDermott Hughes notes that people see waterwheels or old wooden windmills as natural in the landscape, but not modern turbines. What’s the difference? What role does nostalgia play? Perhaps it’s just a matter of time and familiarity, so that “yesterday’s technology is today’s countryside.”

The most important theme is the one that gives the book its title – the question of ownership, and of who benefits most from wind power. In Sereno, it’s very clearly the historic landowners, who have negotiated themselves a ground rent and a share of the profits. Most local residents have been cut out, leaving them to put up with the turbines with nothing in return.

This could be different, and the book explores the possibility of creating wind rights along the lines that many countries use around fossil fuels, radio airwaves or various other common goods. The wind travels freely across the landscape. It does not respect fences and boundaries. It should belong to everyone or no-one, and it’s nonsensical to give land owners ‘wind rights’ to the power that blows over their land. Instead, it could be viewed as a commons, with revenues widely shared: “Once your government or your community owns the kinesis of the wind, different politics ensue. The landowner still collects rent for square meters devoted to turbine pads, but the value of airborne energy falls into public hands.”

This would be truly fair wind power, with something in it for everybody. There could be national payments, like the Alaskan oil fund, and everyone would have a stake in the wind. This is the kind of commons approach that would build a real support base for wind power.

Who Owns the Wind? is a fresh take on the energy transition, and I appreciated both its methods and its conclusions. I suspect some readers will lose patience with the local history or the life stories of Sereno residents, but the strength of the book is its grounding in real life experiences. The best climate solutions are the ones that work for everybody, that build inclusion and pride. As McDermott Hughes writes, “let the people seize the wind.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: