Bird-huggers vs. tree-huggers -

Bird-huggers vs. tree-huggers

We can’t build a wind farm because it might imperil Margaret Atwood’s love of spotting a rare fruited warbler


John Alex Maguire/Rex Features/CP

If her recent writing is anything to go by, Margaret Atwood is seriously worried about the future of the human race. In her novels Oryx and Crake and its successor, Year of the Flood, she deals with the apocalyptic themes of runaway technology, the commodification of the body, and environmental devastation. She always describes her work as “speculative fiction” that explores the consequences of social trends that are already underway.

But if her recent environmental activism is any indication, Margaret Atwood appears to think that everything is more or less peachy. At the very least, global warming doesn’t appear to her to be anything worth sacrificing a few birds or a nice view over.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski reported on the latest kerfuffle brewing over the Ontario government’s plan to put as many as 150 wind turbines in Lake Erie’s Pigeon Bay. The project has annoyed people throughout the region, with signs reading “No wind turbines in our lake” sprouting up on lawns all over. Atwood herself has gotten involved, posting stories opposing the turbines and information on new guidelines on her blog, tweeting details about wind-turbine protests from her Twitter account.

There are good reasons to oppose the development of large-scale wind power, most of which have to do with the fact that it is very expensive and—to boot—does almost nothing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. As analysts have been pointing out for ages, the main problem is that wind doesn’t blow all the time. As a result, electrical utilities have to keep virtually all of their conventional generation capacity online, to make sure there is enough electricity to keep the dishwashers running and the iPods charged even when the windmills are becalmed.

Because of this need to double up on generation capacity, even if we were to seriously ramp up on wind-powered electricity generation, it would have a negligible impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It would also be extremely expensive, requiring subsidies (according to some estimates) as much as 200 times greater than those provided to conventional generators.

But if you object to a wind farm in your backyard on the grounds that it is both useless and expensive, you risk being dismissed as a right-wing crank. That’s why the serious NIMBYists wrap their arguments in the cloak of a more principled environmentalism. And so down Pigeon Bay way, what is being peddled are profoundly self-serving concerns about the possible effect of the wind farm on water quality, on the fishery, and, more than anything, on the birds.
It turns out that Pigeon Bay is close to Point Pelee, which happens to be one of the most popular rest-stops in North America for hundreds of migrating bird species. Margaret Atwood has a house down there, and she and her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson, are avid birders.

Nobody welcomes the prospect of a bird massacre, but we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. The central thesis of the call for renewable energy, and thus the entire rationale for building wind farms, is that the future of the human race is at stake. Even the more optimistic global warming scenarios anticipate large-scale social and economic disruption, much of it in some of the poorest and most politically unstable parts of the planet. Global warming, in short, is exactly the sort of technology-driven ecological disaster that Atwood has been warning about in her writing. Yet we can’t get a wind farm built because it might imperil the pleasure she gets from sitting in a bush, swatting bugs, waiting for a rare fruited warbler to wing by.

What takes the discussion from stupid to ultra-stupid is that it is taking place as though no one had ever heard of evolution. Think of all the hazards in a migratory bird’s life: being preyed upon by other birds, navigating safely from one end of the planet to another. Birds are pretty resourceful creatures, and if they can’t evolve the ability to avoid gigantic whirly white things, they would never have made it this far. It might take a number of generations, and we might lose an attractive species or two along the way, but come on. This is the future of humanity at stake here—isn’t it?

For decades, the environmental movement has relied heavily on good old-fashioned self-interest to advance its agenda. Nothing puts a halt to fresh landfills, highway extensions, or new housing developments like the belief that while we might need all of these things, they are best built in someone else’s backyard. NIMBYism, as much as principled environmentalism, has time and again proven to be the best friend of wilderness, watersheds, and wetlands.

But a globalized economy leads to globalized environmental problems. Now, rather than aiding the cause of the environment, NIMBYism is making things worse, and nowhere is the problem more obnoxious than in the recurring opposition to wind farms wherever they are scheduled to be built, from Cape Cod to the Scarborough Bluffs.

Climate change skeptics have long worried that global warming alarmists were going to force changes in our energy consumption habits that would cripple the oil-driven consumer economy.

They can relax: a reliable guide to how seriously someone takes a given threat is how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to avoid it. If the most concerned environmentalists out there aren’t willing to give up bird watching, that most upscale of hobbies, the oil industry has nothing to worry about.


Bird-huggers vs. tree-huggers

  1. This is the most disjointed, rambling, strawman-laced articles I've read in quite some time.

    • Ooooooh big words!

  2. Between those who deny climate change and those who don't want their well-earned vacation spots tarnished, we should be good to go on the Waterworld version of the planet within a few generations. Luckily, Kevin Costner and Atwood will be long dead so nobody will have to make an apology.

    And here I was hoping to be able to breathe underwater…well, maybe my great-great-grandchildren.

    • Awesome. I can't WAIT to drink my own pee.

  3. This is political nonsense. I'm sure Mr. Potter would be the first to villify the tar sands for birds being killed in the tailing ponds. No silly excuses for them. Do you expect birds to "evolve" to get used to the tar sands? Wolfe Island wind facility – 602 birds and 1,270 bats were killed in only one 6 month period.

    Wind power's effect on anything is ridiculously overrated. Mr. Potter needs some education on the subject. Does he really think wind turbines are going to save the planet…everything else be damned? Relax, sweetie, wind turbines are not going to "save humanity". That type of thinking is dangerous and misguided.

  4. Atwood is typical in that she'd force her idealistic sacrifices on others but is abjectly unwilling to endure the same discomfiture to herself. Also, she's capable at evoking the dangers of extreme right ideology but perfectly fails to discern the snares in her own pet convictions.

    Even so, I agree with her that wind turbines are stupid and destructive.

    • And yet, for quite some time on the federal NDP website, it had a picture of a wind turbine behind Jack Layton, meaning, presumably, that a wind turbine is emblematic of what we must embrace to Save The Planet. Surely you're not suggesting that Jack Layton is an idiot?

      • Orson Bean
        I guess the short answer about Layton and anyone else that is a proponent of wind power is a resounding yes

  5. How much more expensive is Wind Energy compared to Oil and Gas? Also consider that the O&G industries are currently subsidized by tax payers. According to a 2008 report from KAIROS, Pumped Up, between 1996-2002 the federal government provided $8.3 billion to the Oil and Gas Industry, and at the time of the report, they estimated that taxpayer support is currently around $1 billion a year. That's just Federally. For example, in October 2009, the Alberta government announced $745 million over 15 years for the Shell Quest Carbon Capture Project (plus $120 million from the feds).

    Sorry for being a stickler with the numbers. For the record, Energy costs and subsidies are not my expertise but I was able to commit to a couple minutes searching and reading online. I would expect at least as much effort from the Macleans editorial staff.

    If you take me up on it: How much is the government currently spending on renewable energy R&D? Is it plausible to assume that with increased investment, we could refine wind energy, finding ways to store it? If we're willing to spend almost a billion on Carbon Capture (a plan whose feasibility is doubted by some) it's worth exploring the alternatives. Also, isn't there already some way of storing energy generated this way? My understanding is that it isn't like the old cartoons where you need to have a mouse constantly running on a treadmill to keep a light bulb on.

    • Christopher White, your understanding is absolutely wrong -it is like the old cartoons – the mouse does need to be constantly running on the treadmill to keep a light bulb on. You don't think we can actually store large amounts of electricity
      do you ?? good grief man!

      • That's correct. When you turn on a light, you're using power that is being manufactured at that very second. No storage sorry.

      • Well, I'll be: Learn something new every day. I did some reading up and found that there was an American company called General Compression that got $5 million in 2007 to develop a way of storing wind energy in compressed air. I also read that in Britain, they were looking at freezing the energy.
        Interesting stuff, but it raises the question as to how do you power the freezing chambers? Can they be powered by the wind energy, or would they need to rely on traditional forms to keep things cool? Unfortunately, I don't have the answers because investigative reporting is not my day job…speaking of which, I should get back to it now. I'd love to see someone follow up on it though.

    • I haven't read the KAIROS report, but does it include only subsidies exclusive to the Oil & Gas companies, or does it count things that are available to all corporations? Also, I'm curious how the subsidies compare to the extra taxes (other than GST/PST/HST) that Gov'ts collects on the fuel we buy at the pump (which are essentially a kind of carbon tax).

      • Where I live there is about 30 cents tax on every litre of fuel. The governements are making a killing. And by the way, if you take the tax off, we're only paying about 75 cents per litre. That is dirt cheap, even though people scream that we are running out of oil. We've passed thepeak oil right? Sorry, but at 75 cents we are obviously awash in oil.

    • Is it plausible to assume that with increased investment, we could refine wind energy, finding ways to store it?

      No, it's not just a matter of a little bit of research It's a physics problem; you can't store that amount of electrical potential energy. Capacitors, batteries, none of those work on this scale. About the only thing you could do to store the energy, possibly, would be to use the electricity to electrolyze water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, then store and transport the hydrogen in pipes for eventual use in fuel cells. Problems there:
      1. Production of ozone
      2. Losses during electrolysis
      3. Losses during compression
      4. Losses during transportation
      5. Losses during eventual use due to inefficiency of fuel cells.

      And by the time you've gotten the hydrogen used up in a fuel cell, you're down to 40% of the original energy supplied. And this is as plausible when you get when it comes to storing wind energy.

  6. What a confused piece of writing. At one point the author admits that wind power does not signifcantly affect CO2 levels. (Acutally, it adds to CO2!) Not a single coal fired plant has ever shut down since the inception of wind turbines, and Denmark now uses 50% more coal than 30 years ago. Potter apparently has no understanding of bird and bat mortality and how significant this is as the "canary in the mine." We now have 50% fewer birds and significantly fewer than 50% bats than 50 years ago. Ontario has more endangered bird species than any other province (203), and our bat population is in extreme peril with white nose syndrome and a host of other environmentally unfriendly events such as pesticides and habitat loss. (continued)

    • good points, although of course a huge source of bird mortality is flying into buildings, which has nothing to do with wind power, CO2 emissions or anything like that.

      • Does two wrongs make a right??

        • Orson…..there are more wind turbines globally than high-rise buildings (those over 10 storeys high). Approximately 200,000 wind turbines versus 60,000 buildings in the world. So, just imagine how many more birds are getting chopped up by twirling 50 storey high monstrosities. Oh, and Orson, bats don't get killed by buildings, wind turbines burst their lungs so they're left dying drowning in their own blood! Nice eh?

  7. When Margaret Atwood and the residents of the Scarborough Bluffs scream blue murder about birds and bats, they are actually sending out a call to action for insect eating (if you are one of those who looks at these creatures only for their affect on humans) creatures of the most incredible beauty…and biological necessity. Bats consume 600-1000 insects each per hour. The migrating species travel some 3000 miles to the Rain forest and populate the rainforest with their consumption of seeds and subsequent "fertilization" with the seeds. 95% of the Rainforests are reseeded in this manner. I would suggest that Potter does not know very much about these creatures at all.

    This is astonishing that such a garbled bit of writing would end up in Macleans. He reminds me of the writer who critized the "careless" rare Eagle killed by a turbine recently in Norfolk County. Doesn't he get it? These turbines are massive industrial factories that kill massive numbers of birds and bats. Massive numbers. Someone has to care. Thank you Margaret.

    This is a writer who has not done his turbine homework. They don't work and create environmental havoc.

    • . . . and yet the mainstream environmental movement seems to think they're wonderful. Wind power is constantly and conventionally trotted out as something we should be moving to.

      A good related article was published in the Atlantic Monthly a year or so ago. It pointed out that another huge financial AND environmental cost of installing wind turbines on a mass scale is the amount of new electrical infrastructure (including transmission lines) required to hook it all up to, and transport it via, the electrical transmission grid.

  8. You are forgetting that we depend on the delicate balance of nature. When one spicies fails we all lose. Wind Turbines are not going to save our world as we know it, they only stand to make a very few very rich. We all loose in the end. Thank goodness for the Margret Atwoods of the world and the NIMBYs as well.
    Read Oryx and Crake, it has a lot of similarities when you think of the influence that the lobbies have over our governments. Ask yourself, who is really running our governments? It should scare the hell out of you.

  9. Basically he's saying that it's O.K to rob Peter to pay Paul. Destroy habitat to power your i Pod. That is one weird article pointing out exactly how Dalton McGuinty hatched his Green Energy plan and is trying to install Industrial Wind Turbines all over Ontario. Hype is the driving force, not financial or practical long term rational.
    There has been no comprehensive plan and development has depended on leasing of rural land or hoping to rob our citizens of Crown land for these industrial companies.
    Oryx and Crake points out how idealism is a weird and destructive reality if forced on society.

    • Wind turbines are for the naive and gullible- a symbol of stupidity – Doesn't say a lot for the McGuinty Government does it ?

  10. This article is ridiculous. Is it seriously suggesting that we should rely on evolution for saving bird populations against the ravages of man’s industrial developments? The author has a poor conception of evolutionary principals and the time scales involved. Species diversity is a litmus test for the health of our planet. Nimby is a pejorative word for people who speak out for what they sincerely believe is important in their lives and have a fundamental right in a democratic society to do so. This article reads as no Nimby’s in my back yard! Well perhaps the author has plans for political evolution to wipe them all out.


  12. Atwood represents the main problem with the green movement – a refusal to accept the good over the perfect. Indeed, we have long had a potential energy source that produces no emissions, has the lowest cost per kilowatt hour, and as a bonus reduces western dependence upon overseas oil: nuclear power. The trouble is that environmentalists often refuse to make tradeoffs and accept a feasible option that is vastly superior to the status quo.

    Imagine if, 30 years ago, environmentalists had pushed for nuclear power instead of engaging in fear-mongering. The US energy mix would resemble that of France (which derives 75% of its energy from nuclear power), as would its per capita C02 emissions (France emits 6.2 tonnes per person, while the US emits 19).

    Of course it is much easier to adopt the same approach that anti-environmentalists do, when faced with the need to make tradeoffs. Global warming deniers ignore the vast majority of scientific evidence on climate change, just as many environmentalists have long clung to demonstrably false beliefs about nuclear waste and plant safety. So lets save the birds and go nuclear.

    • I agree. It reminds me of what a chemist friend of mine once said about sugar or salt: if we discovered either one of them today, and tried to introduce them as a consumer products, people would be having fits of the vapours, self-styled "activists" would be giving us apocalyptic warnings about the evils of these insidious substances, etc. People's perspectives on public policy issues, and their ability to make rational cost-benefit analyses, seem to get completely skewed by the overheated emotion-laded rhetoric of modern political activism and propaganda.

      The mainstream environmental movement's refusal to back off from, or even reconsider, its anti-nuclear power stance is, in my view, akin to the some of the more idiotic doctrinal positions of the Roman Catholic Church (which it refuses to back off from or reconsider): in both cases, it's nothing more than an obtuse, hidebound inability to face present-day facts and to arrive at a policy position rationally based on them.

    • Um, let me think. Here are a few good reasons we should adopt nuclear; each plant costs $10 billion to build, it costs over $300 million just to turn a nuclear plant off, nuclear plants are terrorist targets, the fuel is destructive to make, the fuel is dangerous to handle and transport, the fuel is a terrorist target, the spent fuel must be buried in old abandoned mines due to toxicity, the spent fuel is a terrorist target. In addition, there has never been a nuclear plant anywhere in the world which has made money without huge permanent subsidies, primarily because the industry is so heavily regulated they are unprofitable. Most never pay for themselves before they need a complete retrofit. Of course we have Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to thank, the two main reasons why they are heavily regulated. The final reason; because nuclear promoters keep saying ‘nuclear is a lot safer today', that's the ultimate reason I can think in favour of nuclear.

    • Coal on the other hand is none of these things. It is old technology, plants are cheap to build, cheap to maintain, they are not welfare cases and they are not terrorist targets. The fuel is plentiful and cheap, it's safe to handle and it is not a terrorist target. The only problem is they emit smoke. That's it. Why can't we solve this simple, old technology issue? I guess coal is not sexy and nuclear is. My suggestion is that instead of spending $10 Billion on a nuclear plant, we spend $1 Billion on R&D to make coal a smoke free energy source, and spend the remaining $9 billion to buy malaria mosquito nets for just about every vulnerable person on earth. And the whole coal/nuclear issue would go away. Perhaps even malaria too.

      Naw, screw malaria, nuclear is just so sexy.

  13. Who is this Potter fellow? I've seen far more intelligently written — and better researched — pieces in high school newspapers. Maclean's is sinking to new lows. Subscribe to read garbage like this? No thanks.

    But he is right in one portion of his rambling drivel: Industrial Wind Turbines are expensive, inefficient, unreliable, do not reduce GHGs and, yes, kill plenty of migratory wildlife.

  14. The biggest assumption being made here is the idea that things like wind energy can actually replace fossil fuel generation. It cannot. Wind is on average 25% efficient. 80% of the time it is producing less than 50% of it's capacity. It would take over 84000 fickle, unreliable wind turbines to equal one nuclear plant. Wind worldwide represents 1% of the electrical generation despite over 15 years in Europe with thousands of turbines in Denmark, Germany and Spain (majority). Fossil fuels represent 85 % of the electrical generation worldwide. As for being "a part of the energy mix" what part is that when IESO indicates that it will not rely on wind more than 10% of the time because of concerns over grid stability. People don't get it, wind would not exist if there was not fossil fuel generation. Ontario is replacing coal with Natural gas. Just have a look at the OPA website. 16 new plants in place or soon to be in place. Is this a wise use of a limited resource often used to heat people's homes? Industrial Wind Turbines (not windmills) are only great visuals that trick us into believe something positive is being done. But also leads to a reluctance to think critically, thus causing the benefits of wind to become widely and irresponsibly overstated. The large subsidies wind receives constitute as fraud in my opinion because the wind lobby (CanWEA) has mislead this gov't into thinking that wind will actually replace or cut down the use of coal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  15. "latest kerfuffle brewing over the Ontario government's plan to put as many as 150 wind turbines in Lake Erie's Pigeon Bay."

    People need to understand that wind turbines are really just symbolic. They are a symbol of the environmental left. Think about it; they don't generate much power; they don't reduce carbon emissions so why do the environmentalists love them so much? They are tall, white, they spin and they are always located smack in the middle of conservative territory. When they are spinning away they give the greens a warm and fuzzy feeling. That's it. Geothermal power for example, is a far better form of alternative energy than wind; they can be placed anywhere and they generate power 24/7. But the power plants are stark and industrial looking. The greens don't get that warm and fuzzy feeling from geothermal. Thus Geothermal is ignored.

    Wind turbines are just a symbol of the wasteful left, that's all they really are. Until the public realizes this we are all going to pay for more of them.

  16. All the chicken littles are out again. Tell me again what SUV's the dinosaurs were driving when they destroyed their world. Selfishness has now joined hypocrisy and phoney as the watchwords for todays Canuckistan.

  17. This article is totally contradictory. You admit the windfarms do nothing to solve the problem of global warming, that they do irreparable damage to bird populations, but then argue that Atwood is a nimby. Atwood's bird watching hobby is irrelevant. Lake Ontario and the other great lakes, our drinking water, are about to be contaminated by dredging up toxins to install gargantuan wind turbines which use more energy than they produce. Wind energy will triple or quadruple our hydro bill, are massively subsidized by our tax dollars, and harm the environment and people living in their path. That is the issue. Hydro companies and turbine manufacturers (Korea) will be the only winners. This industry produces "greed" energy, certainly not green. Greenies need to get informed before jumping on bandwagons. Our green dollars need to be spent on research into good green energy policies and not thrown away on fads which are being abandoned by European countries. We are fortunate in that we could learn by their mistakes, if we took the time to do a little research instead of spewing righteous, ill-informed platitudes about saving the planet.

    • How absolutely right you are. Except here in the UK we have not yet seen the light. Our beautiful green and pleasant land is still being needlessly trashed by these senseless and monstrous political flags. Even in the heart of the isle (Shakespeare Country) where there is little consistent wind, we are having to fight off greedy subsidy hungry developers who are happy to perjure themselves through our planning system whilst people are being driven from their homes in the wake of noise and amplitude modulation (bad vibes) that have yet to be properly scientifically addressed. Our dear Mr. Potter may well not have read Rachael Carson's 'Silent Spring' which was written in response to scientists weighing into unsound principles across our delicate wild life during the 1950's.This tome was largely responsible for the modern environmental movement. Perhaps Mr. Potter is the rare fruited warbler! In which case I don't like its song! He is obviously quite happy to have a very silent spring.

  18. Another smear campaign against Atwood.

    I'm not interested in this kind of poisonous reporting crap. I'll be sure to never buy this magazine again. I'll spend my dollars where reporting doesn't include ridicule. And of all people, you picked on our national literary treasure –you bastards!

    I bet the Harper Cons has some influence in this…

  19. We shouldnt be building wind farms because they're useless and expensive, not because Margaret Atwood thinks they'll impact her hobby.

    Notwithstanding the fact that the predicted catastrophic effects of global warming are based, at best, on an unproven hypothesis (that of strongly positive water vapor feedbacks), and at worse a falsified hypothesis and outright scientific fraud, even if all the hype surrounding global warm… sorry, climate cha… oh sorry, "global climate disruption", were true, windmills would not be the answer. We might as well hire armies of people running on treadmills – it would be more efficient and cheaper.

  20. I am surprised how many commentators seemed to make entirely different conclusions than I did. Maybe I'm missing something. The point I took from the article is entirely encapsulated in the last two sentences. My article summary:

    Famous Ms. X has infused her career by stating The Catastrophe is eminent and the stakes are very high. Ms. X doesn't want to make the personal sacrifices required to mitigate The Catastrophe. Therefore, Ms. X doesn't really the stakes are high, or possibly even The Catastrophe because of a do/say conflict.

    Substitute names for Ms. X or themes for The Catastrophe (global warming, terrorism, aging baby boomers) and it's a pretty simple point: actions speak louder than words.

  21. This is the most confused article I have ever seen in print! On the one hand, Potter admits that wind turbines are extremely expensive and do next to nothing to reduce greenhouse gases (he is right about that at least), and on the other, he says that if we don't erect them, the human race will be at stake! ??????? He says that NIMBYism is making things worse and is obnoxious and then turns around and writes that NIMBYism has, time and again, proven the best friend of wilderness etc.
    His stupid article descends into the ultra-stupid when he says that birds will evolve to avoid gigantic whirly white things in a few generations! Any high school biology student would know better.
    What is wrong with being a NIMBY? If we all took care of our little corner of the Earth, it wouldn't be in such peril now.
    One thing I am not confused about: I will never buy a Maclean's magazine again.

  22. Interesting piece in Der Spiegel on how a North Sea wind farm has turned into a sort of artificial reef—habitat for ocean life that previously didn't colonize those waters. Also, it seems the dolphins scared off when they were building this particular wind farm have come back now. I'm not sure what this all means. Maybe just that the ecological consequences of wind farming remain hard to predict. Anyhow, here's the Spiegel link:,151

  23. The future of humanity is intrinsically tied to the survival of other floral and fauna. Since when did our survival become the only aspect that matters. Maybe you should read a bit more rather than spend time writing dribble……….or just assume the pathetic Genesis concept of dominion over all. Look where that has gotten us.
    Hang in there Margaret, we need voices llike yours especially if our national magazine prints nonsense like this.

  24. There's no such thing as a fruited warbler. Can you say fact-checking?