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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Wind Turbine Syndrome – or Wind Turbine Phobia?

 -          Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’

The Old Road Is Rapidly Agin’

It was social upheaval on a scale so vast, it defied comprehension.  The people were astounded by the pervasive nature of this change, which seemed without precedence in history.  The train of progress kept on gaining speed, hurling society forward at such a pace it seemed like new track couldn’t be laid down fast enough to keep pace.  In the face of so much uncertainty, such dramatic upheavals of the world they knew (and found comfort in) the people were afraid – afraid that society itself was going off the rails.

This fear of an unknown future gripped the common man.  A wave of anxiety overtook the masses as the walls of society seemed to topple around them.  People began to panic about being left at the station as progress steamed its way into tomorrow.  All this uncertainty and stress fostered anger and resentment against the agents of progress, best personified by one intrusive, aggressive symbol.

Welcome to Victorian England, mid-1800s.  It was a time of rapid industrial growth and social upheaval that saw a polarization between progressives and conservatives over the future of the nation and the consequences of social adaptation.  It’s a time worth understanding well, as it mirrors what we’re going through today.  Wind turbines, you see, are being viewed through the exact same lenses now as were trains then.  Let us consider:

For a time, men of means in Victorian England were struck by railway fever.  Whatever the general public felt, they believed that the future of public transport was in trains; as such, they were “induced to believe that they had only to embark in one of these schemes to ensure themselves a life of affluence and ease.”  Rail’s proponents said trains would better harness a key commodity of the era – time itself – and that railway tracks and bridges would “architecturally embellish” the countryside.

The majority of the population, of course, were not people of means.  To them, the gridding of their countryside, their farms and homesteads with tracks was a unilaterally imposed threat.  History tells us they don’t like the idea of their power to decide their future being taken away from them; the same was true here.  By 1845, there was an almost universal aversion to the railways.  Railway historian Frederick S. Williams summed up the growing NIMBYISM of the age thusly: “A rumor that it was proposed to bring such a thing as a railroad within a dozen miles of a particular neighbourhood was enough to elicit adverse petitions to Parliament, and public subscriptions were opened to give effect to the opposition.”


People did not like the idea of seeing a train rumble by past their front door.  A Quaker wrote the following complaint to the Leeds Intelligencer on January 31, 1831:

The concerns of the common citizen extended beyond the aesthetic; farmers worried about the long-term impact of passing trains and coal-smoke on their crops, produce and livestock.  Indeed, at the time, nobody could say with any hint of certainty what the effects of the railway would be on a hen’s laying capacity or a cow’s grazing habits.

A sense of economic opportunity; a fear of health risks and a loss of aesthetic appeal; broader, social upheaval.  Does any of this sound familiar?

In Victorian England, broader environmental concerns weren’t so recognized; people were more alarmed over the consequences to their own backyard.  The need for speed and access, the building of a social transportation infrastructure was the big requirement for social and economic growth.  While today, we understand more or less the need to balance social growth with the wellbeing of our environment, our primary concern is still our backyard. 

NIMBYISM is as alive today as it was back then, particularly in the case of landowners who feel an entitlement to do as they please with their own property.  The big need is not so much new infrastructure (though what we have is getting old), but for more energy.  Electricity is the food that sustains industry, technology, the family home – we need more of it that is easily accessed, reliable and safe.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs remain true here as elsewhere – personal needs trump social concerns, both in terms of usage and NIMBYISM.  We want power, but we don’t want a lot to pay for it, nor do we want to have its generation be a fixture of our own personal landscapes.

Wind turbines have replaced trains as the symbol of social upheaval.  As such, they have become the new lightening rod for progressives and conservatives alike.

Pro wind-turbine advocates like CanWEA see wind-generated energy in much the same light as 19th Century investors saw trains – as a profitable solution to emerging social issues.  Coal is dirty, nuclear is dangerous, the demand for oil and the instability of so many oil-producing countries makes it both environmentally unsound and expensive.  Wind technology, though in its infancy, offers a partial solution to all these problems.  The issue is not one of generation, really, as it is of storage.

On the other side, wind-turbine opponents present a list of familiar arguments, only given more detail thanks to the growing interest in evidence-based problem identification and solution development.  Therefore:

-          Wind turbines are seen as aesthetically displeasing – and here’s the polling data to prove this.  It’s not just risky, it’s a political hot potato – government, do you really want to go there?

-          Turbines produce health risks.  Not only do they kill birds and bats due to low-frequency waves, but these same waves are damaging human health, too.  They’re actually bad, not good, for the environment.  Its best to pursue something else

-          Landowners don’t want somebody else deciding what happens to their land.  It’s their land, they absolutely must be the ones who decides what happens to their property or what impacts their property.

If you look at the facts, the core opinions against wind turbines are the same as those that were used against trains.  The arguments for wind farms are pretty similar to those for trains, too.  In short, there’s nothing new under the sun – specific positions and tactics aside, what we’re looking at is collective progress that generates wealth for a few but benefits the many vs. change-resistant conservatism that stands against individual loss of control and sees progress as threatening.

Trains are common, now; inter-city, GO, subways and other forms of mass-transit are part and parcel of urban life.  A big battle facing the City of Toronto’s Council is whether to go with more subways or Light Rail Trains (LRT).  The right-wing Mayor wants to see more public transit buried underground, freeing up road use for more cars.  He sees this as a solution for managing gridlock.  Whether proponents of subways or LRTs, advocates for more space for cars or greater public transport options, nobody is talking about the health impacts of the vibrations or exhaust of vehicles.  It’s not just trains – cars, buses, fire trucks, all vehicles rumble through the city and across the landscape, carrying their low-frequency vibrations with them.  Not coincidentally, the city is testing the benefits of wind generation to help satiate its voracious appetite for energy.

People in urban areas are accustomed to trains, to electricity, to communications towers, crowds, all the things that mass-transit, urban living and technology imply.  They live near them, work near them, play near them.  Ontario is probably one of the very few jurisdictions in the world to have a train that rides right beneath its Legislature.  The world that would have mortified our letter-writing Quaker friend is accepted and comfortable today.  For ubran dwellers, the sounds, shakes and general turbulence of transit is at most, an annoying background noise that reduces property value.  Frequently, it isn’t even noticed at all.  Certainly, few would claim that their health is severely impacted by the presence of these ambient noise and tremors.

Yet, people in rural areas express their uneasiness with wind turbines.  This woman describes how her family’s sleep is disrupted by the thrum of 11 turbines not far from her property.  Is this all exaggeration, a rural conspiracy to justify an inclination towards NIMBYism?  The symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome have been widely consistent in their description: 
-          Insomnia
-          Irritability
-          Headaches
-          Difficulty concentrating
-          Dizziness

 The frequency and repetitive nature of these symptoms should not be ignored, but we must carefully weigh their origins.  The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) is among those doing serious research into the potential health effects of Wind Turbine Syndrome.  Hopefully, these researchers are turning to history as an indicator of what, more broadly, might be happening here.

Go back to the top of this article and follow the link behind wave of anxiety in the second paragraph.  See any similarity between the symptoms of Anxiety and Wind Turbine Syndrome?  Now, consider the problems first associated with the arrival of the train and how prevalent those concerns are now.  Notice the similarities?

We Have Nothing To Fear…

 There is a strong argument to be made that Wind Turbine Syndrome isn’t a product of wind turbines themselves, but rather, the physical manifestation of anxiety caused by the presence of wind turbines.  This makes total sense.  There are countless examples of people who have severe physiological responses caused by the presence of external factors, but not by those factors themselves.  There’s a word for this phenomenon – phobia.

Some people have an absolute terror of flying – the very presence of a plane makes their heart race and their palms get sweaty.  Others will go into panic at the notion of public speaking.  These phobias aren’t universal, though – otherwise, we’d never have world-travelling public speakers.  Even those folk who have phobias can learn to overcome them.  Key to overcoming a phobia is understanding the cause and addressing it – you can’t determine a solution if you haven’t correctly identified the problem.

Is it possible that we have misidentified the cause of wind turbine-related health impacts?  Instead of studying Wind Turbine Syndrome, should we instead be treating Wind Turbine Phobia?  Phobias, of course, are considered to be indicative of weak minds, of mental illness.  We still have a pervasive stigma against mental illness; it’s fair to say that many of those people who suffer from Wind Turbine Phobia would rail against the very notion of their anxieties being internally, not externally, caused.  Such an admission would completely undermine the argument it’s not them, but the changes (beyond their control) being wrought to their landscape that are at the heart of the problem. 


The arguments made by the anti-turbine movement are almost identical to those that were made by the anti-railway movement.  The health concerns expressed by each are also remarkably similar – and both strongly resemble the psychological condition we have now identified as anxiety.  With the rise of the urban community and the growth of transportation networks, the concerns of the former have all but disappeared.  One can imagine that, with the growth of wind farms, future generations will grow up with turbines an accepted part of their landscape.  I would wager these generations will have far lower incidences of Wind Turbine Phobia than their ancestors are experiencing now.
In the meantime, our ignoring of anxiety as a legitimate cause for turbine-related health symptoms means everyone is focused on solving the wrong problem.  Instead of promoting or decrying the development of wind farms, perhaps resources could be used to address sound-reduction insulation for homes or broader proactive mental health care investment.

The renewable energy train has left the station; the winds of change are upon us.  It makes more sense to put up a sail than it does to turn our backs.

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