Small Town Syndrome

In Criticism, Financial, Popular Posts on August 30, 2010 at 1:31 PM

People that live within two kilometers of a wind farm complain of mysterious symptoms. Known as Wind Turbine Syndrome in medical circles, it is described as “infrasound and low frequency noise.” This isn’t like getting used to the hum of a refrigerator; it’s a persistent vibration that hums inside you. Victims complain of frequent migraine headaches and sleep disruption.

However, there is nothing conclusive about the medical evidence that would stop Ontario’s investment in Wind Farms. This is the biggest problem in protecting ourselves from unintended consequences – inconclusive medical evidence. At this stage of being a developed nation, we’re smart enough to recognize that there’s a problem, but we don’t know how to account for it in our decision-making.

With job creation and economic growth the predominant concern in Ontario today, any unintended consequences are being ignored for now.

Small towns in Ontario tend to be where large industrial experiments are carried out. In Sarnia, there is a native community near a chemical plant that is known around the world as potentially the first place where the male species is becoming extinct. Residents of the town remark on how in the past twenty years, it has become extremely rare to successfully have male children. This is not unique to Sarnia; it is a worldwide phenomenon. There has been a sharp decline in the birth of boys, an overall increase in miscarriage, and probably most startling is the decline in fertility of apparently healthy College-aged men. Sarnia just happens to be one of the worst cases.

This CBC documentary illuminates the problem. You don’t have to be near a chemical plant to be a victim, you simply have to live in a modern country. The chemicals in your shampoo, soaps, creams, toys all contribute to the problem. Developed nations voluntarily expose themselves to chemicals in what appear to be harmless doses, but over time these doses accumulate to become irreparable internal damage. This isn’t as simple as Cigarettes Cause Cancer. The fact that it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact combination of chemicals that leads to the various defects, presents us with the problem of accounting for unintended consequences.

Residents of Sarnia weren’t oblivious to the idea that chemical pollution would have some consequences on their lives, but nobody had a clue as to what those consequences would ultimately be. What was probably projected as “poor air quality,” ended up being non-stop birth defects, miscarriage and infertility from otherwise healthy parents. Unintended consequences take decades to show up on our radars and by that time it’s too late.

Even knowing what has happened in the past, politicians still find it hard to decline projects such as Wind Farms because the economic argument appears concrete while the medical one is inconclusive. The reality is that both assessments are wild guesses as to what will happen in the future. However, the economic predictions fit the criteria to make a decision much better than the health concerns.

On the one hand, a variety of economic reports will illustrate the potential for energy growth using Wind Farms in Ontario. On the other, there are some people in Orangeville complaining about headaches, and this may or may not lead to some dire unknown consequences in the future which could ultimately deteriorate the living conditions of these areas, creating a  wind wasteland. In order to make politicians consider this, it’s isn’t enough to perform a thorough medical study (which takes lots of time). You have to translate the consequences into dollars, such as an estimate of the future burden on healthcare, or the chances that Wind Farm properties will drop the value of real estate due to a poor quality of living.

I’ve grown skeptical of industrial-sized solutions in general, especially when there are smaller, comparable alternatives. When we invest a lot in an industry at an aggregate level, we not only make a decision to live with its long term consequences, but we also become dependent on it as it nestles itself in the infrastructure. Despite knowing everything that chemicals can do to you, you’re still going to put shampoo in your hair everyday. The problem must now be solved at an industrial level. We have to wait for non-chemical alternatives to show up at the drug store.

But wind turbines are new, and they represent one solution among a variety of alternatives. We haven’t committed to them fully. Canadians have consistently been the worst among OECD nations when it comes to energy consumption per capita. That’s partly because we have to heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer. But it’s also because we’ve gotten used to having an abundance of cheap energy to share among so few people. Canada isn’t in a position for Wind power to be the predominant energy source as it simply does not produce enough capacity to meet our needs.

There are non-industrial solutions to obtaining energy. We don’t have to be dependent on the power grid in the future. You can purchase a household wind turbine at Canadian tire. People are very excited about something called a Bloom Box that was featured on 60 minutes last night, probably the most powerful and cleanest household solution to-date. While it remains in the early stages of development, companies like Google have been using them to power their buildings for years now.

Individual solutions such as these decrease our overall dependency on a power grid and inherently drop the price of energy. Most importantly, we can get out of our current mode of thinking, which is to commit to one solution at an enormous scale only to learn a decade later that there were consequences we didn’t know about.

True long term prosperity will come from effective use of our resources. Traditionally, efficiency has come from large-scaled industrial solutions. However, a dynamic society of individuals managing their own energy struggles will not only reduce our overall consumption to an appropriate level, but it might actually mitigate these unintended consequences.

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