Renewable Energy's Social Divide (PART TWO)
Simple stories, even about a topic such as renewable energy, can certainly be a hoot. Unfortunately, at best they represent distortions of reality. Thus, even when a straightforward theme--such as social class bias and attendant social disparities in the case of Western Michigan's recent experiences with wind power, seems appropriate to a story, the intrepid researcher and reader must look deeper.
In this second piece about Muskegon County and Western Michigan's wind woes, this greater depth is the primary purpose of posting. In the first iteration of the situation, the reader sees 'writ large,' as it were, several of the important ideas that these essays have presented as important to an understanding of energy policy, energy issues, and other matters surrounding the energy context of the current moment.
*The importance of community capacity appears clearly, for example, as the P.O.W.E.R. Coalition rolled over its opponents despite the fact that the 'losers' constituted a distinct majority;
*Similarly, folks might note that, lacking a 'strong democracy,' one that operates more than in the electoral arena, majority rule is more tenuous, and perhaps impossible without an organized and educated community;
*Also, readers ought to recognize that this story powerfully suggests the way in which social, political, and economic linkages truly define a process such as this, meaning that a narrowly focused attempt at comprehension will almost always come up short.
In going deeper, today's effort seeks to show the underpinnings of what has taken place along the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan over the past year, and to show the relationships behind the scenes of what has taken place on the surface. In this reiteration of the case, the possibility is manifest to propose the necessity of People's Information Networks. These P.I.N.'s would serve to make the expression of democracy more likely, by providing guidance, counsel, and data that reveal the deeper story.
In a larger sense, what this notion is about is the role of media and information in creating political potential, or potentiating potent political activism. This connection, between data and politics, should seem obvious. In any event, the beginnings of the United States--in both large ways such as the First Amendment and in small ways such as free postage for and no taxes on news products, were congruent with a view of the media as central.
Various scholars and organizations have provided incisive analyses of these matters in the past several decades, in part flowing out of such developments as the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the revelations of the Church Committee in the latter part of that decade. One key recent partnership in presenting such ideas has been that of Edward Hermann and Noam Chomsky.
Their monograph, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, should be close to the top of any JustMeans reader who hasn't read it. They explore issues of energy policy, war and peace, and social justice, in the volume and show the ways that inadequate reportage about important issues connect with each other and with failures of democratic process.
We should attend to what they offer us in considering the nature of this story, and its relative lack of revealing coverage. Most models that seek to define news media start with the assumption that such outlets exist to seek and, as much as possible, speak the truth. However, Chomsky and Herman prove that "…contrary to the usual image of the news media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defense of justice, in their actual practice they defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order."
Of particular interest to JustMeans energy readers, of course, is the predilection for distortions in regard to energy, oil, and like matters close to the heart of systematic operation of contemporary capital. As these reports from the underside of energy continue, we will see many more instances that further clarify the applicability of Chomsky's and Herman's 'Propaganda Model'
Universally, the role of this work that I do is criticism. An apt query, on occasion in any event, is thus something like this: "What would have been a superior alternative?" In addition to examining additional elements of the overall story, today's article seeks to explicate how matters of conflict like this might come to a more balanced, even perhaps happier, conclusion.
To begin, a recap of last week's installment makes sense. I wrote then,
"The scenario is pretty simple. On one side sit passionate opponents of a huge windpowered electricity development off the Eastern shores of Lake Michigan. On the other side, a coalition has formed to promote this project and, its members say, others that the region should develop with all deliberate speed.
And in the middle stand various agencies, institutions, and bureaucracies that grapple with policies and prospects regarding power. For example, the Great Lakes Wind Council came into existence because a conjunction of opportunity and crisis around energy made coherent policy development--around siting, technical standards, and development protocols--critical to effective and efficient engagement of the possibilities in wind."
In a wild melee about Scandia Wind's 1,000 planned megawatts of windmills, a locally organized group, the Protect Our Water, Economy, and Resources (POWER) coalition, first caused the Scandinavian/U.S. partnership to split the project in two, moving half of the installation from their preferred site off of Mason and Oceana Counties to another location further South, off of Muskegon and Ottawa Counties. That was the initial setback.
Then came a series of three local legislative rejections that effectively ended Scandia's hopes for a Northern counties siting of its windmills. Last Tuesday's article delved the socio-economic and historical context of this battle, determining that class conflict and class privilege incorporated the main factors accounting for the basic contours of the struggle.
Today, we'll dig deeper, looking at two aspects of the events there that concern the role of media, both in terms of social networking and news reporting. We'll also investigate the technical, environmental, and policy elements of the saga. Another point to consider will be the way fiscal facts help determine influence in such campaigns. Finally, we'll look at what the upshot of the conflict might be in terms of activism, examining the demographics of participation in a straitened economic environment and more.
SOCIAL MEDIA DUELS AND SOCIAL CHANGE
To some extent, this entire episode began with a joke, in the form of a Facebook page that responded to "unfair" treatment of an important technical development. But an ironic barb plugged into a deep-felt socio-economic hunger for meaningful work and a way out of the seemingly hopeless impasse of present conditions in a region.
Within two weeks, the page "was a thousand strong," and after another fortnight, thousands more folks had signed up, 'friended,' and otherwise taken seriously the original intention at wit. "Muskegon will take the $3 billion wind-farm off your hands" became a symbol of the potential for crossover, from the virtual to the actual.
And that initial upsurge has continued. To this day, the enrollment around Eric Justian's first stab at a snarky bite against upper crust NIMBY (NotInMyBackYard) sorts gave Scandia Offshore Wind an alternative means for advancing its project; it coalesced a latent popular energy around renewable energy as a means for renewing communities. And as such, one can view the entire predicament in a positive light.
Furthermore, Eric's personal story emanates from the web. Following college in an Iowa City technical writing program, he has worked as a freelancer whose main markets have been online. He had no organizing or wind-power experience, but he began working with DailyKos posts to build his brand, "starting in 09, and it hooked me because of the volume of readership."
"Nobody there was aware of how bad the economy was here. We've been in recession a decade or even three." Until DK, "I was not particularly political," but his popularity on the site led to a Netroots Nation sojourn on Scholarship. Then "the Wind Power situation came up," an opportunity for a 1,000 MW from Norway, "and the hopeless shortsightedness of people just got to me."
So far, so good. However, a deeper look may not yield anything akin to a sanguine view of the overall evolution of the case. Even though, very rapidly, the pro-wind working class folks--people who longed for decent jobs again and a plug for the economic potential of their place on earth--outnumbered the POWER forces by two-to-one, then three-to-one, and now more than that, at every policy and practice juncture, the majority lost, as we read last week.
Another demonstration of this disparity involved a simple attempt by Eric and his cohorts to match the roadside impact of the POWER coalition, "who just had signs everywhere." One of the inner circle around Eric wanted to "buy a sign too, and while the opposition was rich enough to raise half a million dollars and hire a PR firm, we had to scramble around just to got $800" to put up a billboard.
Eric's friend found many local companies that were sympathetic, but most were afraid to pony up. "The few businesses that donated to (my collaborator)'s sign begged her not to 'out' them, that they had supported her. Their customers would just totally have disappeared," if they were discovered.
The way that things unfolded points to the dangers and contradictions, or at least the weaknesses, of relying on avatars to do any heavy lifting. "The Anti's did a "great job of looking bigger than they were." They owned the houses for sale, etc., "so every one of them had a sign in the yard."
Thus, given the results that followed, despite an almost four-to-one population edge online, "with 7,200 'fans,' compared to 2,000 for the Anti-wind forces, and that in spite of a spending ration of 500:1 against the pro-wind forces, in the end, 'virtual democracy' didn't shift the outcome. "Money is obviously more potent than votes." And online magic didn't change this.
So in answer to the query, "Can Dueling Facebooks Mediate Class Conflict in Contemporary America?" the clear-headed thinker would have to answer with a more or less unqualified, "not so far as anyone would notice." An examination of the role of social media in a troubled skein of conflict would have to acknowledge that Eric's "harping on a lack of consciousness," as he called it, and an organizational strategy that was tangible, were essential missing components of a result that was simultaneously popular and in support of community values and needs.
Perhaps an assessment of the origins and growth and purposes of Facebook--and probably almost all other 'social media' as well, would offer explanatory inputs about whys and wherefores in regard to the limits on 'virtual' political engagement. But in any case, relying on the truly gleeful aspects of this story ever to 'save the day' would at best be overly optimistic.
POLICY BATTLES AND ENERGY FIGHTS; PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS
This section presents a deeper look at how environmental and technical and business questions in a situation such as this play out in chaotic maelstroms like those that transpired here. Many people wonder, 'Why put the windmills offshore in the first place?' Lots of onshore megawatts are already in place, after all, and the anger and anguish that accompanies interfering with the line-of-sight of rich homeowners is much less likely to come up.
"They chose Pentwater," according to Eric, "because between there and Wilmington, sits a (multi-million gallon) 'pump storage facility,' 'like a giant battery,' that would allow for storage at off-peak periods. (Also), at Pentwater, power lines already extended to the lake, so the infrastructure was all in place."
In fact, infrastructure was a prime rationale for Scandia's willingness to shift half the development, or 500MW, to Muskegon and Ottawa Counties further South, because of the easy potential to hook into the Grand Haven Coal fired plant's network and grid connections. In other words, sound technical reasons impelled the developers toward the locations that they chose as optimal.
More still justified Scandia's choices. Western Michigan is one of the two or three best potential wind sites on earth. As the Great Lake Winds Council final report presented the data, the wind potential off the coast of Michigan, just in the most favorable areas, where water depths did not exceed a hundred feet or so, was of staggering magnitude. Their charts suggest that the equivalent of several hundred large nuclear facilities are, at least theoretically, available from the reliable North winds in the area.
30 METERS AND SHALLOWER
45 METERS AND SHALLOWER
According to the GLOW calculations, the "corrected MW number is based on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s estimate of offshore wind turbine density of 5 MW per square kilometer referenced in the source below. The MWh estimates are based on average capacity factors ranging from 35 percent to 50 percent."
Even if five per cent of the plus or minus 100,000 megawatts plausible in this locale were producible in the next ten years, that would replace the need--in this one small corner of the earth, of five huge nuclear reactors or five to ten giant coal fired plants. That doesn't even factor in the benefits, economically, to the working people of Michigan.
Nevertheless, even though these numbers are chillingly fantastic, "Right now," according to Eric "a tense debate about turbines"--4-6 miles off coast--is continuing in the whole region and state." He and I agree that many, many other stories lurk here, waiting to be reported, about the behind the scenes reality of "how to do this stuff," as he put it. "Why are the state guidelines still 'in the works," instead of ready to go? Why, when Scandia asked for studies, did they get turned down at every level? What forces are in play here.
As I reported last week, Eric has zero doubts that in the long term, wind will win out. "At the end of the day, this stuff is coming. So this is a cautionary tale, because the momentum is irresistible. Though the thugs have made noise, in Lansing, the legislation is underway. The question in capacity is not 'yes' or 'no', but how should we do it? Wind's the way to go. It is happening. I tell those who are discouraged to take heart. Our job is less to make it happen than to make people ready for what has to come."
Thus, even if rich emerged victorious here, from this perspective, they cannot prevail in the long term. "It's not just green, it's common sense, and none of the arguments against it pan out. "It's totally normal and it works. Policy will overcome politics, even if it takes a while."
What in the heck were these arguments against wind anyway? If one visits the POWER website they come down to this: the 250-500 individual windmills would hold some ten to twenty thousands of toxic lubricants that might leak. Winter conditions might lead them to break down. The blades of the devices might decimate untold numbers of bats and birds. The platforms might interfere with fish and flow. Other unspecified dangers might come up. They would attenuate our lovely view.
None of these harms is surreal. Some of them, the leakage of a moderate amount of oil (about an hour's worth, or a minute's worth from the BP Gulf spill, depending on whose 'facts' are on display), and the destruction of wild life, are not trivial. But they are all speculative at best. Maybe a large number of bats die. Maybe several platforms develop oil leaks simultaneously. Maybe other things go wrong. The only certain loss is a certain sort of unspoiled view
And I just ask that we're honest with each other here. Can anyone imagine, as the nation churned out millions of weapons to fight the Nazis, or as we geared up to put a man on the moon, or as we recognized the need to build railroads in order for farmers to have access to markets, a group of absentee land owners' prevailing with arguments like these? 'Those tanks that you're building are going to kill a bunch of bats.' That rocket launch pad might cause trauma to fish, or maybe one of the early stages could go off course and land on someone. Those train tracks are going to make my view of the woods less pristine. What utter nonsense.
As Eric said, these arguments 'don't add up.' And this is what worries me about his political analysis. It joins completely incompatible causes and outcomes. Views, bats, and possible environmental difficulties--all of which Scandia and others promised to address with transparent process and data--cannot derail a priority for this nation.
I can see the power of the class bias argument. I made it, after all, last week. But this is ultimately inadequate too. Sure, a WalMart development is much easier to bring to fruition if it screws the poor; rich people have more clout and more savvy in throwing up NIMBY, 'property rights' roadblocks. But we're addressing national priorities that are among the most serious in history, and local and regional needs that are as desperate as any that Michigan and environs have ever faced.
And wind energy would meet these needs and, at the very, very least, tremendously reduce these problems and achieve these priorities. That a few hundred well-heeled folks with million dollar houses could stop this, if indeed its accomplishment were the priority, if indeed the problems were the ones that we wanted to deal with, is utterly absurd.
And none of this argumentation, which is fairly persuasive that larger forces are at play here that we have not yet revealed, takes into account the massively greater likelihood of massively more horrifying harms of nuclear and coal, the primary alternatives to such efforts as the West Michigan wind program of Scandia Offshore Wind. Yet, how many times do a few rich homeowners stand in the way of a coal mine, a nuclear reactor, or anything similar?
So I'm left with a hundred questions. And I am extremely dubious about easy answers and simple stories, even if they are ones that appeal to me. I smell a rat. No other media are sniffing at this rodent. I'm hoping to find some help in running it down and showing it to the world. Right now, my concerns are like the POWER Coalitions precautions: they are speculative. My worries, however, make a lot more sense.
Of course, many analysts, especially those who work for utility companies and nuclear reactor manufacturers and such, point out that wind sources of electricity may have serious technical drawbacks that have nothing to do with this case. They are dubious about efficiency; they are dubious about grid compatibility; they are skeptical about 'intermittency;' they do not trust the long lasting reliability of the wind mills themselves. Even if all of these contentions have some merit, however, they did not come up in Michigan.
And my readers will see why this 'culture of disbelief' about an ancient technology, that paradoxically (or NOT) goes hand-in-glove with glowing suspension of disbelief about nuclear approaches, are in the end little more potent than the homeowners' fears in Pentworth. Readers might even take a quick look at a recent JustMeans post to see a competent deconstruction of one of these issues, that of intermittency.
Once more, then, I find myself confronting pieces to a puzzle that do not fit together. And I ask, "What is behind all of this?"
I highly recommend that JustMeans readers take advantage of the different resources in this story to formulate their own ideas about 'what's going down'. The comments there, in particular, provide rich fodder to suggest that more is at play in Western Michigan that spoiled rich owners throwing a tantrum and getting their way.
Multiple thoughtful notes to Eric made this point or something similar. "We are moving away from hope. That is to say, we are not moving in the direction we hope to, and the right wing in America is pulling us in the opposite direction (back to oil, coal, nuclear). Our current Administration is much too tame and timid, and we are facing a real problem in November..."
Another respondent was even blunter. "Dem's don't support (renewable energy and wind). Obama: coal, gas, nukes...and there won't be a possibility of a major progressive initiative any more."
Thus, the multiple participants in this conversation who pointed out the overwhelming evidence that, completely opposite to the fears of the wealthy gentry in Pentwater, wind mills enhance property values because they are so beautiful are also missing the point. Something else is going on here. What it is, and how to get at it, just might be important issues. But they are not issues that CNN, Fox, or other corporate media are likely to divine, at least not in this life time.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY TO DISCERN THE PATHS THAT INFLUENCE PLIES
In the first section above, we can discern that money and public relations distort the sense of size and majority without having to buy a single vote. A more complete dissection of this issue would probably be both interesting and instructive, but its general parameters should be clear.
Very briefly, the present portion of this article expands on this point by examining lobbying and political contributions. We might recall, as another of my recent posts noted, that the Supreme Court, kowtowing to corporate personhood, removed all constraints on the campaign donations of 'people' like General Electric and Bechtel, 'who' collectively add up to millions of the rest of us.
I tried a simple Google search for this article: "scandia wind" + "public relations" OR lobbying + expenditures OR cost OR expense, and found thirty four relevant mentions. Not one of them dealt with money that Scandia was spending. Most of them concerned 'grassroots' opposition to Scandia's projects in the United States.
I employed exactly the same search strategy for the Southern Company, the world's eighth largest utility holding company, based in Atlanta, that operates dozens of nuclear and coal power plants. I encountered 3,390 citations, at least several dozen of which told a different story. The Southern Company spent an aggregate $15 million on lobbying and campaign gifts in 2008, not including several in-kind donations and gifts that, though the company did not count them as lobbying, certainly might deserve such a label.
It also incurred nearly a quarter million dollars in political contribution costs in 2008, though now those amounts will undoubtedly be much higher, thanks to the Supreme Court's decision. This sort of orientation to lucre, paying up front to create favorable press and so on, certainly dovetails with what happened in Pentwater, though no obvious connections exists between the two phenomena.
An understanding of such matters is arguably important in seeking to make sense of matters of energy policy, whether the issue is loan guarantees for nuclear reactors or a wild brawl about wind energy off the coast of Michigan. Harvey Wasserman makes this point when he speaks of aggregate utility 'gifts' of nearly six hundred fifty million dollars annually.
Wasserman justifiably celebrates, from the perspective of many people, that "Despite $645 million spent in lobbying over the past decade, the reactor industry has thus far this year failed to gouge out major new taxpayer funding for new commercial reactors." On the other hand, continued defeats in places like Pentwater can make a nuclear pathway less and less avoidable. No clear connection exists, but we ought to be looking into it.
Another aspect of such matters is the role that 'grassroots' non-governmental organizations (NGO's) play in such debates. The Industrial Wind Action Group, for example, appeared in some of the searches that I conducted about this story. An anti-wind NGO based in New Hampshire, the group touts itself as community based but links to no definite community. It labels itself a 'grassroots' movement, but somehow has the resources to make daily updates to its website and maintain a continent wide presence in talking about the "real impacts" of wind energy.
I do not know what is behind the formation and presence of IWAG and other such groups. But I'd like to know. The organizations that I investigate and profile make themselves readily available for inquiry. Their web presence is full of what they do at the 'grassroots' level, not just in fighting certain fights but in joining with community movement and developing long-term presence in communities. This was not obvious from anything that IWAG presented.
I called the POWER Coalition three times trying to schedule a conversation, but they never called back, although they did "thank (me) for (my) support." I'll be calling on Lisa Linowes of IWAG soon. Perhaps she will be more forthcoming.
WHAT PEOPLES INFORMATION NETWORKS MIGHT CONTRIBUTE TO DEMOCRACY
To start with, the well-written and competent and fair reports of the Muskegon Chronicle on this case deserve a prominent mention. Moreover, Michigan Live, from which I garnered many of these reports, acts as an aggregator of the diverse media from the state and attests to the occasional general coverage of this story by the Chronicle and other sources.
Given the zesty interest and arguably powerful meanings attendant on these events, however, one might argue that media have not given the attention to this matter necessary to discover what in the world is going on here. Not one single national story about this has come to light in my searches, although the resources necessary to parse the mountains of data available are not at my command. I'm too close to the 'grassroots' for such luxuries as Lexis Nexis.
In any case, clearly, this story has not made it to the radar screens of most Americans. And it should. This disconnect invites an exploration of the possibilities for a 'people's media' to have an important part to play in making energy democracy and majority rule generally more likely, compared to how corporate coverage impacts things.
We cannot act about what we do not know. We cannot defend, or attack, as apropos, that which does not come to our attention. We cannot participate as venturers or citizens without knowledge and data that are available in mountainous quantities but which seldom pass the muster of our notice.
In part of course, this is a cause for concern about individual responsibility. "Anyone not outraged is not paying attention," as the bumper stickers say. On the other hand, this lack of connection between citizens and knowledge, between people who want to understand and the data that might allow greater understanding, is not accidental.
One comment on Eric Justian's DailyKos essay was especially telling in this regard. Jerome Guillet is psycho intelligent. He is an American in Paris whom the French seem to love, and that is always a good sign. He is also a money guy, which cannot help but interest those of us who don't live in monasteries, and he specializes in alternative and renewable energy projects, especially those that are wind related.
In other words, this fellow is in the know. One should listen when he speaks. Money doesn't flow toward bullsh** for long. He comments as follows.
| "I have a Google Alert for "offshore wind" given that it is my core sector of activity, and 99% of the articles I get are hostile stuff from US media(emphasis added), even though 100% of the actual activity in the industry is in Europe.
Just under 2GW were operational at the end of last year, and 1 GW (5 or 6 windfarms) will be built before the end of the year (including this one, which I financed last year). And more is coming, along with non-offshoreable jobs and economic activity. C-Power confirms $1.23bn loans for Thornton Bank; C-Power has pinned down €950m ($1.23bn) in loans for the second phase of Belgium’s Thornton Bank, in what amounts to the largest financial package ever assembled for an offshore wind project. (Disclosure: I'm advising that last project).
But long term jobs will come when factories get built, and they will come when there is sufficient demand to justify such investment - typically at least 500MW per year for at least 5 years is needed. But the debate in the US is so short sighted - beyond the NIMBY types, you have all those blathering about the supposedly unfair subsidies wind or offshore wind gets,"
and that's about all that receives much coverage.
This speaks for itself. We are bereft in terms of news that we need, news that we can use, news that marks the difference between poverty and prosperity. At the least, we are bereft. We must imagine and bring into being a different set of media models, one of which might be the idea of Peoples Information Networks, about which I will be writing more soon. Basically, this is news that emanates from and covers community needs and counts community sources as inherently superior to corporate and governments caches of facts and figures and propagandistic, self serving newspeak.
Another commenter to Eric's diary echoed what I am suggesting. "Unless the arc changes....We Americans will be living like people always live in backwater fiefdoms run by corrupt generalissimos: with fear and desperate poverty. The propagandists are killing us."
Here's a disclaimer: I'm a propagandist too; only I serve no master other than my own imperfect search for an honestly presented story.
As Eric concluded our interview ten days ago, "We're drowning now. It's like a lake full of PR and spin, and nobody knows where to go to get the story." I think I have some ideas. But going after the necessary leads is not an easy process without a network: hence the PIN notion--Peoples Information Networks to insure the capacity to find out when discovery is a matter of life or death, or at least significance.
AGING ACTIVISTS AND THE LIFE BLOOD OF MOVEMENT
This final part of the body of this article looks very quickly at the loss of leadership for a people's agenda, as aging activists fade or turn to the rich, and, as Eric woefully notes, "young people are stretched to their utter limit."
He continues: "All they can do is write a letter and send it to their commissioner." They don't have time for anything else.
"I went to this meeting in Luddington, a little more blue collar," further North, and he and his friend Pedro were the youngest people there, both in their mid 30's. "This underscores the lack of activism; younger people just can't show up. They have kids, trying to make ends meet. But they're at the end of their rope; it's not apathy."
He relates a sad and humorous punctuation of what he is saying, talking again about the meeting with "all these grey-beards. Someone had a heart attack and died there." That's where the movement stands in the United States today, and if it doesn't change, things are going to get a whole lot worse."
Another commentator on Eric's DailyKos entry speaks articulately about an aspect of what we have to do.
|"What we need right now...is a Green WPA to create millions of jobs building a clean and renewable energy infrastructure. That means wind and solar and geothermal and non-food crop biofuels and energy efficiency and conservation. We need to stop polluting, just as much as we need to stop financing our enemies in the Persian Gulf by sending them several hundred billion dollars a year for their oil. When we can stop buying oil from our enemies, they'll have less money to buy weapons to kill us, and when we don't need their oil anymore we can bring the troops home and stop messing around in their own affairs, thus removing much of their motivation to hate us. When we bring the troops home we'll be saving trillions. Jobs. Savings. Clean Air and Water. Savings. Peace. Savings. It's all that simple. I would just love to see the Rethugs, the Teabaggers, the Wingnuts, and their Blue Dog, CorporaDem enablers come out and fight in favor of continuing to enrich Al Qeda so that they can go on polluting. This is our choice: Windmills. Or Wingnuts. Which side are you on?"|
But we should recall that 'simple' stories are always distortions. We have to dig deeper than this. The pieces don't add together to form a coherent whole. Are we capable of seeing things in a way that supports our decisions to make life-affirming choices? Sure we are. But we have to attend to matters such as the sacking of West Michigan, gaining a more complete comprehension about it as a model for going after the knowledge that we need to support the choices that are necessary now.
Thus, at the end again, the reader may recognize that the portrayal of this apparently simple story has spiraled into a complex skein of questions and speculation. In one view, POWER's David triumphed over the clumsy Goliath of popular opinion and a well-intentioned but politically unwitting commercial enterprise. This 'underdog' victory resulted from clever manipulation of media and communication to enhance the profile of the minority.
An alternate view would argue that, as simple and rational as such a summary might be, perhaps a more thorough dissection of the events might find forces in play that represent hidden stakeholders in the energy fight--such titanic operatives as the coal industry and the nuclear-electric complex certainly benefit every time a renewable energy project comes to grief. In any event, following the real money in play, on the ground in Michigan, would likely yield some interesting data to parse in relation to any 'simple POV' about Western Michigan's recent wind fiasco.
Similarly in regard to concerns about policy, technology, and environment, a straightforward perspective would hold that something between a mistaken and a cautious evolution marked the situation at hand here. After all, real dangers do attend wind power; Michigan's lawmakers and administrators may really 'get their act together' now, as it were; savvier companies will find ways to finesse the problems that scuttled Scandia's plans.
And while as previously noted another firm, Blue Water Wind, may indeed carry through a proposal similar to what Scandia advanced to modify its original prototype, the loss of time and opportunity is painful to contemplate. And BWW is leery of policy waffling by the government.
Moreover, a persistently critical point of view would note that comparative risks of wind, coal, and nuclear make the decision in this case more akin to moronic than cautious. In terms of policy, given the jobs and public assistance woes of the region, the lack of policy engagement here also appears far worse than mere mistake.
Eric Justian at several points mentioned the overwhelming sadness that some of his coworkers have experienced here. Such losses--of hope, of self-respect, of a sense of justice--suggest more than casual error at play. Again, the political economic meaning of the scene on the lake begs for further attention.
In terms of media and movement, any simple interpretation of this story is especially flaccid. Media, in such a view, can only report the surface of things, so any underlying social injustice or missing political understanding is neither here nor there. 'That's not our job, to balance the equities,' the editors and producers who were 'objective' about the two sides of this fight would contend. The 'better' movement won out.
Yet a persuasive case is possible that established media truly failed in regard to this story. The social inequities and prejudices were so close to the surface that someone legally blind could have seen them. And precisely because the conflict was so heated, journalistic organizations had a prima facie responsibility to dig into what lay behind the brouhaha.
The final reckoning about this case, therefore, is that in regard to technical and political aspects of things, the need arguably remains for more thinking and discovery, unless unanswered questions and facile answers are acceptable. And in relation to the news and popular-democracy elements of the situation, a clear need exists for transformation of current approaches, unless blatantly unfair and harmfully superficial results are acceptable.
In any event, Muskegon County and Pentwater undeniably demonstrate the centrality of energy stories to the modern pass through which America is moving. That critical placement, in an of itself, argues for continued effort to understand and explain more thoroughly, "what in the world has really transpired in Western Michigan?"
The potential for further discovery should be obvious in every aspect of this matter; the necessity for further work may be debatable. Some observers and participants may say, 'well, we've go to move on--that's all behind us now.' On the other hand, the West Michigan wind movement continues to resonate and gather supporters. The 97% of State residents who want wind power hasn't diminished. Maybe digging deeper is part of finding a way to achieve these objectives that the vast majority insist are necessary.
That media and information can play absolutely central roles in the outcome of such imbroglios ought to appear pretty clear at this juncture. Thus, a hidden message of the defeat of Scandia Wind concerns how communication happens, and how knowledge and opinion move through a social system, especially in times of dissension that polarizes choices.
If we lack a commitment to revealing the most basic underpinnings, then we have to acknowledge that our ignorance of those matters could trip us up the next time that we seek to develop technology that the grassroots desires desperately but that the owners of the world--either local or at a higher level--want to put on hold, forestall, or divert. Is this an accurate assessment of Michigan? We may hope not, but maybe we ought to hedge our bets a bit and ask for further review.
The Industrial Wind Action Group, in its "info about this website" portal, updates its material daily. This reminds me of the song, "Pancho and Lefty," about a rover who quite likely took money to set up Pancho Villa, so he could leave Mexico and return to Ohio: "Where he got the bread to go, can't nobody say."
What kind of resources are necessary for such a capacity? What are we to make of the 500:1 spending ratio separating the opponents of wind from the proponents in Western Michigan? Without ongoing investigation and a bulldog-like ferocity in seeking the underlying relationships and patterns, any long run chance of overall policy outcomes that favor community has to be 'slim to none.'
Of course, I am speculating. Nothing more sinister than wealthy nature-lovers and fierce advocates of unstated alternatives to wind may account for everything here. After all, smaller scale wind development seems to be blowing into the region at several locations. But I don't buy this rosy scenario, and I want to keep at this story until I can state unpleasant facts accurately, or say that my 'speculation' is idle and that the equities truly do balance.
And I've studied the nature of media. The founding energy of the United States of America, much more extensive than just the pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and so on, considered the notion of a vibrant and unstinting press to lie at the heart of democracy.
Still, the words of James Madison ought to remain resonant: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prelude to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
We are awash in streams of data. How deeply do they generally delve? Twittering outranks investigation. Facebook messages outdraw attempts at comprehensive revelation. Folks still turn to Fox News or CNN or MSNBC as if those broadcasters had the inclination or the resources to do more than speak what governments and experts have to say. Neither source has covered what has come to pass in Michigan.
The top citation from CNN for 'renewable energy' is the warning from unacknowledged nuclear proponent David Mackay, whom I profiled in these pages, that renewable sources are simply too paltry to meet society's needs. For Fox News, the first reference was to a "Fact Check" that downplayed every aspect of what renewables might bring to the U.S.
As we have seen, the people of Michigan don't accept these views, and the local news outlets, particularly the Muskegon Chronicle, have given much more 'fair and balanced' accounts of wind and other renewable sources. But not one standard source for information has taken this story apart and presented it in such a fashion that people have "something to fight with" as a result of the telling.
Getting media that can proffer the ammunition that communities need to mount self defense and bootstrap development could be a key element of capacitation. Without doubt, corporate media follow a different model, operate according to a different agenda, and have obvious conflict of interest in providing the news and information and knowledge that communities need.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman open their book(http://www.sprword.com/books/manufacturingconsent/) with a deconstruction of the reasons for this biased mediation.
|"The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda."|
As these presentations about energy, community, and democracy continue, they will continue to remonstrate that popular media capable of demonstrating real muscle must somehow become a social priority, or empowerment will remain at best a dicey proposition. Robert McChesney, another dogged proponent of media democracy, states this case with blunt force in his book, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. Perhaps we should pay attention.
He starts with a quip that would bring a smile except for the fact that it applies so aptly to his Western Michigan story of wind and woe. "Truth ... is something to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, it is bought and sold. In the commercial marketplace of ideas, something becomes 'true' if you can get people to believe it."
But his criticism is both more general and more pointed at the same time. "The notion that journalism can regularly produce a product that violates the fundamental interests of media owners and advertisers ... is absurd.... (S)o long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board. The biggest problem facing all who challenge the prerogatives of corporate rule is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are never exposed to anything remotely close to a reasoned, coherent, consistent, democratic socialist, pro--labor, or even old-fashioned New Deal Democratic perspective. This is why, in the end, media reform is inexorably intertwined with broader social and political reform. They rise or fall together."
Western Michigan may yet be a 'proof of that pudding.'
First Amendment from Newseum: Ann Baekken
Lake Michigan: Brendan Riley
Recession: Bob Jagendorf
Offshore Muskegon: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bigmikesndtech/3068418593/in/photostream/
Central Lake Michigan Map: Map from Institute for Fisheries Research UM/MDNR, prepared for Great Lakes Wind Council
Social Media Map: Damien Basile
Images of Wind Power in Michigan: Michigan Economic Development Corporation promotional booklet
Profit Editorial Cartoon: Daniel Vasconcellos