The title is an homage to a classic “Beyond the Fringe” skit, which is not only fall-down funny, it’s also a pretty good depiction of your typical anti-wind demo.
Something’s been bugging me for quite a while now, but it hadn’t quite crystallized until I read the following paragraph a few days ago in a VTDigger story about a three-year moratorium on new utility-scale wind projects in Vermont, proposed by Senators Joe Benning and Bob Hartwell:
The proposal comes one year after the Senate shot down a similar draft legislation Benning sponsored, which called for a two-year moratorium on projects 2.2 megawatts or greater. Since then, opposition to wind projects has grown, with a Montpelier demonstration in autumn drawing nearly 200 protestors.
The key phrase: “Since then, opposition to wind projects has grown.”
By what objective measure? What facts, what pattern supports that conclusion?
The only proof cited is a single demonstration that drew “nearly 200.” Is that really sufficient proof of the assertion? Seems pretty damn thin to me, even if VTDigger did wrongly choose to characterize that gathering as a “throng.”
I see no evidence of an anti-wind groundswell. What I see is a small group of very determined activists who’ve leveraged a great deal of media coverage. Let’s look at the available data.
In May of 2012, a Castleton Polling Institute survey showed 70% support for wind power, 17% opposition, and 13% not sure.
During the 2012 campaign, Governor Shumlin made no secret of his support for wind energy. Randy Brock tried to capitalize on anti-wind sentiment, while anti-wind activist Annette Smith launched an ill-fated campaign for Governor — first as a Prog, then as a write-in. But in spite of Digger’s claim of growing opposition, the anti-wind crowd had no discernible effect on the November election. Smith drew no more than a few hundred votes, and Shumiln sailed to an easy victory.
It was, to return to that Beyond the Fringe skit, “not quite the conflagration we were banking on.”
None of this proves that anti-wind sentiment has stayed pretty much the same — a concern of a small minority — but it certainly runs counter to VTDigger’s assertion that opposition to wind power is on the rise.
I’ve been an observer of politics since the late 1960s, and I have never, ever seen a protest movement get so much coverage out of such small crowds. The notorious “throng” of 200 was, by far, the largest anti-wind gathering in Vermont. The others have attracted somewhere between a handful and a few dozen.
And every single one of them has attracted generous media coverage. As has every permit filing, every groundbreaking, every compliant of excessive noise or other alleged problems, every court case or threatened lawsuit, and (most absurd of all) every transportation of turbine parts toward construction sites.
So why has the media given so much coverage to such a small movement? I have a few theories.
— Many of the protests are picturesque. A demonstration on a mountain or in the forest makes pretty pictures and good video for the 6:00 news. Much better than the same number of people carrying signs in front of the Statehouse (yawn).
— There’s something Vermonty about the whole thing. Salts of the earth, sons of the Green Mountains, garbed in flannel, fleece, or down, seeking to preserve smallness against the assault of the Big. It speaks to some of our most cherished myths about ourselves and our state.
Yes, I said “myths.”
— Some reporters are favorably inclined to the anti-wind cause. I’ve heard this, off the record, from some media folks. It’s sometimes fairly obvious in their coverage (“throng,” indeed). And I’m sure the ill-advised prosecution of Chris Braithwaite didn’t exactly endear wind developers to the state’s journalists.
— Some media outlets tilt to the right, and the right tends to be anti-wind. Not because they’re environmentalists, but because (1) they’re pro-business and anti-climate change, (2) a lot of rich people own rural property and don’t want turbines messing up their views, and (3) they’ll use any handy issue to slam the Shumlin Administration.
— Monkey see, monkey do. If some media outlets are covering anti-wind protests, then others will follow. And actually, that’s the only objectively provable momentum in the anti-wind movement: the year 2012 saw an increase in coverage of anti-wind protests.
It also didn’t help that most Vermont environmental groups have treated anti-wind protests as John Kerry did the Swift Boaters in 2004 — ignoring rather than confronting. I was glad to see several of them (including VPIRG, VNRC, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Vermont Sierra Club) come out in opposition to the wind moratorium last week, and I wonder where the hell they were all of last year. They should have been out front with their own positions and their own scientific information.
Another thing I’d like to see happen: I’d love it if the media actually examined the anti-wind movement. How many people are really involved? Where do anti-wind organizations like Energize Vermont get their money? They aren’t legally required to report their donations, donors, membership numbers, spending or budgets, and they haven’t volunteered to do so. Also, it’d be good if some enterprising reporter took a look at the “scientific studies” used by the anti-wind folks. Some anti-wind activists, and some alleged scientists, get their support from the fossil fuel industry.
And one final factor in the media’s overestimation of the anti-wind folks: The Comments section. Whenever anyone posts a story about wind energy, there’s a flurry of comments — many of them from the same small number of anti-wind hardliners. Online comments, however, are no reflection whatsoever of a website’s overall readership. The vast majority of online readers never post a comment, and most never even read the comments. But when a reporter or a media outlet sees a long string of comments, it tends to affect their thinking. In this case, makes them overestimate the size of the anti-wind movement.
Which is, I say again, small. And only as influential as their outsized reputation allows them to be.