The cover slide of my Energy Impacts presentation, a synthesis of landscape work on several fronts.
The last two days I spent at the gigantic Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio (it has it’s own traffic radio station), in a gaggle of energy impacts social scientists. The Energy Impacts Symposium was a product of a US NSF Research Coordination grant co-held by Jeffrey Jacquet (OSU) and Julia Haggerty (MSU). The event brought together some great keynotes on energy issues, including Benjamin Sovacool on energy justice, Monica Ehrman on energy realism, and Janet Stephenson on long-term shifts in energy cultures. Despite the heavy and understandable focus on the US shale experience, given what Stephenson described as the American “state of siege” by that fuel, the commonwealth made a strong showing. In addition to Stephenson, from New Zealand (and Ehrman, a Canadian living in the US), there was a strong contingent of Australian, UK and Canadian academics across all stages. It was a great opportunity to catch up with friends like Tom Measham and expand networks in those of us working under Westminster settings, that (thankfully) results in very different outcomes in governance and on the ground.
The engagement with scholars across career levels was very strong thanks in part to a competitive ‘Symposium Fellow’ program. A number of ‘Fellows’ were Commonwealth: Bec Colvin (ANU, my alma mater), who gave a fantastic talk on social rifts as a result of wind energy consultation in King Island, Nichole Dusyk, working across hydro and pipelines in postdoctoral work at SFU, and Eryn Fitzgerald (UVic) who as a Masters student among PhD and postdocs won second on the poster award for her work on indigenous hydro in BC. Leah Stokes (originally Canadian, now UCSB) gave a great talk on the degree of public backlash from wind projects. This is not to slight the Americans, of course. I saw a great presentation by Weston Eaton (Penn State) on biomass crops, and Julia Haggerty on ‘social license to exit’, as well as super posters by scholars such as Kristin Smith (MSU), Chris Podeski (Bloomsburg U of Penn), Meryl Gardner (Delaware) and the talented Anne Junod (OSU). Such riches of relevant research solidifies for me the value of prioritizing the attendance of problem-based, rather than disciplinary, meetings.
I was honored to receive a travel award to attend this event on the strength of my submitted abstract, Toward a non-equilibrium model of change in cultural landscapes. I was also grateful that the funding gave me a hard deadline for doing this planned synthesis around landscape emerging from SSHRC-funded work on energy (hydro and dam removal, renewable transitions) and agricultural dykelands. This presentation will now be converted to a chapter for a collected volume being co-edited by the conference steering committee this fall.
A balm to my sketchy mood on this unsettled Friday is Arcade Fire’s new anthem of consumerism, Everything Now. Besides its irresistible groove, the video is a showcase of energy landscapes and other used up utilitarian infrastructure, and the lyrics skewer the attitudes that propagate our footprint:
Every inch of sky’s got a star
Every inch of skin’s got a scar
I guess that you’ve got everything now
The only way it could be more perfect for my research program would be if there were some livestock trundling through that rangeland. Happy weekend, everyone.
Last week brought fascinating insight around energy transitions in rural Alberta, which feel worth discussing the day after President Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord. The last day of my field trip there with colleague John Parkins and a few students we spent investigating the context of a wind energy proposal. We visited a local councillor/reeve for the municipal district, the host landowners and some opponents in our mini case study. It produced much food for thought. This post is name and hyperlink-free to avoid identifying the specific proposal, or the generous folks who gave their time to talk to us.
Some interesting issues arose in those discussions that are not commonly part of the discourse elsewhere, such as the lack of regulation around wind infrastructure, including end-of-life remediation and responsibility. This was raised by the eloquent reeve, as well as one of the opponents. It was a good reminder that just because regulation generally comes as a result of mistakes or accidents, we should not wait until that happens to develop strong expectations and governance. It would be unlikely, but awful, if turbines were orphaned in the way that so many oil and gas wells are in Alberta.
Even more compelling, however, was the way that industrial history, social dynamics and politics drove discourse among opponents. Most of the farmers in this area host oil and gas wells or compressor stations on their properties, and earn good money doing so. Some of these make noise, and some smell, and sometimes there are spills. But such risk and/or disbenefit has been normalized: this is the way that it has been for a long time. Similarly very large farming infrastructure like grain bins and elevators are accepted in the landscape as “the way we make our living”. This is the same way the landowners hoping to host the wind farm see it: just another way to make money off their land. They are ready to bear any disbenefits from hosting, but they largely dismiss such concerns. They see the opposition as a response in part to their cultural difference, which sets them apart from the local community, and the annoyance of others at the success of their livelihood model.
Despite this highly utilitarian landscape, and sparse population, a few of their neighbours asserted that wind presented more risks, e.g. to nearby grandchildren, than the oil and gas exploration or climate change itself. Every possible reason for wind opposition was touched upon, but without clear evidence, apparently in part fed by the online echo chamber. We heard strong denial of human-caused climate change. Renewables were seen as useful only for when oil and gas ran out. Otherwise we heard that renewables were unnecessary because of new ‘clean’ (and conveniently distant) coal and gas thermal plants. These voices did not differentiate between visible particulate pollution and invisible greenhouse gas emissions. The key opponent was a longstanding member of the community with many relationships to leverage; it will be interesting to see if the social implications prevail.
MES graduand Yan Chen and her parents with me.
Congratulations to our Spring 2017 graduands who convocated yesterday. Despite playing hooky from the ceremony itself, I was really pleased to see some of the students I worked with and their families. Yan Chen’s parents had come all the way from China to see her cross the stage (above) to receive her MES based on work on Instagram in my lab. Caitlin Cunningham’s parents were visiting from St. Catharines to see her receive her MES on mapping pollination services and potential, based on work led by Peter Tyedmers that I enjoyed helping with. Finally, I got to give a hug to Mhari Lamarque, graduating MREM, who did her internship with DUC and is now working for DUC and I both. Such events are one of the more satisfying parts of being a professor.