Commentary

Suzanna Jones: Experiment in Environmental Ethics

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzanna Jones, an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden. She was among those arrested protesting the Lowell wind project in 2011.

Back in the 1960s, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram conducted a research experiment whose results shocked the nation. Participants were told that they were taking on the role of “teacher” in a study of methods to improve learning. An authority figure told the “teacher” to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to a “learner” in the next room whenever a question was answered incorrectly. There actually were no shocks and the learner was part of the research team, but the “teacher” heard increasing cries of pain with each “shock” administered. Even as the intensity of the shocks approached the maximum of 450 volts, the authority insisted that the shocks should continue – that the anguished screams, the banging on the wall, the pleas about heart conditions, and ultimately the ominous silence from the other room should all be ignored.

It was believed that most people would defy the authority figure once they became aware that the shocks were seriously harming another person. But that was not the case: almost two-thirds of participants continued to obey the authority figure, administering “shocks” until the very end.

I was reminded of the Milgram experiments recently while attending two Public Service Board hearings on new proposed sound limits for industrial wind facilities. Because there have been problems, a lower standard of 35 dBA, (down from 45 dBA) has been proposed. (The World Health Organization recommends 30 dBA.)

Those who live close to Vermont’s existing industrial wind facilities have described a range of symptoms that include sleeplessness, headaches, ringing ears and nausea. For 15 months, Shirley Nelson, who lived less than a mile from the Lowell wind project, kept detailed recordings of decibel readings (from a monitor installed at their home by the developer, Green Mountain Power) and the health effects she and her husband were experiencing. Entries from her “noise diary” clearly demonstrate the sustained and cumulative adverse effects of living near the turbines at the previous standards.

The Therrien family, who lived near the turbines in Sheffield, pleaded for years for relief – from the PSB, the wind developer, the town of Sheffield, former Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state officials – to no avail. Their symptoms? “Disturbed sleep, headaches, tinnitus (ear ringing), sense of quivering or vibration, nervousness, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, nausea, difficulty with concentration, memory loss and irritability.”

At the Montpelier hearing, the lawyer who represents the proposed Swanton Wind project told the board to ignore these symptoms – dismissing them as coming from “complainers” and “outliers” whose testimony was just “anect-data.” Instead, he said, the board should focus solely on submitted peer-reviewed studies that show no health impacts from proximity to industrial wind facilities.

In other words: trust authority; ignore the pleas from the other room; continue administering the shocks.

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“It was believed that most people would defy the authority figure once they became aware that the shocks were seriously harming another person. But that was not the case.”

 

What about other peer-reviewed studies showing that infrasound from industrial wind turbines does affect human health? And it’s hard to dismiss as mere “anec-data” the fact that deteriorating health forced the Therriens and their two young children to abandon a home they loved.

At the hearings, several residents of Lowell (perhaps believing that new standards would threaten their cash cow) not only implied that their neighbors were lying about the health impacts they’ve experienced, but claimed to live much closer to the turbines – with no ill effects – than they actually do. And the few supporters drummed up by VPIRG and industry promoter Renewable Energy Vermont callously waved off the impacts on humans, wildlife, land and water. Some actually called for raising the noise standard to make it easier on the industry.

Reading from talking points generated by VPIRG, someone commented, “There are only eight families complaining …”

What is the magic number that will elicit empathy from VPIRG? Thirty families? A hundred?

In the Milgram study, the pain the “teachers” believed they were inflicting was justified by the supposed benefit of a better understanding of human learning. In Vermont, the justification from developers is that industrial wind is a “clean” solution to climate change. And there are politicians, “environmental” celebrities and nonprofit organizations willing to put on a white coat and hold a clipboard to pose as the “authority” on the industry’s behalf.

But for those who find clear-cutting, blasting and bulldozing mountain ridgelines, degrading water sources, eliminating wildlife habitat, and killing birds and bats “clean” and “green,” take a look at before and after photos of entire valleys in China destroyed by the mining of rare earth metals, a critical component in industrial wind turbines. Where there were once thousands of acres of carbon-sequestering grasslands there are now mountains of toxic sludge. Four thousand tons of material must be mined to produce the two tons of metals needed for each 3-megawatt turbine.

Production tax credits, the sale of renewable energy credits and the requirements of state renewable energy portfolios have made the buildout of industrial “renewables” very profitable for corporations, even when the climate benefits are marginal or non-existent. Utility law professor Kevin Jones at Vermont Law School describes all this as a “shell game” that has actually led to an increase in Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Clever marketing has induced some of us to engage in moral relativism, ethics without substance and environmentalism at the cost of its soul. If you find yourself arguing in favor of throwing someone under the bus because your favorite pop “environmentalist” says it’s necessary, ask yourself what you would have done in Milgram’s lab.


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