Environmental Ethics in Green Energy

How can we ensure that decision-makers really consider environmental ethics? For truly sustainable developments, it is vital to run local forums (1) and incorporate environmental ethics into the planning decisions. However, this is all too often ignored. In this article, we investigate how developers of a mini wind farm in Orkney failed to consider ecological ethics during the negotiation process.


Jordi Albacete

Before the creation of the national parks, Scottish naturalist John Muir (1829-1914) said:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in which nature may heal and give strength to body and soul’.

In our post-industrial world, with our accelerated lifestyles, we often look for refuge and therapy in wild spaces. These places also provide local identity for people in the surrounding communities.

The current necessity to reduce dependence on fossil fuels means that some of these natural landscapes are altered. The presence of wind farms is not welcomed by everyone.

[cml_media_alt id='2972']Wind farm in Scotland.[/cml_media_alt]
Wind farm in Scotland.

In 2013, I was studying a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow about how societies use technology to respond to environmental challenges. I looked at the ethical legitimacy of the development of a mini wind farm in Orkney, which began in 2007. The project, which had been approved by local authorities, had received opposition from the local community. The development consisted of the construction of three 900kW turbines right in the middle of an area of high archaeological value. Orkney has some of the oldest monuments in the United Kingdom and Europe, such as the ruins of Skara Brae which are more than 5,000 years old. These isles are a hub for leading research projects (2) into renewable energy, particularly in marine energy production. The headquarters of the European Centre for Marine Energy are based there.


Scotland, territory of renewable energy

Scotland is a leading country in the decarbonisation of the economy. In 2009 it passed the Climate Change Act with important targets for the development of renewable energies.   In 2011, Scotland set the ambitious goal of supplying, by 2020, 100% of its energy demand from renewable resources (SPP6, Scottish Planning Policy). In 2014 this target was accomplished by 50%. 

The planning of energy production in Scotland projects is decided between the agreement of the local and national authorities. However, to decarbonise the economy, have been criticized by rural communities.

In 2009 Scottish local authorities rejected the development of 18 wind farms out of 35 proposals. Frequently, the opposition to wind farms is based on two main arguments: the protection of wildlife, particularly ornithology; and their effect on the landscape. In 2011, a representative of the local Government of the Scottish Borders Council (one of the regions with the lowest population densities in Scotland) Carolyn Riddell-Carre said: “My main concern is [that] our picturesque landscape must not be destroyed in order to satisfy some national agenda”.

Indeed, preserving the landscape against the development of wind farms is a recurring issue for the protection of the cultural and historical identity in the debate on the development of renewable energy.
Under Scottish law, technologically innovative projects, such as wind farms, should meet two requirements when carried out in areas of archaeological interest. Firstly, an evaluation of the impact on the landscape must be carried out by two agencies of archaeological conservation. Secondly, it’s necessary to include a public consultation, which should ensure the participation of residents.

[cml_media_alt id='2919']Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. [/cml_media_alt]
Ring of Brodgar in Orkney.

The visual impact on the archaeological status in Orkney was reported by the two public agencies, Scottish National Heritage and Historic Scotland. They claimed that the visual impact of the wind turbines would particularly affect the emotional values of connection with this ancient landscape. Despite this report, local authorities estimated that the visual impact of the three turbines would be minimal (in agreement with one of the companies participating in the project, Scotrenewables).

The other important stage to legitimize the project is public consultation. Some residents criticized the consultation, which was in-favour of the project, saying that there was a lack of advertising so that the community could attend the event. According to a letter from the neighbours, only 20 people attended that meeting.


Orkney Heritage and Renewable Energy

Orkney has some of the oldest archaeological sites in Britain. In the southwest of its main island, known locally as the mainland island, different archaeological monuments make up the Heart of the Neolithic. This is formed by: the ruins of Skara Brae, a human settlement of more than 5,000 years old; the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness; and the burial monuments like Maeshowe. Through these monuments, the presence of different prehistoric civilizations can be precisely tracked, including the Vikings. These sights give a very clear idea of the megalithic culture of north-western Europe for ceremonial practices such as funeral homes. All these monuments were nestled (3) in the topography with a purpose, forming a series of curves and slopes.

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Over the course of contemporary history the archaeological landscape definition has also been taken into account in the construction of modern buildings, creating a very diverse and complex landscape.

[cml_media_alt id='2923']Wind turbine in Mainland (Orkney). [/cml_media_alt]
Wind turbine in Mainland (Orkney).

Orkney has become a reference for developing renewable energy sources and it is a micro paradigm to demonstrate to what extent the economy can be decarbonized.

This archipelago was the first territory of the United Kingdom to have a smart grid. In addition, it is a leader in the development of tidal power (produced by tidal current energy). The headquarters of the European Centre of Marine Energy in Orkney is the first centre in the world, which includes machines for the production of energy from waves and tides. Currently, Orkney is a net exporter of renewable energy for the rest of Scotland.



Dominant Discourse vs. Social Ecology

The case of the wind farm in Orkney is quite unique. The ethical problem posed by the University was to make a conclusion about the best ethical decision for this community. On one side of the fence, acceptance of the project would be a valuable step towards a decarbonised national economy on the other, rejection or revision of the project would fall in line with the reports from public archaeological agencies and promote inclusion of social values and cultural identity.

Prioritising ethical values and the participation in the decision-making process is the basis of a critical sociological theory named Social Ecology. Founded by Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), this theory connects environmental and social justice. From this perspective, hierarchies and lack of horizontality in community decision-making generate exploitation, not only between individuals and the environment. The main target for this philosophy is to develop a moral economy exceeding the hierarchy and the shortage in a world where communities are in harmony with the natural environment.

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Applying social ecology to a conflict of interest might generate more questions than it answers. In the case of this wind farm, both the positions for and against the development encouraged the redefinition of some concepts like social welfare and even what exactly constitutes a natural resource.

The value that can be granted to social welfare is very volatile and depends on the system of values and beliefs of an individual and its collective identity. In this case, when we think about the welfare state, a social ecological perspective might pose the following question: “which of the options is more important in an area where opportunities for economic development are limited: economic security and energy self-sufficiency preservation of archaeological landscapes, regardless of some of the immediate needs for local, regional or national economy? In which time scale can social welfare be defined? Only in the present or must future generations be taken into account? Perhaps the problem lies in the increasing distance between individual well-being and collective well-being.

“In which time scale can social welfare be defined? Only in the present or must future generations be taken into account?


[cml_media_alt id='2922']11741008_10152995985598848_2771191662751031551_o[/cml_media_alt]
Rural land in the sunset in Orkney.

The definition of a natural resource also leads to many questions. How are the natural resources of this island assessed? By their economic production value (from wind power in this case) by their contribution to the local identity? How can a symbolic value evaluated and quantified? How can money be measured against such a symbolic value? The problem, therefore, might lie in scaling rather than in the recognition. In other words, what could be the economic cost of cultural identity, and should it be costed in economic terms in the first place? All these questions require discussion, thorough and participative reflection, study, analysis, and perhaps a large dose of idealism and altruism. But, perhaps the most important and obvious question for social ecology is who responds and asks these questions? Where and how should strategic decisions for the development of a community be taken? Who and how the community is defined?


“Is it possible to price cultural identity?”


The redefinition of concepts is a challenge for citizen participation and interdisciplinary debate, where science, humanities, economics, social values and beliefs must all be involved in the discussion. Responsibilities arising from these discussions must also be well balanced with individual freedoms. William Blackstone, author of Ethics and Ecology, outlined that the meaning of equality and liability should be based on the balance between freedom and moral responsibility to protect human rights. For example, it can be relatively accepted that the freedom of having “freedom of speech” is limited by our respect of honour and integrity.

Internationally, there are already many initiatives where environmental and social ethics are articulating community development plans. One of the most international initiatives is probably The Earth Charter, which seeks to apply ethics by the inclusion of the most deprived (i.e. prisoners) in sustainable development decisions.

In Scotland, there are various initiatives in which communities have been organized to produce and manage their own renewable energy supplies, as is the case for the Community Power Scotland initiative. Other community initiatives, in line with social ecology, emerge in the context of the explorations for fracking in Scotland. Community Charter is a document produced by a community of neighbours in the area of Falkirk (in East Central Scotland) where residents agree “assets” that are fundamental to the present and the future of their communities, such as: a clean environment, future generations, dwellings, the stability of the community, the biodiversity of local ecosystems, food security, the health of the economy, and the confidence on the political representatives.

The case of the wind farm, and its framing within the philosophy of social ecology, creates opportunities for debate, reflection, and in ultimately its review. Climate change has raised the stakes for renewable energy. However, the alteration of the landscape in the installation of wind farms involves incalculable impact on the emotional and cultural values transmitted over generations.

[cml_media_alt id='2921']11700599_10152995999483848_83083901556238665_o[/cml_media_alt]In these days where history is being made in Greece, we should recall that Greece begat democracy. The challenges of climate change are already obvious around all the tables of discussion, and we should consider what collective response must be given to our planet and all its beings that are yet to come.

We will probably have to make some sacrifices for the sake of sustainable development (3) and to mitigate many of the mistakes that have been made in the past. A globalised world should be aware that there are millions of people who are not questioned or even know that they have that right.

International solidarity needs to ensure that democratic resources are granted to the most disadvantaged communities to empower them to make their own decisions, making sure that these decisions are respected. In Orkney, 5,000 years ago resided one of the first prosperous settlements in the United Kingdom, which probably overused their natural resources.

In Greece, 2,500 years ago, it was the dawn democracy began a chapter of world history that it is being shaken by the financial trap of the European economy. They are perhaps passing signs from the past to remind us that we must redirect ourselves towards a more sustainable future for our planet.


Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Run a forum.

  • Example: “For truly sustainable developments, it is vital to run local forums […] “. (“Para desarrollos verdaderamente sostenibles, es vital organizar foros […]“).
  • Translation: organizar un forum
  • Comment: Pay attention to the use of run for meetings, forums, etc.

(2) A hub for leading research projects.

  • Definition: (for hub) a focus of activity.
  • Example: “These isles are a hub for leading research projects into renewable energy”. (“Estas islas son un centro líder en los proyectos de investigación de energías renovables”).
  • Translation: centro.
  • Comment: Be aware of this use, to have alternative options for centre.

(3) To make some sacrifices for the sake of sustainable development.

  • Definition: (sake) benefit or well-being.
  • Example: “We will probably have to make some sacrifices for the sake of sustainable development“. (“Probablemente tendremos que hacer algunos sacrificios para el beneficio del desarrollo sostenible […]“).
  • Translation: beneficio, bienestar.
  • Comment: be aware of the different uses and idioms with “sake”.

Autor: Jordi Albacete

I am an environmental journalist. My passion for the protection of human and environmental rights has been inspired by research led journalism. My ambition is to communicate and inspire people to make positive changes in the environment. Twitter @albacetejordi or Linkedin.

Periodista medioambiental. Mi pasión por la protección de los derechos humanos y medioambientales se ha forjado a través de la investigación periodística. Mi objetivo es comunicar e inspirar a la gente para hacer cambios positivos y proteger el medioambiente. Twitter @albacetejordi o Linkedin.

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