Dr Siân Stephens has been canvassing opinion from people in communities impacted by the energy industry. Here she reveals that ‘not-in-my-backyard-ism’ isn’t always coming from those who are actually affected by wind farms and mines.
As an ethnically Welsh woman who grew up in the North-East of England I have felt pretty confident that I know about mining. My grandmother came from a mining family (her father was killed in a pit collapse when she was 11 days old) and I grew up as one of Thatcher’s children in a part of the country that remembers mining fondly and is still struggling with the industry’s collapse. Despite this, or maybe because of the family horror stories, I grew up with the belief that being a miner would be the worst job in the world. I knew that the working conditions involved in mining are terrible, and as I started researching the industry I came to know that the balance of the demands for skills, technology and labour mean that large scale mining will always be exploitative (huge financial risks are taken in investing in the skills and technology required for extraction, which are ‘balanced’ by the potential for huge profits, which are dependent on a low-paid labour force).
For my PhD I travelled to South Africa, and spent a lot time at mines and with miners, talking about what the industry means to them and their community, and I was reminded of some of the other family stories, and of stories from the UK 30 years ago when mining communities fought body and soul to keep their ’terrible’ jobs. The people I spoke to in South Africa reminded me that yes, mining is hard work, and it is dangerous, but there is still a strong sense of pride associated with the work. This is partly because the work is difficult and dangerous, but it is also because it is important, particularly in contexts where old industries are still economically significant, such as South Africa. The fuel produced by fossils has driven industrialisation and, along with it, human development.
On a smaller scale, it offers low-skilled employment to under-employed communities, and on a macro-level it can drive a country’s economic growth. If we look at a map of countries that are rich in carbon-based natural resources, we can see that these are often also countries that could do with some economic growth and that this economic growth has the potential to lift people out of a deadly level of poverty – involvement in this is something to be proud of (for more on this see The Plundered Planet by Paul Collier). Although I was unable to crowbar this into the papers written from this project, my overwhelming finding from this field trip was that I was totally out of touch with what it was like to live in a mining community, and in a mining country.
This year my research has moved to look at renewable energy, and in particular wind energy, in the UK. My co-authors and I were curious to see how communities responded to the presence of a renewable energy operation, and whether this differs country-to-country. Over the summer I spent some time at the Whitelee Wind Farm in Scotland, and with the people who worked there and the people who lived nearby. Before I went I did a google (research!) and found a lot of positive publicity, and some negative publicity. The positive publicity seemed to be largely generated by ScottishPower, who run the site, and the negative publicity was driven by environmental groups. I once again set out on a field trip expecting to find opposition and resentment to the presence of the energy industry in an otherwise beautiful landscape – and once again my expectations were not met.
Firstly, the Windfarm itself is, in my opinion, truly beautiful (see above) and secondly, because the Land Reform Act in Scotland gives everyone the right of access to pretty much everywhere the site has to be user-friendly and safe – and it is both. It is a popular spot for walkers, cyclists and day-trippers. More importantly however, it seems to be genuinely appreciated by the local community. It is not a massive job-generator, but as I found with the mining communities there was a strong sense of pride in those I encountered in being part of a ‘wind farm community’ – pride in their involvement in generating clean energy, and pride in their involvement in a Scottish industry (ScottishPower is actually owned by the Spanish state-owned company Iberdrola, but it was still considered to be a Scottish company by those I spoke to).
My fieldwork is to be complimented by a similar fieldtrip by my co-author in South Africa, who will visit Kouga Windfarm in South Africa’s Eastern Cape and investigate whether these feelings are shared by a South African windfarm community, but I’ve found so far is that the much-reported NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard… ism) isn’t really a thing. Instead, I’ve found YIMBYism (Yes In My Back Yard-ism); in both South African mining communities and Scottish wind farm communities the industrial presence was understood, and welcomed by those most affected. There may also be some NIYBYism (I’m sure you’ve got it by now… Not In Your Back Yard) – opposition from unaffected communities to an industrial presence they imagine will be awful for those affected, but it is important that these concerns are reported for what they are, and that the views of those who are affected are also reported for what they are. Overly simplistic debates about industry vs. communities are not helpful, and risk silencing the voices in the community which do not conform to the role of ‘local opposition’.
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