Being green and the madness of crowds

Being green isn't easy and irrational beliefs about the health effects of wind farms just makes it that much harder

"It's not easy being green."

— Kermit the Frog

What's true for Kermit apparently translates to our business. Some time ago I had a call with a company that ran data centers they claimed were "green." Their argument for their greenness was they purchased power with green credits, which meant they paid a premium for electricity to fund alternative energy programs. Along with that they had a car park full of solar cells.

I replied that this was great but what about the big picture? What was the total cost of producing, maintaining and disposing of their solar cells and all of the other "green" data center hardware? Were they on the right side of the balance sheet for the long term rather than the short term? This line of questioning seemed to annoy them and our call was rather shorter than I had expected.

[ IN THE NEWS: EBay develops 'miles per gallon' metric for data centers ]

The resistance to being rationally green cuts both ways: People will find arguments why their attempts to be green are good when, in reality, they aren't, while other people will just as often find bizarre arguments why a given green technology is a bad idea.

As an example of the latter have you ever heard of wind farm sickness? No? Well neither had I until I stumbled across reports that discussed a paper published in the American Psychological Association's PsycNET titled "Can Expectations Produce Symptoms From Infrasound Associated With Wind Turbines?" by Fiona Crichton et al. The abstract says it all:

The development of new wind farms in many parts of the world has been thwarted by public concern that subaudible sound (infrasound) generated by wind turbines causes adverse health effects. Although the scientific evidence does not support a direct pathophysiological link between infrasound and health complaints, there is a body of lay information suggesting a link between infrasound exposure and health effects.

Sounds worrisome, right? Well, in Australia reports of wind farm sickness have been circulating since the mid-'90s and you probably won't be surprised to learn that like so many similar #firstworldproblems it turns out that wind farm sickness is a "nocebo" ... the opposite of a placebo. A placebo actually does nothing but causes people to feel better while a nocebo is the reverse, that is, it actually does nothing but makes people feel worse. The study concludes:

Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms that aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound. Symptom expectations were created by viewing information readily available on the Internet, indicating the potential for symptom expectations to be created outside of the laboratory, in real world settings. Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.

The conclusion of another study by a group at The University of Sydney into similar symptoms reported by people living near wind farms in rural Australia concluded:

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are 'communicated diseases' with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Simon Chapman, professor of Public Health at the School of Public Health at the

University of Sydney, has a great paper online that catalogs the "Symptoms, Diseases and Aberrant Behaviours Attributed to Wind Turbine Exposure," and as of March 13 this year includes 216 examples. My favorite quote from this paper is from an Australian politician who laid it on the line arguing that a nation embracing wind power would see:

A decline in general public health and well-being, including a major increase in cancer, heart disease and immune-deficiency related diseases, entailing illness, suicide and violent crime, adding a further burden on the health system. A decline in standards throughout the educational system, due to a degeneration of learning ability, which depends upon the ability to develop concentration.

And here in America we thought that gay marriage, pot, and entitlement programs were the downfall of civilization. How wrong were we? It was wind farms all along!

Let me bottom line this for you: The people experiencing wind farm sickness were caught up in a mass hysteria driven by misinformation and, most likely, campaigns seeking to weaken and block the wind farm market.

Sadly, the willingness to join in mass hysteria, to believe something is particularly good or particularly bad, and for that belief to affect a large section of the population, is nothing new. In fact, there's a great book on the topic that was first published in 1841 titled "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is a history of popular folly," by Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist.

Mackay's book discusses large scale manias such as "the South Sea Company bubble of 1711-1720, the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719-1720, and the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century," proving that "group think" and mass hysteria is nothing new. Need I cite the recent Internet and housing bubbles?

So, what might have triggered this mass hysteria over wind farms? Well, it turns out that a book railing against wind farms as a health hazard combined with anti-wind farm activism may have been the starting point. Published in 2009 "Wind Turbine Syndrome: A report on a natural experiment" claims:

Wind Turbine Syndrome is not confined to living in the shadow of industrial wind turbines. It turns out people suffer identical symptoms from living close to natural gas compressor stations, industrial sewage pumping stations, industrial air conditioners, and other power plants. In each case, low frequency noise and infrasound appear to be the chief disease-causing culprit—basically, Wind Turbine Syndrome without the turbines.

Add to that an anti-wind farm lobby with a few bucks to spend and you have the perfect mixture to thwart or at least slow down wind farm development.

While most of us would probably not choose to live near a wind farm if only for aesthetic reasons, the idea that "low frequency noise and infrasound appear to be the chief disease-causing culprit" would appear to be discredited and a poor rationale.

Even so, people will oppose something like a wind farm for any reason whatsoever, even to the extent of convincing themselves that a wind farm miles away is making them sick.

Being green is, indeed, not easy and the madness of crowds makes it that much harder.

Gibbs is becalmed in Ventura, Calif. Vent your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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