Humans, of course, typically live in groups. Economic and social cooperation produce benefits–such as greater wealth–and they produce burdens, which would include things such as the risk to one’s life that may be necessary to defend that increased wealth.
One of the perennial questions of human living is just how we distribute these benefits and burdens fairly. Even in a relatively small social group, such as a family, there are questions like who has to clean the bathroom and who has to carry out the trash. These are burdens of living together.
All of us know that there is no free lunch, that there is always some cost to pay or burden to bear to bring about the benefits that we desire. So fairness demands that we try to distribute the burdens in some morally acceptable way. Fairness requires that either everybody bears the burdens to about the same degree or that there is a proportionality between the benefits one receives and the burdens one has to bear.
The military draft during the War in Vietnam, for example, was criticized because of its unfairness in terms of benefits and burdens. The benefits of the hoped-for military success were seen as going to corporate America, while the burdens–the fighting, the miserable conditions, and the considerable risk of injury and death–fell disproportionately upon the urban and rural poor, those who could not afford to go to college and thereby receive a 2S deferment or whose family did not have the pull to get one placed in a National Guard unit.
Because of that unfair distribution of burdens we moved first to a lottery and then to a volunteer military. Now the burdens fall only on those who choose to take them on. This is based on a widespread moral belief that if one takes on a burden freely and voluntarily, then carrying that burden is not an injustice.
Right now in Ellis County we are facing another version of the question about who carries out the trash. If wind turbines are built, mounted on 400-foot towers, and tied into the electric power grid, it will be because of a massive amount of social cooperation.
And there may be benefits of this cooperation. First and foremost, there will be more electricity to be sent through the grid to power air conditioners and personal computers and a host of other things. This would benefit all of us, although the share for any one of us will be small.
Reportedly there will also be financial benefits to those on whose land the wind turbines and towers will be placed, and there will be other financial benefits–tax subsidies and profits–to the Spanish company that will own the project.
Just as there are benefits, there are burdens of this social enterprise. The noise and inaudible vibrations (sometimes called “infrasonic noise” or “low frequency noise”) pose considerable health risks, and there is some danger from lightning strikes and high winds. These are the health and safety burdens.
Many people, though not all, regard the placement of metallic machinery in otherwise pastoral and agricultural areas as ugly. A second burden, then, is the aesthetic.
Probably because of the health, safety, and aesthetic concerns, people typically do not like to live near turbines. And, of course, when fewer people want to buy a piece of property, the value of that property in a free-market economy goes down. So another burden is the decline of property values.
But notice that there is a difference between the way the benefits get spread around and the way the burdens do. The electricity, which is the benefit, becomes available, basically, to everybody on the grid, which is just about everybody. The lease payments go to some landowners. And then the profits go to Iberdrola, the Spanish company building the project, and to whoever its owners may be.
The burdens, however, fall on those who live quite near the wind turbines. The health and safety risks decline with distance until they are can really be safely ignored if the turbines are two or more miles from one’s residence.
The aesthetic burdens stretch a little further, though they are less intense to begin with. Turbines 400 feet above the high plains grasslands will be easily visible five miles away. In fact, the Spearville turbines are visible in Dodge City, 17 miles away, but at that distance they are pretty small on the horizon.
The decline in property values will depend, of course, on the use of the property and on the features of a piece of property that make it attractive to people. Some property is valued because of, for example, its ability to supply grass for cattle, while other property–residential property–is valued for its healthfulness, safety, and aesthetic attractiveness. The property value of lands leased for power generation will probably go up a bit, the value of grasslands or agricultural lands will probably not be affected, and the value will decline for property whose selling points include peace and quiet and the safety of country living.
The burdens of this wind turbine project, then, do not fall equally upon all members of society, nor do they fall in rough proportion as the benefits upon those who do stand to gain from the project.
Furthermore, those upon whom the burdens fall are not an all-volunteer army. No one who built or bought residential property in the area west of Hays had any idea that they were possibly taking on the burden of health and safety risks and so on.
Thus, this project is unfair. If the project is built as it is presently proposed, the non-leasing people who live near the project will bear the greatest share of the burdens without sharing in the benefits in a similar proportion.
Fortunately, there are a couple of remedies possible. The industrial wind project could be moved farther south and west so that it does not lay the burdens on the unfortunate families who would bear the burden of living right near the currently planned turbines. And then those who would still live near re-sited turbines could be fairly compensated by having their property purchased at market value. Then if there are people who buy that property and choose to live near the turbines, they would be accepting the burdens voluntarily.
Somebody has to take out the trash, and fairness requires that it be those who benefit most in the first place or those who freely choose to carry it out.
By Paul Faber
14 June 2007
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