A wind turbine and petroleum pump, side by side
Image credit: Grant Samms

“How dare you stick your liberal-loving, clean-energy-producing, scenic-view-destroying wind turbines on my prime oil land!”

Or something like that. I think that’s what I was expecting to hear anyway.

For the past year and a half I have been wrestling with an idea that I have come to call energy identity. Having gone to grad school in a state where oil enters into nearly every political and economic conversation, I was sure this green energy/traditional energy dichotomy was a totality. On the right? Frack away. On the left? Wind for days.

So it was a bit of a shock when one of my grad school professors told me that there was a town in western Oklahoma that was styling itself as the “Wind Energy Capitol of Oklahoma.” Not only is western Oklahoma (or, indeed, all of Oklahoma) extremely oil soaked, but extremely conservative. Why would a conservative town in a conservative state that depends heavily on oil and gas revenue embrace something I saw as “green” and “liberal”?

The town in question was Woodward, Oklahoma and it would become the topic of my master’s thesis. The town does indeed have a past dripping in oil. Or, at least in the anticipation of it. When the first well was attempted in 1903, it came up dry. While a producing well wouldn’t been seen until 1956, residents spent those intervening fifty years dedicating their own time and resources into encouraging oil exploration on the surrounding plains. Now, another fifty years in the future, oil is all the more important to the area.

So to hear that the city had embraced the new-fangled wind industry was very surprising. Shouldn’t clean wind energy be rejected by their oil identity? Especially since the area so roundly rejects climate change; an issue that wind turbines are meant to address. In fact, in a Yale study, only 51% of the county’s residents believe climate change exists at all. Only 40% believe that humans are the cause. That’s the lowest level of belief anywhere in the United States.

I spent over a year digging up research, interviewing people, and crawling through archives documenting an expected case of collective identity conflict. And when I asked people how they felt about the turbines that had surrounded their city, the answer I got was, “we’re proud of the fact that we’re the hub of wind energy.”

Wait. That can’t be right. Let’s try someone else. “I love looking at them out there.”

Uh-huh. Anyone else? “I’ve heard us called the Saudi Arabia of wind. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Confusion was my reaction for quite a while. In fact, through my entire study, I only met one person who was expressly against wind power. Everyone else was either ambivalent or saw it with some shade of positivity. My confusion was finally reconciled by one respondent who told me that the town “has always had oil. Now we have wind. We’ve always been an energy town.”

And there it was.

“We’ve always been an energy town.” The city most definitely had an energy identity, but it wasn’t the narrow, method-specific one I had envisioned. Instead, it was one of supplying energy in all of its forms for the entire nation. This concept of being a place that specializes in the extraction of energy generally was one I heard over and over from people. “Climate change may be a falsehood,” they might say, “but Woodward will take all of the oil, natural gas, and wind extraction you could give us.” And they wanted more. I heard from people who wanted solar and geothermal and hydroelectric as well.

There’s a concept in sociology for this whole episode. It’s known as Sense of Place. People don’t just merely live somewhere; they form attachments and relationships with that place. In the case of my confusion, residents of Woodward didn’t see their heritage and identity as oil producing specifically, but rather as energy producing in general. So when you slather the landscape with wind turbines, they are seen as just another type of energy extraction.

What’s interesting about this concept is that it helps to explain a problem in the study of energy known as the social gap. Why is it that so many Americans say they support the expansion of clean energy, but react negatively when installations start to go up near their homes? Historically, the explanation to this has been the NIMBY phenomenon: Not In My BackYard! But NIMBY has a number of problems. Chiefly, it assumes that people are either for or against something based on primarily selfish reasons: if something will affect me negatively, then I don’t want it.

But under this model it is impossible to explain the case of a person I met who no longer uses their hunting lodge because of noisy wind turbines yet supports them for the positive impact they see made in the community. Or the case of a hunter I spoke with who lost a favorite hunting spot to transmission line construction yet still supports wind’s expansion. In both of these cases, individuals supported the very thing that had a sharp negative impact on them personally. But when that impact is in line with the culture of an area the power of Sense of Place shines though.

This pattern of reaction to change, based on familiarity and context, is a powerful way to examine and predict reaction to energy development more broadly. Especially as the world finds itself in the throes of a clean energy boom, understanding how and why people react to development the way they do will be critical to the success of the clean energy revolution. In the future, I’m going to discuss more examples of how energy development and society collide and what can be learned from these cases.

For now, it’s important to realize that we should always hold our own heuristics with suspicion. For me, wind energy is a symbol of the fight against climate change and the environmentally destructive fuels at its core. For many in Woodward, it’s simply a way for their town to stay economically competitive in an ever-changing world. My error was in assuming political leaning was the only data point I needed to understand them.

One thought on “The Epitaph of NIMBY

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