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.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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).

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "Being green and the madness of crowds" was originally published by Network World.

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