Let’s say Yale has decided to erect a windmill in the middle of the Branford courtyard. Instead of buying renewable energy certificates that support wind turbines in Oklahoma, the University would have taken responsibility for its energy use right here in New Haven. Such a move would not be altogether unprecedented: Last month, Connecticut College announced that it was considering erecting a wind turbine on campus to generate electrical power. As anyone who’s walked up Science Hill lately knows, New Haven’s relatively high urban wind speeds — between 11.25 and 17.92 mph on average — mean wind turbine technology could put the Elm City’s blustery weather to good use.
Yale’s power plant, spewing pollution into a city already burdened by substandard air quality and growing asthma rates, would be slowly phased out by the construction of wind in all 12 college courtyards, Swing Space and Old Campus. Since wind speed varies with altitude, future plans might include the construction of a line of wind turbines down Science Hill from the Divinity School to Commons to generate most of Yale’s energy.
The administration’s decision would leave environmentalist groups applauding and students and faculty members in an uproar. The Student Taskforce for Environmental Protection would support the proposal, along with the Yale College Democrats and the Yale Political Union’s liberal and progressive parties. The Yale College Republicans and YPU’s Coalition of the Right would be deeply opposed and might even join ranks with the Yale Bird Watching Society to plan a protest on behalf of the endangered Piping Plover, which, as a low-altitude flier, would make a tasty snack for wind turbines.
Yale certainly has the funding: The 22.9 percent return on its endowment this year ought to cover the enormous investment required to outfit the campus in wind power. Yale should regain most of this money through long-term energy savings, leaving funds for other eco-friendly projects. While oil and natural gas prices will always fluctuate — and are likely to rise steeply because of President Bush’s foreign policy and China’s “eco-race” to pollute the earth faster than the United States — the wind won’t stop blowing.
Despite Yale’s indisputable windiness, however, most Yale students would be deeply opposed to the idea — and for good reason: Environmentalism, past a certain point, becomes impractical and ridiculous. STEP advises us to turn off the lights when we leave a room, but why not replace all the slate roofs with solar panels? STEP advises us to put fewer clothes in the drier, or couldn’t we just put up clotheslines in courtyards? Or turn off the heat and wear polar suits? Or get rid of computers and write everything on recycled newspaper? Or erect wind turbines?
Or a more practical option for the aspiring environmentalist: Pay extra tuition so Yale can buy more sustainable energy certificates. Go ahead, write the check.
Environmentalism is a great idea, up to a point. Let’s run our buses on used cooking oil and recycle our red plastic cups, but let’s also look to nuclear energy and expanded oil drilling in the United States to take care of our short-term energy crisis. Renewable energy may feel good initially, but a million wind turbines in Yellowstone or Yosemite would be ugly, expensive and incredibly inefficient. Look up the statistics — wind turbines and solar panels don’t produce nearly the power you thought. And if you don’t want wind turbines in Yosemite or the Branford courtyard, do you want them covering the state of Oklahoma? The self-righteousness of the environmentalist movement tries to make the conflict black and white, to sharply delineate between those who support the environment and those who gleefully turn it into a stinking cesspool. But even those who claim to be “environmentalists” are willing to take the fight only so far.
Of course Yale isn’t going to put up windmills: not in Branford, not on Old Campus, not on top of Kline Biology Tower — but if they did, you’d have a right to be pissed off. So let’s stop supporting equally ridiculous and impractical ideas elsewhere. If we dispense with the self-righteousness and base our opinions and decisions on a broader view of what is important — before the environmentalists decide that because humans are the cause of pollution, we ought to just get rid of them — we might find that most people, regardless of party affiliation, care about the Earth and are willing to move toward solutions that make sense.
Katherine Booth is a junior in Branford College.