Comment: Saving planet matters more than saving a few birds

Why are we concerned about turbines killing birds and not about the neighborhood cats?

By Tyler Cowen / Bloomberg Opinion

America needs to build a new and greener energy infrastructure, yet there is a problem standing in the way. Or maybe I should say flying in the way, because that obstacle is birds; and, more generally, the human bias toward the status quo when animal interests are at stake.

We have to be more willing to disrupt current animal habitats when building wind or hydroelectric power. That means, to put it bluntly, that we have to be more willing to kill animals. Erecting wind turbines, for instance, often leads to the death of some number of birds. To favor more wind turbines is not to support the death of more birds; it is to support a more robust long-term supply of green energy; which would benefit birds (and of course humans too).

Unfortunately, the federal government is in the process of making it harder to build new wind turbines and taller buildings. The Fish and Wildlife Service has put forward new regulatory rules to limit the accidental killing of migratory birds, and those rules would raise the costs for building many kinds of structures.

Again, to be clear: I favor increased protection for animal welfare and animal rights. I support much stricter regulation of factory farms for chickens, for example, even if those regulations result in the elimination of factory farms altogether. I would much rather shut down or at least improve factory farms, which torture and then slaughter hundreds of millions of chickens a year, than make it harder to build more wind turbines.

And it’s not just prohibitive regulations: I favor a much more proactive policy agenda to boost the welfare of animals. That could include subsidies to new “artificial meat” technologies, more research into animal diseases and pandemics, even research into the possibility of bringing back extinct animals through genetic engineering. The United States should also have more consistent enforcement of animal cruelty laws.

Protecting birds by limiting wind power is about the most damaging way to try to serve nature and the environment. It is a way of pretending to care about birds. It is also an illustration of how so many institutions are so dedicated to protecting entrenched interests; whether they are in the political or natural world.

Constructing more tall buildings also makes sense. Taller buildings, like wind turbines, are likely to kill some number of birds who wouldn’t die otherwise. Yet greater construction density will reduce energy consumption, thereby preserving the environment in other, less direct ways; to the eventual benefit of other animals, again including humans. If we are willing to think in terms of trade-offs, this conclusion should be obvious.

And once you start to think in terms of trade-offs, more unusual (indeed extreme) ideas present themselves. Cats kill many millions of birds a year, for example. So why not tax house cats through a licensing process rather than limit wind farms? Such a proposal would never seriously be considered, but not because it lacks merit. It’s because the focus is on protecting the status quo of various animal dominions, not benefiting animals (and humans) in the most effective way possible.

When it comes to birds, we seem to care more about how they die than how many of them die (in philosophical language, I would prefer the alternative philosophy of “bird consequentialism.”) Our cats are allowed to kill them, but we humans are not; or rather, we are, but only in acceptable ways. This status quo is so important that, to protect it, we will slow movement toward a greener energy supply and a healthier environment.

If nothing else, all this is a warning sign that U.S. politics are failing when it comes to thinking about environmental trade-offs. Our approach to protecting animal welfare is incoherent. The silver lining is that there is lots of room to improve policy. The right combination of choices, especially when it comes to building, could be better for both human and non-human animals.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of economics at George Mason University, he hosts the Marginal Revolution blog and is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World.”

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