Who owns the wind?

As nature's greatest commons powers ever more of our economy, is it time to start asking who owns it?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
27 July 2015

Drumderg wind farm - over the hill from my parents'

If you head out of the back door of my parents’ house, trudge up the dirt drive and past the crumbling farm steading and hop over a gate then you soon find yourself on open hill. Keep climbing and sheep field green becomes steep heather purple. Drag burning thighs and pounding heart upwards, only a couple of hundred more feet, and turn around, and the first thing you usually notice is the wind.

The farm I grew up on straddles the Highland Line and although Balduff, the hill, is only 1394 feet high, it’s among the first that the wind hits as it sweeps across Scotland. At the top is a whirring anemometer, marking a failed application for a wind farm which would have joined its neighbour at Drumderg, dancing on the horizon for those travelling North into Highland Perthshire or up to Glenshee: gates to the Highlands.

Stood at that spot, it’s easy to understand that Scotland’s greatest natural resource is not that which lies beneath the North Sea, but that which soars over it; not that which may be buried beneath the beds of the North Atlantic, but that which makes exploring there quite so perilous. It’s that which ensures an umbrella is useless in Edinburgh; that standing on the cairn on the top of any Munro with your arms outspread feels like you’re flying; and that the mighty Forth Road Bridge can be shut for hours on end. It can take your breath away, sweep you off your feet, and turn rain drops into stinging weapons.

The prevailing Westlin Winds have always played a pivotal role in shaping Scotland, from its landscape to its songs to its prayers. But since the invention of the steamboat - in large part developed in Scotland - nature’s greatest force has had little role in the economy.

That’s starting to change. In 2001, renewables only provided slightly over 10% of Scotland’s electricity, most of which was hydro-power. By 2012, that figure was 39.9% and in 2013, it hit 46.4%. The Scottish government believes it is on target for 100% by 2020. A huge portion of that growth has been, and will be, wind power.

All of this poses a question which goes back to the dawn of human civilisation. By whom is the bounty of the earth owned? To whom should income derived from it be returned?

This is a conundrum most famously faced by oil rich states. Norway has its sovereign wealth fund, paid for from the revenues from its oil: a fund which invests in the broader global economy and which is intended to be kept aside for future generations of Norwegians, once the oil is gone. Alaska similarly has a sovereign wealth fund which invests in stocks and shares, the returns on which are paid equally to all Alaskan citizens as a Basic Income.

There are negative examples too. In much of the Middle East, arguably, rentier states have formed, where governments can survive on the revenues of the oil they sell rather than depending on taxing their people. Because there’s rarely representation without taxation, the region of the world with the most oil is the region of the world with the most dictators.

When our economies depended largely on land, political and literal battles were over chunks of the map. From the Enclosure Acts and the Charter of the Forest in England to imperial conquests and wars across the planet, the arc of history was dominated by who controlled which physical areas. Such debates will, of course, always apply. But their dominance has slipped.

Today, in a global economy which runs on fossil fuels, battles over their control and ownership predominate. From the oil shocks of the early 1970s when OPEC asserted its power in the post-imperial age to the coal miners’ strikes; from the invasion of Iraq to gas in Ukraine; from ISIS’ dependence on black-market-black-gold to sanctions against Iran; from the fight for public control in Venezuela to battles over land in Alberta. One way or another, these must become the struggles of the past. The carbon in the lithosphere cannot be allowed into the atmosphere. The oil rigs must go silent; the coal mines must grow over. Civilisation depends upon it.

In the future, if we are to have a future, our communities will be powered by those things which are more abstract: computer codes, online space, the rays of the sun, the crashing of waves, and gusts of wind.

And in such a context, isn’t it important to ask another question: who owns the wind? Ownership, of course, is a complex concept over which philosophers have wrestled for centuries. But there is another way to ask the question: who has a right to use? Do large companies have a right to erect turbines and allow the force of moving air to turn them?

In some ways, this question seems silly. After all, isn’t wind essentially superabundant? It’s not like using it to turn a turbine stops someone else doing the same, apart perhaps from a near neighbour. Certainly there’s more of the stuff than land to build turbines on. But looked at another way there’s an important principle at stake. What right has anyone to profit from a resource which is the property of everyone and no one? An infinite number of copies of “All You Need Is Love” can be downloaded on iTunes. That doesn’t mean that we get it for free. Why should that principle only apply when businesses provide us with something, but not when they take something? And are they not using their magnificent contraptions to capture something which is perhaps already ours, and certainly not theirs, and sell it back to us?

To make profits, capitalism relies on being given, for free, a huge number of social and natural resources: a labour force of human beings that someone has given birth to, cared for, fed, and educated; languages to communicate which we have all produced together over generations; social conventions developed over centuries.

These things are all commons - just like the atmosphere we are filling with carbon, the woodlands we have chopped down and the seas we have turned from flourishing aquatic forests to greyed out underwater carparks; the rain which feeds the crops we eat and the sunshine they photosynthesise; like the scientific process; the writings of Socrates; Wikipedia; OpenOffice and, we like to think, openDemocracy. Without free access to commons of some sort or another, almost every private company on earth would collapse. Those who claim to create our wealth almost all depend first on being gifted access to the bounty of the earth and of civilisation.

In the past and all over the world to this day, as the Nobel winning economist Eleanor Ostrom catalogued, different types of commons have been and are managed, successfully, in a vast plethora of ways. And in the future, as photographs of Pluto perhaps demonstrate, we are going always to have plenty of new debates about the management of new kinds of commons. And one of those is the wind: a force of nature which we must tap if civilisation is to endure.

I would prefer that, as in the countries who are most successful in powering themselves with the rush of air across their land, the firms which capture the UK’s wind and use it to turn the magnets which create our electricity be democratically owned. But however we arrange control of the machinery, it is important for our understanding of the true operation of our society that we recognise that the electricity flowing from the turbines is the product of a collision between technology which grows from hundreds of years of labour and the learning of scientists and engineers; workers who were once raised and cared for applying that knowledge, and a force of nature over which only someone with extraordinary delusions of grandeur can truly claim ownership.

Sometimes, privatisation is a process of turning things which are in the public sector over to shareholders or individuals. But often in history, it has involved the enclosure of commons - people taking something which belonged to everyone and no one, putting fences round it, and stopping others from using it.

The shape of our future will therefore depend in part on how we deal with the new commons which emerge; which start to become more and more vital to our lives. The wind is but one example. But it’s one which helps blow away some of the extraordinary lies we are told about wealth creation in our society - and, standing at the top of Balduff, it’s the one which hits you in the face.

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