Saving the planet is more important than saving a few birds

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America needs to build a new, greener energy infrastructure, but there’s a problem that’s stopping it. Or maybe I should say fly in the way, because that obstacle is birds – and, more generally, human bias towards the status quo when animal interests are at stake.

We need to be more willing to disturb existing animal habitats when building wind or hydroelectric power. This means, to put it bluntly, that we have to be more willing to kill animals. The installation of wind turbines, for example, often leads to the death of a number of birds. Supporting more wind turbines is not supporting the death of more birds; it’s about supporting a more robust long-term supply of green energy – which would benefit birds (and of course humans too).

Unfortunately, the federal government is making it harder to build new wind turbines and taller buildings. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed new regulatory rules to limit the accidental killing of migratory birds, and these rules would increase the construction costs of many types of structures.

Again, to be clear: I am in favor of increased protection of animal welfare and rights. I support much stricter regulation of factory farms for chickens, for example, even if these regulations result in the total elimination of factory farms. 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 wind turbines.

And it’s not just prohibitive regulations: I support a much more proactive policy agenda to improve animal welfare. This could include subsidies for new “artificial meat” technologies, more research into animal diseases and pandemics, or 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 just about the most damaging way of trying to serve nature and the environment. It’s a way of pretending to care about the birds. It is also an illustration of how so many institutions are so dedicated to protecting entrenched interests – whether in the political or natural world.

Building taller buildings also makes sense. Taller buildings, such as wind turbines, are likely to kill a number of birds that would not otherwise die. Yet greater building density will reduce energy consumption, thus preserving the environment in other, less direct ways – to the eventual benefit of other animals, including humans. If we are prepared to think in terms of trade-offs, this conclusion should be obvious.

And once you start thinking in terms of compromises, more unusual (even extreme) ideas arise. Cats kill several million birds a year, for example. So why not tax domestic cats through a licensing process rather than limiting wind farms? Such a proposal would never be seriously considered, but not because it lacks merit. This is because the focus is on protecting the status quo of various animal dominions, not on benefiting animals (and humans) in the most efficient way possible.

When it comes to birds, we seem to care more about how they die than how many of them (in philosophical parlance, 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 an acceptable way. This status quo is so important that, to protect it, we will slow the movement towards a greener energy supply and a healthier environment.

At least all of this is a harbinger that US policy is failing when it comes to thinking about environmental trade-offs. Our approach to protecting animal welfare is inconsistent. The silver lining is that there is plenty of room for policy improvement. The right mix of choices, especially when it comes to construction, might be better for human and non-human animals.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Left’s NIMBY War on Renewables: Noah Smith

• Solar power wins over energy crisis, wind loses: David Fickling

• The solar farm that nearly destroyed Copake, NY: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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