In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: May 2010

Shades of Green? The Ethical Dimensions of Cape Wind

In light of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and the many events occurring on the Brandeis University campus during Earth Week including an International Business School-sponsored discussion focused on clean energy, "Clean and Green": Business, Policy or Slogan?, this month’s Ethical Inquiry considers environment-related issues from an array of perspectives.Clean and Green event poster

The recent Ethical Inquiry “Who Bears Responsibility for the Environment?” (February, 2010) called into question what role the individual versus the institution plays in remedying the environmental issues that impact us as individuals, nations, and as a planet.

In this installment, we focus on a case study: The Cape Wind project, a wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Some of the ethical questions posed by the variety of stakeholders in the long-standing battle over this project are explored.

Going “clean and green” may not be as clear and straightforward a process as some would have us believe.

A Brief History of Cape Wind

Cape Wind is a proposed offshore wind farm to be built on Nantucket Sound. Its goal is to produce enough clean energy to power most of Cape Cod and the Islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard). 

The wind farm was first proposed in 2001, and has faced an uphill battle ever since. A series of challenges have been launched by opponents who are concerned about the natural habitat, the view, the costs, and public safety, as well as by Native American tribes who say the area is a sacred ground.

Cape Wind logoOn the other hand, a handful of state governors (including those of Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) urged the project's approval, saying that its rejection would establish a precedent that would make it hard for them to pursue offshore projects of their own. 

A ruling by the federal government on April 28, 2010 cleared the final regulatory hurdle. Legal challenges are still expected.

Opponents of Cape Wind, led by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, have many concerns about the wind farm. They range from environmental issues, to economic and public safety worries, to concerns about marring the natural beauty of the view from the Cape and Islands.

Their homepage currently frames their perspective, stating “Native American tribes, commercial fishermen, environmental groups, towns, and others will file suit to bar the industrial wind project from Nantucket Sound. A wide ranging coalition of stakeholder groups will immediately file suit in response to Secretary Salazar's ruling to approve the Cape Wind project. This fight is not over!”

The View on Disturbing the View

How important are aesthetic considerations? Do other considerations justifiably outweigh aesthetics?

“Not in my back yard,” or NIMBY, has been used since the 1980s to describe opposition by area residents to a proposal for development close to them. There is a NIMBY sentiment among some Cape Cod and Islands residents concerned about any obstruction to the views from oceanfront vacation homes and tourist destinations based in the region.

Cape Wind photo illustration from www.saveoursound.orgOpponents say the now-pristine view from the south side of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard would be marred by an offshore wind farm. They are upset that the beauty of that natural horizon would instead be covered with the white lines of 130 turbines. They estimate that, from Hyannis, more than 40 percent of the horizon would be filled with turbines: “Occupying 25 square miles, an area the size of Manhattan, the Cape Wind project would be highly visible both day and night from Cape Cod and from the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The plant would dramatically alter the natural landscape and negatively impact several historic landmarks.” These opponents clearly place a value on the view and are ardent about having the historical landmarks preserved.

Cape Wind asserts that the turbines will appear no more than a half inch tall from land, and do little to disturb the vista. They have created daytime visual simulations. The issue is also addressed in the US Army Corps of Engineers Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association makes the case in its official organizational position on Cape Wind that the benefits of fossil fuel independence for the many outweigh the aesthetic considerations of the few:

“The choice we face goes far beyond local aesthetics. Will we choose to continue our dependence on polluting fossil fuels from the Middle East? Will we choose a future plagued by international conflict, terrorism and climate change implicit in fossil fuel dependence? Will we choose to forgo a golden opportunity to provide clean energy and good jobs for the region? The real question is whether we will choose a compromised future or the tremendous potential of sustainable prosperity.”

The Environmental Perspective

Even when there is agreement that environmental issues should be taken into consideration, how do we balance different environmental impacts? What about the local impact (e.g. wildlife at the site of a project) vs. the global benefits (e.g. reduction of fossil fuel emissions)?

Environmental concerns over building a wind farm on Nantucket Sound include

Opponents have also expressed concern over tens of thousands of gallons of oil that will be contained on an electrical supply platform within the wind farm. Even noted environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in a now-famous 2005 New York Times op-ed, warned of the threat of “40,000 gallons of potentially hazardous oil.”

Cape Wind cites a series of environmental studies in response to these concerns. They boast that

“Wind farms like Cape Wind are clean because they produce electricity from the wind and do not produce any air pollution. Yet wind farms provide even greater environmental benefits because their operations reduce the amount of fossil fuel power that needs to be generated, thereby reducing the amount of pollution that goes into the air … Cape Wind would reduce by several thousand tons per year air pollutants that harm human health…[and] reduce about 734,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in New England, a greenhouse gas causing climate change.” (Cape Wind website FAQ page.)

Supporters of the project, led by the non-profit grassroots organization Clean Power Now, cite the project’s ability to displace oil and gas consumption with clean, locally produced energy and allege the project is the best option.

Does the potential threat of 40,000 gallons of oil out weight the 734,000 tons of carbon dioxide or the reliance on foreign oil, or do these benefits out weight the potential risks?

The Economic Perspective

Should some people have to face economic hardship for the “greater good” of the environment? Even if this “greater good” may not offset personal economic losses?

Are the risks of real-estate devaluation, loss of employment, and reduced tourism as a result of Cape Wind worth taking in light of the potential for new jobs and energy savings?

For Paul E. Mills, a tribal elder of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (which has historically opposed the project), stated in an interview after Secretary Salazar’s announcement that his feelings about the project come down to finances:

“Personally, I am not opposed to the project,” he said. “My apprehension about it is purely economic. Given the fact that I am right now retired—not voluntarily, I just can’t find a job—my whole thing right now is whether it is going to affect the cost of electricity...If it can reduce the cost of electricity, then I’m all for it.”

economic tradeoffsMany charge that going green is an extremely costly endeavor and “environmentalists maximize the dangers of global warming while pretending we can conquer it at virtually no cost.” As the Cape Wind case reveals, these costs go beyond the construction of the project.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound claims Cape Wind will be too costly for consumers. Their concerns include the initial building price tag of $1 billion, the money taxpayers will spend to fund tax credits, a predicted loss in property values, tourism dollars and fishery income.  

Cape Wind rebuts these concerns, claiming energy costs will stabilize by reducing dependence on foreign oil, economic benefits from environmental, geological and oceanographic studies, jobs will be created, and new tourists will be drawn to the region.

At the same time, in October 2003 the Beacon Hill Institute published Blowing in the Wind: Offshore Wind and the Cape Cod Economy [PDF] in which they found that there would be a small decline in tourism, causing the loss of 1,173 to 2,533 jobs and that according to homeowners, property values would fall by 4.6% or by $1.35 billion.

And while some jobs may be lost, this new industry will bring new jobs. Pam Solo, president, Civil Society Institute, said:  "Cape Wind will bring jobs and manufacturing, as well as genuinely clean energy.  A new offshore wind industry in America is launched today with this decision, which is a huge boost for the U.S. on the regional and national levels. This is an enormous accomplishment and is as much a victory for citizen participation as it is for clean energy."

Even Tom King, president, National Grid, immediately congratulated Cape Wind on the approval of its project and stated:

“National Grid is a long-time advocate for the development of renewable energy sources as a means to mitigate climate change, increase domestic energy supplies, and benefit customers and communities by providing a cleaner, more secure energy future. That is why we have been working to negotiate a power purchase agreement with Cape Wind. Our negotiations are going very well and we are optimistic that we will have more to say about our progress in the near future.”electric meter

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, prominent “new” environmentalists, and founders of the Breakthrough Institute, cite that the project will “prove the viability of wind as a good source of energy to American investors, politicians and the public, and will be crucial to establishing America's leadership in the fast-growing wind energy industry, where Europe threatens to surpass us.” They believe that environmental movement must achieve a new social contract for the postindustrial economy that increases financial security and stimulates an equitable and accelerated transition to the clean energy economy. More on their perspective: "Arctic Battle Should Move to Hyannis Port" (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/21/05). For the “New Environmentalism" perspective of Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club see "A New Environmentalism: Could a new green ethic provide common cause in our deeply divided nation?" (Carl Pope, in The American Prospect, 9/18/05).

Does our competitive edge as a nation supersede the concerns of local fishermen who are nearly unanimously against the project, concerned that much of their annual income comes from fishing grounds that would be disturbed, causing their livelihoods to disappear? Is it right to allow people’s livelihoods, historically dependent upon fishing a specific location, to be undermined by new industry? Conversely, would that new wind-generating industry bring new jobs into an area?

Sacred Land: Tribal Objections

How do we balance respect for religious traditions and cultural heritage with the needs of the society?

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, along with its sister tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have over the past year become key players in the opposition to Cape Wind.

Tribal officials say the Cape Wind site covers long-submerged land where their ancestors may once have lived, and therefore sacred burial grounds. They have cited concerns about the project’s impacts on traditional sunrise ceremonies held along the coast and on the potential for archaeological resources under Horseshoe Shoals, which thousands of years ago was dry land.

The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes asked the National Park Service that Nantucket Sound be given cultural heritage site status, claiming that the project would obscure the view from an ancient burial ground. The application was considered by the National Park Service's Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places and Nantucket Sound was deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.Aquinnah

However Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stated in his announcement that “After careful consideration of all the concerns expressed during the lengthy review and consultation process and thorough analyses of the many factors involved, I find that the public benefits weigh in favor of approving the Cape Wind project at the Horseshoe Shoal location.”

This references the classic utilitarian perspective, asserting that the good of the many outweighs the religious and cultural considerations of the few. According to classic utilitarianism, we should aim to maximize happiness for all people, including future generations.

Some believe that environmental problems demand a new, more forward-looking notion of moral responsibility, which anticipates and responds to the long-term, multi-generational consequences of our actions.

Are people who are motivated to protect resources beyond those that directly impact their pockets, their neighborhoods, and their livelihood inspired by obligation rooted in the Divine? By belief in a social contract to protect the environment or a responsibility to future generations? Or are they driven solely by pure self-serving interests?

For Vernon Lopez, Chief Silent Drum of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, news of the federal government’s approval this week of 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound was disappointing. “It has always been sacred to us out there, and I hate to see it disturbed,” Mr. Lopez said.

Former tribal council vice chairman David L. Pocknett Sr.’s strong support for alternative energy projects is trumped only by his concern that his ancestors may be buried under the sea floor out on Horseshoe Shoals, less than six miles off Mashpee’s shoreline.

However others, such as the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, posit that while the Constitution grants us all freedom to practice religion as we wish, it is not at “the expense of the Constitutional rights of others, nor at the expense of the fundamental rule of law in our land.”

The Religious Perspective

Are we justifying Cape Wind as a way of dominating nature for our own benefit? Or does one have a moral imperative to contain our actions and find alternate ways to preserve our natural resources?

CNN’s coverage of the recent developments allowed us to see some of the people’s perspective on the ground. For instance they interviewed the Rev. William Eddy, a lifelong resident of the Cape and island, who

“…loves everything about the Cape: the iconic shingled homes, the Norman Rockwell small towns and the pristine beauty of the sea. Most of all, the Episcopal priest loves the magnificent winds. And he thinks it's a moral imperative to harness those winds. He's told his congregation just that – and watched some walk out on his sermon. ‘Father, we all would've stayed if you had just preached about Darfur,’ one member told him.

Eddy is unbowed. ‘It's a no-brainer,’ he said of the wind farm. ‘I keep on wondering what's going to happen down there in Washington: Are they going to crucify this project on a cross of coal? Or are they going to stand up for what they've said they're going to stand up for?’”

See more of their interview and related coverage.

Many religions believe that God created nature for human beings to master it (Hoffman & Sandelands, 2005)[]; while others like Reverend Eddy believe that the Bible actually makes a case against solely using nature for human’s immediate gain. 

human responsibiltyIn his 1967 essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis", the historian Lynn White argues that the main strands of Judeo-Christian thinking had encouraged the overexploitation of nature by maintaining the superiority of humans over all other forms of life on earth, and by depicting all of nature as created for the use of humans. See “History, Lynn White, and Ecotheology” by Elspeth Whitney in Environmental Ethics 15: 151-169 (1993).  For more on Environmental Ethics, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A Potential Threat to Public Safety?

Should we risk the lives of a few in order to secure long term environmental benefits for not only today but for generations of tomorrow?

Opponents believe that the proximity of the wind farm's location to ferry lines and shipping channels pose a threat to public safety. The Passenger Vessel Association and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have raised safety concerns, fearing that the turbines could interfere with air traffic control, and impede rescue efforts in the event of a boating accident.offshore wind turbines

Cape Wind counters that large boats avoid the area because of its shallow water and that recreational boaters should have plenty of room to navigate in the 600 yards between turbines.

Considering the recent mining tragedy in West Virginia and the news of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, isn’t Cape Wind a dramatic step forward in the region's effort to break its dependence on dirty fossil fuels that put the lives of workers at risk every day, and negatively impact the health of the population globally?

Groups such as American Lung Association have come out to support Cape Wind because of their “mission to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease clearly relates to the Cape Wind project.” In 2003 a "State of the Air" report by the Association revealed that Barnstable County (the county in which the wind farm would be built) had the worst air quality in the State of Massachusetts due to pollution from America’s fleet of fossil fuel power plants. And in the 2010 report Barnstable County was named an at-risk group.


The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts is an eye-opening case study into the ethics surrounding investing in technologies of and for our future, revealing the battle between the future and the present; the growing pains of social change that comes with climate change.

A 2006 survey by the Civil Society Institute revealed that 81% of Massachusetts residents, including 61% of Cape Cod residents, favor Cape Cape Cod sun and beachWind - showing a strong majority of the Cape and Islands support the project - and that 90% of Bay State residents want Massachusetts to be "a national leader in using cleaner and renewable energy on a large scale by moving ahead with offshore wind power and other alternative-energy initiatives." ("New Poll: 81% of state, 61% of Cape favor Cape Wind" Cape Cod Today, 6/7/06)

At the same time, as is evident in the perspectives above, Cape Wind and projects like it, are bound to bring dissenters who are impassioned and make compelling arguments.

“Going green” sounds simple. But the ethical questions raised by one green energy project reveal many shades of gray.

Suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding the Cape Wind project or clean/green energy?  Let us know:

This  installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was written by Stephanie Sofer '09.