Pylons: Protestors Ignore The Public Good

Pylon protestors ignore the public good, writes Alan Myler

Supporters of the transmission network projects claim that the upgrade is necessary to increase the supply to historically under-supplied parts of the country, to enable energy intensive industry. Eirgrid also claims that a flexible high capacity modern network is an essential foundation for the generation, transmission and export of renewable energy, which will be of growing importance as fossil fuels become less attractive.

Much of the pushback against the network upgrade project has come from a grassroots level, with local groups energetic in raising public awareness of perceived negatives of locating industrial scale infrastructure in rural communities. These concerns include health issues from proximity to strong electro-magnetic radiation from the power lines, mixed with concerns for preservation of natural landscapes and the negative potential impact on local tourism.

Underlying these issues is a fear of financial loss due to a drop in property values. This basket of concerns has proven very effective in generating widespread public hostility to the projects. Eirgrid has not done itself any favours in its high-handed approach to public consultation or in putting across a convincing counter-narrative to win local communities to the benefits of the project.

The nature of the opposition to pylons is firmly rooted in a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality, which opposes any encroachment on private space and private property values. This reactionary mindset is out to defend what it holds, to preserve the value of property assets. There is no wider public good recognised in this worldview, no concern for society as a whole, no concern for the broader economy or for ecological concerns such as climate change or peak oil. However, there is also a fundamental contradiction. These opponents of encroachment into their private space are part of a wider industrial system, which provides modern life in the first world with the benefits of technology, energy, food, clothing, transport, shelter, healthcare etc.

All of these involve the externalisation of social and ecological costs. While the anti-pylon protesters in Waterford, Meath and Mayo are vocal in their opposition to degradation of their local environs, they are more than content to engage in lifestyles which require the offloading of pollution onto other communities and other environments in distant parts of the world. This mé féin worldview is entirely inconsistent with international solidarity and should not be given sustenance by the pandering of the Left.

Real compromises are necessary to balance the needs of individual citizens against economic development and the public good. Even in a socialised economy, trade-offs will always need to be made between individual rights and the needs of wider society.

At the core of the pylon question, from a Left perspective, is the issue of the public good as represented by the State, and the value of economic development directed via the state through semi-state companies. The pylon project is an example of strategic public infrastructure developed via public investment to enable economic development. It is necessary for the efficient development of a renewable energy sector and for decentralised industrialisation in areas where the legacy transmission supply is creaking at the edges.

The serious Left, alongside progressive social democratic and green currents, recognises the value to the socialist project of demonstrating viable alternatives to the rule of unfettered capitalism, alternatives which are managed by the state on behalf of the interest of wider society. This is the essence of the debate; can and should the State have a role in directing the economy and are the commercial semi-state companies fit for that purpose?

The Left agrees on the need for long term central planning of the economy, and on the advantages of this compared to the chaos of the free market. The mature decision, then, is to support state-directed economic development, as well as ensuring that semi-state companies remain in public ownership. By holding the public good ahead of private property concerns, the Left educate individuals and communities on the collective benefits of public ownership and public operation of the essential infrastructure. The pylon project offers the opportunity to move away from oppositionism and towards engagement with progressive currents in defence of the public good.

The author is a member of the Workers’ Party (Meath Branch).