A windfarm is not the answer
Mega-technologies in the wilderness are answering the wrong questions
The Guardian , 31st July 2009
How would you imagine an environmentalist would react when presented with the following proposition? A power company plans to build a new development on a stretch of wild moorland. It will be nearly seven miles long, and consist of 150 industrial structures, each made of steel and mounted on hundreds of tons of concrete. They will be almost 500 feet high, and will be accompanied by 73 miles of road. The development will require the quarrying of 1.5 million cubic metres of rock and the cutting out and dumping of up to a million cubic metres of peat.
The answer is that if you are like many modern environmentalists you will support this project without question. You will dismiss anyone who opposes it as a ‘nimby’ who is probably in the pay of the coal or nuclear lobby, and you will campaign for thousands more like it to be built all over the country.
The project is, of course, a windfarm – or, if we want to be less Orwellian in our terminology, a wind power station. This particular project is planned for Shetland, but there are many like it in the pipeline elsewhere. The government wants to see 10,000 new turbines across Britain by 2020 (though it is apparently not prepared to support the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in order to do it). Climate and energy secretary Ed Miliband says there is a need to ‘grow the market’ for industrial wind energy, and to aid this growth he is offering £1 billion in new loans to developers and the reworking of the ‘antiquated’ (ie democratic) planning system, to allow local views on such developments to be overridden.
Does this sound very ‘green’ to you? To me it sounds like a society fixated on growth and material progress going about its destructive business in much the same way as ever, only without the carbon. It sounds like a society whose answer to everything is more and bigger technology; a society so cut off from nature that it believes industrialising a mountain is a ‘sustainable’ thing to do.
It also sounds like an environmental movement in danger of losing its way. The support from much of the green movement for industrial wind developments in wild places seems to me a symbol of a lack of connectedness to an actual, physical environment. A development like that of Shetland is not an example of ‘sustainable energy’: it is the next phase of the endless human advance upon the non-human world – the very thing that the environmental movement came into being to resist.
Currently campaigners in Cumbria are fighting a proposed wind development near the mountain known as Saddleback, a great, brown hulk of a peak which Wordsworth preferred to call by its Celtic name, Blencathra. Wordsworth thought the wild uplands a place of epiphany. Other early environmentalists, from Thoreau to Emerson, knew too of the power of mountain and moor to provide a clear-eyed and humbling view of humanity’s true place in the world.
Many of today’s environmentalists will scoff if you speak to them of such things. Their concerns are couched in the language of business and technology – gigawatt hours, parts per million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers and ‘sustainable development’. The green movement has become fixated on a single activity: reducing carbon emissions. It’s understandable: what the science tells us about the coming impacts of climate change is terrifying. But if climate change poses a huge question, we are responding with the wrong answers.
The question we should be asking is ‘what kind of society should we live in’? The question we are actually asking is ‘how do we power this one without producing carbon’? This is not to say that renewable energy technologies are bad. We need to stop burning fossil fuels fast, and wind power can make a contribution if the turbines are sensitively sited and on an appropriate scale.
But the challenge posed by climate change is not really about technology. It is not even about carbon. It is about a society which has systematically hewed its inhabitants away from the natural world, and turned that natural world into a ‘resource’ for human use. It is about a society which imagines it operates in a bubble; that it can keep ‘growing’ in a finite world, forever. It is about a society which places no value on the wild and the non-human, but sees everything from a moorland to a rainforest as a ‘resource’ for humankind.
When we clamour for more wind power stations in the wilderness, we perhaps think we are helping to slow this machine, but we are actually helping to power it. We are still promoting, even if unintentionally, the familiar mantras of industrial civilisation: growth can continue forever; wild places don’t matter; technological gigantism will save us; our lives can go on much as they always have.
In the end, climate change presents us with a simple question: are we going to live within our means, or are we, like so many civilisations before us, going to collapse? In that question lies a radical challenge to the structure, direction and mythologies of industrial society. All the technology in the world will not answer it.