Environmentalists fought against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fearing it would spoil one of the last pristine places and that the rigs and access roads would hurt caribou. These are very close to the arguments against filling places like the Flint Hills with turbines.
Don’t be fooled by wind power’s ‘green’ image
Environmentalists urge farmers and ranchers in windy regions to let
energy companies build rows of huge turbines for feeding our nation’s
electricity demands. The environmentalists argue that clean wind power
will boost rural economies as well as reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
But some residents in areas targeted for wind “farms” fear that new
high-tension lines and access roads crisscrossing prairie will destroy
its spacious character and threaten finicky and increasingly rare
Ranchers should not be prevented from putting turbines on their land.
But they also should not feel shamed or pressured to do so by energy
corporations or misguided environmentalists.
There is now a push to build wind turbines in Kansas’ Flint Hills, the
only remaining American prairie of any meaningful size, and a place
that has retained a distinctive ranch culture. But there are plenty of
other places to put turbines.
And reducing national carbon emissions is not really the responsibility
of ranchers or farmers there or anywhere else. As long as most
Americans can imagine that somewhere, someone is taking care of the
problem, that someone is generating cleaner power somewhere far away,
we will be no closer to a real solution. The solution is a thrifty,
Environmentalists fought against oil drilling in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, fearing it would spoil one of the last pristine places
and that the rigs and access roads would hurt caribou. These are very
close to the arguments against filling places like the Flint Hills with
We should not let wind power’s “green” image trick us into abandoning
the principle that some places and some species should be saved for
their own sakes. We should reject the argument that everything must be
“useful,” that every place and every aspect of life should be
The problem of fossil fuel consumption belongs to each community and
each person. Rural people contribute, of course, every time they drive
a truck or flip on a light switch. But this is negligible compared with
the impact of urban areas.
You might argue that rural communities are in a unique position to help
us, and that they will suffer the effects of climate change as much as
anyone. But the truth is that simply adding new energy sources, even
green ones, without a firm plan to reduce, or at least cap, our total
energy production will not reduce national carbon emissions.
Let’s turn the question around. Why wouldn’t each of us want to take a
few simple steps to reduce our energy use and save places like the
Flint Hills and the arctic refuge? Why even consider spoiling a new
place or investing another penny in massive new projects when the
opportunities for huge energy savings are all around us?
As for wind turbines’ supposed economic infusion into rural
communities: Who will own the machines? Who will own the power lines?
Who will set the prices? Who will own the leases? Who will take most of
the profits? Wind power will be just like every other commodity that
cities extract from rural areas: something acquired at rock-bottom
prices and sold back expensively.
A final danger is that environmentalists will place too much faith in
solutions that are big, centralized and high-tech. Large projects such
as dams, nuclear plants and wind farms go on the cheapest land and
among the most powerless people. When we shift the extraction to some
place out of sight and out of mind, we can ignore unpleasant
consequences and our own responsibilities as consumers.
For behavior to change, we humans need immediate, visible consequences.
For an ethic of conservation to take root, energy consumption must be
more costly and inconvenient. Only then will wind power be anything
more than another cheap commodity.
If the ranchers and farmers courted by wind companies care about
climate change and pollution, they will tell urban environmentalists to
first put turbines and solar panels in their own back yards.
David Van Tassel is a scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan.,
and a member of the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle.
David Van Tassel
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