Today is apparently the day when planning permission is expected to be granted for the massive new windfarm on the Hebridean island of Lewis. I can’t help feeling miserable about this.
I’ve never been to Lewis, though I do love the west coast of Scotland. I don’t live there though, and as such, the appearance or not of a windfarm on the island, and its impact on the landscape, is not much to do with me. Or is it? This is the question: the big question, which greens have not really tackled in any rational or consistent manner.
The Lewis windfarm will be enormous. There will be 234 turbines, each 140 metres high. Each blade alone will be more than 80 metres across. The energy they generate will be carried to the mainland by 210 pylons, each 26 metres high. 104 miles of road and 9 electrical substations will be built to service it all.
And it’s all to be built on wild, remote land – on, in fact, a remarkable and uncommon type of Highland peat bog. The RSPB is against it because of its potential impact on birdlife. The local community, while split, is largely against it too, despite the bribes being paid to them by its developers.
The best writing I have read about the Lewis windfarm is by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is a wonderful writer on landscape, nature, beauty and wildness, and our often complex mental and spiritual relationship to it. The Lewis wind farm – which he calls a wind factory – is to him a desecration. The pointless destruction of a remarkable and irreplaceable place – a destruction that is all the more heartbreaking because it is done in the name of protecting ‘the environment’:
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine that it has been discovered that clean green energy can be provided by burning the great masterpieces of landscape art. Imagine that, to this end, the government has spent £1bn subsidising large companies to evacuate the vaults and hanging spaces of the UK’s national galleries. Imagine that canvases by Constable, Ruskin, Turner (these burn especially well) and Stanley Spencer, and the sculptures of Hepworth and Goldsworthy are being lifted from walls and plinths, and tumbled into furnaces.
The consequent energy yield is not huge at present: perhaps 6% of the national annual need. But the government plans to extend its programme drastically over the next 15 years, burning ever greater numbers of masterpieces. What – this thought experiment asks – would be the reaction of the public and the liberal press to such an energy programme?
There is only one answer. The policy would be deplored as vandalism of the worst kind. Even given the urgency of the global-warming crisis, it would be seen as a deep and irresponsible wounding of British culture – far too great a price to pay for a young industry of uncertain effectiveness.
A parallel dystopia is currently playing itself out in Britain. It is not irreplaceable landscape art that is being hastily sacrificed in the name of clean energy, but irreplaceable landscapes.
I’m heartily in agreement with MacFarlane. The prospect of raping some of our last wild places in order to provide 6% of our energy – profiting large corporations in the process – is not something that anyone daring to call themselves an environmentalist should be supporting. Even if you believe that tackling climate change is such a vital issue that it should override all else, projects like this remain a drop in the ocean in any case, their negative impacts far outweighed by their benefits.
And yet I have had arguments with more than one environmentalist on this subject. I have met people who are members of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (which itself opposes the Lewis wind factory, incidentally) who have told me that those who oppose windfarms are NIMBYs in the pay of the oil industry, whose objections should be ridden roughshod over in the name of sustainability. I have met Green Party members, who claim to be in favour of local democracy, who are apparently not in favour of it for people who live near proposed wind farms.
I have argued with people who have spent years of their lives campaigning against destructive infrastructure projects, from roads to power stations, imposed on local populations without their consent, who somehow believe that it is acceptable to do the same thing, with the same impact, in places like Lewis simply because it is done in the name of ‘the environment’.
This kind of thing, to me, is a real test for the Green movement. If you believe in local democracy, you believe in local democracy. What is happening in Lewis is a travesty of local democracy. If you believe that massive and destructive infrastructure projects should not be imposed on people and places by governments and giant corporations, then that is what you believe – you can’t change your mind about it when a project you like comes along. And you can’t call yourself an environmentalist of any kind if you are willing to countenance the destruction of wild beauty in the name of human development.
Because that’s what this is really about. The Lewis wind factory is not going to prevent climate change. It is, however, going to destroy something unique, and make a lot of money for a lot of developers in the process of doing so. It is a disgrace, and a disgrace which is all the more frightening for being done in the name of ‘sustainability’.
There is nothing sustainable about this, either physically, environmentally, or spiritually. I became an environmentalist, if that’s what I am, precisely because places like this moved me, and because I believed they had an intrinsic value beyond that which humans placed upon them. Those who advocate their destruction in the name of human desires or needs are not ‘environmentalists’ in any way in which I understand the word.
When I walk in the last wild uplands of Europe, I want to see skylarks not turbines. I want there to be places where Man’s footprint is light or non-existent. To see them ravaged in some pathetic attempt to clean up a mess we have made elsewhere is not only heartbreaking, it is pointless. Anyone who cheers today when that planning permission is granted may be many things – but they’re not any shade of green.
By Paul Kingsnorth
15 February 2007
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