If there is one thing we can count on in rural Scotland, it is power cuts. In my corner of Fife, they come most often between Christmas and the turn of the year, plunging us into a regimen of coal fires and candlelight, a wild wind howling in the eaves while the children flit from room to room with torches, excited by a darkness that – because it cannot be extinguished with the simple flick of a switch – has come to seem wonderfully primeval.
This Hogmanay, the winds were particularly wild: ripping tiles from the roof, tugging down power lines and, on our hill, lifting anything that we had forgotten to bring in or batten down and carrying it off across our neighbour’s fields into what passes here for oblivion.
None of this comes as a surprise, of course. For us, winter power outages and high winds are regular events; more or less expected, oddly exhilarating periods of local mayhem. This year, however, a new feature was added to our disaster stories, as a number of the wind turbines that now cover much of southern Scotland exploded into flames, or shattered to pieces, throwing shiny, sub-aeronautic debris in all directions.
No doubt this will become a standard feature of our winter storm narratives, as more and more out-of-scale, badly sited turbines are thrown up by landowners eager to cash in on the Feed-in Tariffs.
For those of us who relish wild nature’s contempt for hubris, it may even become a regular source of grim entertainment; a reminder that, when we ignore all sense of scale and appropriateness, we pay the price. Yet we should also be concerned about the serious financial flaws in the current system – which siphons money from the poorest energy consumers into the accounts of accomplished subsidy-milkers such as big landowners – and that a renewable energy “vision” based almost exclusively on massive wind turbines (as it is in Scotland) is not only damaging to the environment but also blinds us to the potential that could be derived from more effective, appropriate-scale, less environmentally damaging technologies.
For now, those in power argue that we are only doing what we must, in order to “keep the lights burning”. Maybe I am being cynical but I can’t help thinking that keeping the lights burning is just shorthand for Business As Usual, with all the squandering of energy and abuse of the land that this has so far entailed. Yet I do think a change is necessary – and I think it will come.
As much as anything, how we generate energy must involve what Gary Snyder called “wild etiquette”, a spontaneous, instinctive code of not merely respecting but honouring and celebrating “the rest of creation”. Maybe we need to sit in the dark more often and learn to live by different kinds of light in order to see that what we are doing now is simply a continuation of the lazy and cynical mindset that got us here in the first place.
Energy generation is intricately linked with all the issues that people have been protesting about recently, from the corrupt banking system to extravagant agricultural subsidies – and it is becoming clear that we cannot carry forward corrupt and outmoded financial and design paradigms and still expect meaningful change. Yet meaningful change can be won, if we are prepared to earn it.
As Snyder notes: “A scaled-down, balanced technology is possible, if cut loose from the cancer of exploitation/heavy industry/perpetual growth . . . Electricity for Los Angeles is not exactly energy. As Blake said, ‘Energy is eternal delight’.”
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