What on Earth is sacred anymore?
Since European settlement of North America, plundering nature for what we want has been far-reaching and thorough. Few places have escaped or been off limits: ancient forests, wetlands, prairies, ocean bottoms, rivers – the full array of our natural heritage. Except for remnants set aside as parks, forests, or preserves, or areas that stayed beyond our reach, the original natural character of this country is largely gone or transformed.
We are in a different era now, when we no longer have the rapacious luxury of taking all we need, the future be damned. We have a new consciousness about our fragile, finite natural world, and a new conscientiousness about how we should be treating it. As we proceed, there is also need for reparation: binding up wounds we inflicted, undoing damage done in the heedless stampede to prosperity, changing old habits that continue to hurt. The biggest reparation of all, no doubt the most difficult to achieve, is dealing with the pervasive, lethal by-product of the way we live: global climate change due to burning fossil fuels.
It is an urgent matter, most feel, and with that sense we, logically, have rushed to renewable alternatives – solar, wind, hydro and others. But in that rush, we seem to have embraced all means and manner of renewable generation as equal, and equally benign to the environment. As it unfolds, I have the uneasy feeling that we are embarking on a new and different kind of nature-plundering, sanctioned by the urgency itself. Specifically, I refer to one kind of electrical generation in Vermont: “big wind,” the tag given to industrial-scale wind turbines going up in ever-increasing numbers on our mountaintops. Unfortunately, it is an issue that has divided the very people and groups who have traditionally worked together to protect Vermont’s environment, but are now pitted against one another.
Years ago, when wind turbines (considerably shorter and smaller than the current models) were beginning to make their appearance here, some of us asked how many mountaintops would be affected and the industry experts told us “just a few,” as most of Vermont’s terrain was unsuitable for wind power, for one reason or another. We asked for maps that showed where the turbines would be built, but there were no maps. The installations went on, until now we have more than “just a few,” mammoth ones at that, with many more at various stages in the works. Still there are no maps. In the end – if there is an end – how many wind towers on how many ridges will we have? Will we just keep adding more as the population grows and demands increase, to reach at any cost and by any means the goal of “90 percent renewables by 2050?” What happens after that?
No one seems to know, or if they do, they aren’t saying. With this in mind, I cannot regard big wind as an appropriate means for obtaining renewable energy. I see it instead as incremental, relentless, and irreversible development of our ridgelines, landscapes inseparable from our identity as a state and people.
I am not pointing an accusatory finger, however, as I am complicit in what is happening. I, as most are, am hung up on the horns of this energy dilemma. I may use less energy than I once did, but it is mostly thanks to technology, not my altruism or anything I have done to change my way of life. I still hop in my (small) car on a whim, think nothing of going four miles into town and back to buy a loaf of bread we could easily do without. I light up my house (with LED and fluorescent bulbs) whenever I feel the need. I keep every room toasty (wood, efficient heat pump, efficient propane furnace) in winter and cool in summer. I have my electronic gadgets and devices to stay in touch, be entertained, pay my bills. I still take long trips by car and airplane, for vacations or to experience new places, bagging them as if they were trophies. I bike or walk for fun or fitness, not because I have to. Now, in my seventh decade, I have gotten used to my creature comforts, do not have the will or strength to live a more energy-Spartan life.
As I look around, I don’t think I’m all that different from anyone else, well-intentioned and concerned though we all may be. We are in a moral bind, as individuals in a highly industrialized society, looking desperately for solutions. Big wind comes along to contribute to the fable that we can continue having our low-kilowatt cake and eat it, too.
I propose a different approach, a cultural change of heart that acknowledges the urgency yet lets us keep our mountaintops free of more big wind. Go back to 1973, the year of the oil embargo and ensuing fuel shortage in this country, the so-called “energy crisis.” Then, energy conservation and use-reduction were not just feel-good practices, left up to voluntary action of the individual, but imposed on us collectively by law, as a nation, in the national interest. Gasoline was rationed (some of us remember the long lines, the alternate days for pumping), speed limits on interstate highways lowered, fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles raised. Go back to World War II, when in this crisis the country rationed food, clothing, metals and gasoline (even driving for pleasure and automobile racing were illegal).
In times of crises, we have had to change. Now, many of us believe, we are in another crisis, not of war, not of fuel shortages, but of the very climate that controls life on the planet. If we were to designate climate change as a national (indeed, international) crisis, then we, the human occupants of this land, would have to change our ways. Let us be the ones to sacrifice, instead of asking the land to do it once again for us, as it always has. Let us find a way, as the old Yankee saying goes, to “make do, or do without.”
I fear we are on a course to losing our mountaintops, one by one, until we will be left with only a few untouched, to be reminders of what once was, token displays in the Museum of Vermont. But our mountains, revered ancients of our region, deserve more than this. They are worthy of our respect, even worship, rising beyond what we want from them.
What are mountains for? It depends on how you see them.
Charles W. Johnson is a former Vermont state naturalist.
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