February 26, 2005

"The menaced landscape"

Here is an excerpt from Robert Macfarlane's essay in today's Guardian about the "wind rush," in which he asks, "Wind farms? You may as well take a knife to a Constable":

'Wild and open spaces, for obvious reasons, are proving most attractive to candy-grab developers, and some of the most extraordinary mountain, moor and coastal landscapes in the British Isles - unique as a Turner or a Spencer - are currently menaced with ill-thought-out development proposals.

'The debate over wind power in Britain suffers, as do so many "countryside" issues, from a crippling polarity. Both sides are guilty of this, but let me take as a relevant example Polly Toynbee, who has voiced in these pages the standard leftwing, pro-wind position.

'Those who resist the spread of wind farms, wrote Toynbee, are Tory-minded "rural nimbyists", worried about the depreciation of their properties, or peddling "sob stories" about the visual pollution of their precious views. As climate change accelerates, these people are fiddling while the world heats up. They are, she ringingly concluded, "small, selfish and short-sighted".

'Toynbee should take a trip to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. There, the energy giant Amec is pushing to establish the world's biggest wind farm. The local community is resisting as best it can. The farm is to be built on the northern part of Mòinteach riabhach Leòdhais, the Brindled Moor of Lewis - a wind-swept, hyena-coloured expanse of bog, waterfall, cliff and scarp. The moor is one of the world's last great peat-bogs, whose ecological significance has been compared to that of the Serengeti. It is under protected status as a UN Ramsar Site, a Special Protection Area, and a Berne Convention Important Bird Area: designations that Amec would steamroll. Its biodiversity and appearance make it the centrepiece of the Hebrides' £60m-a-year tourism industry.

'The moor, in its strange, wild beauty, is also at the core of Lewis's embattled Gaelic self-identity. For centuries, the people of Lewis have worked the moor. As Finlay McLeod of the Lewis protest group has put it: "Language and even a people may go - but the land was immutable, a last and lasting bastion for human sanity and belonging. Now, this itself is seen to be under threat."

'Amec has not, of course, come to Lewis out of the greenness of its conscience. It is there for the money. It hopes, with the help of government subsidies, to make about £68m a year if the farm is built. "Farm", though, is far too homesteadish a word for what will happen if Amec gets the go-ahead. It will erect 234 turbines, each nearly 140 metres high with a blade-span of more than 80 metres. (Imagine 234 structures, each more than twice the height of Nelson's Column, and carrying a propeller with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747.) The energy will be carried off the island by 210 pylons, each 26 metres high, and their adjoining overhead lines. To service the turbines, 104 miles of roads will be built, as well as nine electrical substations. Lewis, it is clear even from these bald statistics, is to be turned not into a wind farm but a wind factory.

'The Lewis development will be irreversible. Wind turbines, it is often forgotten in the organicist rhetoric of the pro-wind farmists, require anchorage. One does not simply plant them like outsize seedlings. Each turbine will be counter-sunk into 726 cubic metres of concrete. In total, 5m cubic metres of rock and 2.5m cubic metres of peat-bog will be excavated. Such statistics render ridiculous Toynbee's claim that if another renewable energy source is found "the wind-turbines can be dismantled and taken away, no harm done".

'The Lewis project is a salutary case study. It reveals that an American-Puritan error - that wild land is waste land, there to be put to industrial use - is rearing its head. Wild places, it has come to be understood, are the "uplands" of civilisation: landscapes that can renew, console, and lift us in unique ways.

'Lewis's situation also reminds us of the spiritual, aesthetic, historical and ecological values that are put at risk when extraordinary landscapes are industrially menaced. These values are harder to measure, and harder to articulate than the hard numerical wattage of the turbines. But they are, unlike the wattage, non-transferable.

'A new study by the German energy agency, the world's leading producer of wind energy, has concluded that wind farms are an inefficient tool in our desperate battle against climate change. But even if this were not the case, certain types of landscape are too valuable to be turned into outdoor power-stations. The Lewis development is only the biggest instance: one grimly thinks of the 150-turbine development in Eisken on Harris, the planned development on the Sleat peninsula on Skye, and the "interconnector" - the 50m-high pylon-line required to carry the power from the wind farms of the Scottish west coast to the southern demand centres: a knife-slash through some of Britain's wildest vistas.'