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In the battle between ecology and energy, who has the real power?

What is to be done? With wind power, above all, we have entered the realm of the illogical: the environmental solution has become the environmental problem.

ROBIN Smith’s big, wonderful book, The Making Of Scotland, has a small entry describing the tiny Midlothian hamlet of Leadburn. “Located 4km south of Penicuik at a height of over 260m,” it says, “east of the wastes of Auchencorth Moss.”

This is perfectly true, in a technical sense, and it is also technically true to talk of the Moss in terms of “wastes”. Bleak barely covers it. If you are driving on the road from Edinburgh to Peebles you will see more than enough wind-blown moorland to satisfy any forlorn poet or suicidal sheep. But to describe Auchencorth in terms of useless, desolate lands is to miss all of the point.

I lived with a view of “the wastes” until just last week. True, the wind blew hard when it had a mind, and that was most of the time. True, the winter snows – “at a height of over 260m”, remember – pinned us in for a couple of happy days, once or twice. True, the failure of city boys to grasp the concept of “outdoors” tends always to colour opinions.

Yet at Leadburn I saw the heron – suddenly “our” heron – standing vigil over the burn in the hope that trout were as stupid as ever. With Edinburgh’s lights on the horizon, I saw geese migrate, making that perfect notch in the evening sky. I saw red-legged... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

ROBIN Smith’s big, wonderful book, The Making Of Scotland, has a small entry describing the tiny Midlothian hamlet of Leadburn. “Located 4km south of Penicuik at a height of over 260m,” it says, “east of the wastes of Auchencorth Moss.”

This is perfectly true, in a technical sense, and it is also technically true to talk of the Moss in terms of “wastes”. Bleak barely covers it. If you are driving on the road from Edinburgh to Peebles you will see more than enough wind-blown moorland to satisfy any forlorn poet or suicidal sheep. But to describe Auchencorth in terms of useless, desolate lands is to miss all of the point.

I lived with a view of “the wastes” until just last week. True, the wind blew hard when it had a mind, and that was most of the time. True, the winter snows – “at a height of over 260m”, remember – pinned us in for a couple of happy days, once or twice. True, the failure of city boys to grasp the concept of “outdoors” tends always to colour opinions.

Yet at Leadburn I saw the heron – suddenly “our” heron – standing vigil over the burn in the hope that trout were as stupid as ever. With Edinburgh’s lights on the horizon, I saw geese migrate, making that perfect notch in the evening sky. I saw red-legged partridge promenade foppishly around the house, not a care in the world, and kestrels in their lazy gyre, and insolent rabbits making a quick salad of everything my wife ever planted.

Nothing special for real country people, in other words, but Auchencorth was a revelation for this suburbanite. I found myself besotted, for the first time in a long time, with those big, shimmering Scottish skies. I discovered that I liked the way the wind turned the grasses on the Moss like a comb going through fine hair. All other things in life aside, it was perfect. Then we heard that someone else had a liking for those breezes.

Like many people, I have a soft spot for windmills. Don Quixote, postcards from Greek islands, Dutch paintings, English country scenes: what’s to dislike? If you add the fact that wind is these days cheaper than water, and that the world has need of non-toxic energy, power derived from the pure air could seem like magic. Travel on the A68 over Soutra on a summer’s evening and watch the silvery turbine blades spin gently above the skyline: all of it looks beautiful and right.

Then hear a campaigner explain that the next generation, planned for Auchencorth, and the Isle of Lewis, and a dozen other places, will be “twice the height” – this turns out to be the simple truth – of the Scott Monument. That, I would say, is industrially high. I doubt it will do Lewis, the Moss, or our heron many favours.

Then hear about the threat, irreversible, to our peatlands and moorlands. Last week Scottish Natural Heritage reported that, of 144 onshore windfarm applications in the last five years, three-quarters had been deemed acceptable. Which is to say that SNH has found few threats, thus far, to “heritage-sensitive” tracts of Scotland.

Then understand the quandary: according to SNH, the supply of “problem-free” locations for windfarms in Scotland is diminishing fast. No great harm to the landscape or its contents been done thus far, or so the environmental agency says, but the day for hard choices is fast approaching: ecology or energy?

I don’t have a quick answer, or an easy answer. One of the more subtle opponents of the Auchencorth development explained to me once that a wind turbine is anything but friendly, at least where the environment is concerned. The energy expense and carbon use of construction vastly outweighs, so he said, the alleged benefits. If the proposal is therefore to industrialise the Moss and blight those vistas permanently, I might be persuaded to oppose.

After all, if you add the threat to birdlife, the destruction of scenic beauty, and the Scottish Executive’s flagrant abuse of local democracy in its persistent overthrowing of local planning decisions, then you probably have a case. “Renewables” no longer feel quite so cuddly, nor quite so green, when they are screwing with your local environment. On the Isle of Lewis, meanwhile, they talk of very large industrial concerns planting factories, or the equivalent, on irreplaceable peatlands. Who voted for that?

I sympathise with the grievance. I agree. As a recently departed resident of Leadburn, I certainly reject the stupid acronym, “Nimby”. Who, of sound mind, would not say, in response to the latest variety of crap: “Not in my backyard”? It is the rational human response. Wind turbines that would quail Quixote at his boldest could also alter the essence of Scotland forever.

Then, struggling to think this through, I have a problem. What shall we do instead?

Last week, while SNH reported, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management placed its own science on the anvil of the dilemma. If Britain is to return to nuclear power, it said, “a repository” must be constructed, deep underground, just to contain the waste from that famously non-polluting energy source. At £10 billion per midden, this did not assess nuclear as cheap, precisely, but the proposal was certainly logical: like all self-respecting mammals, we should bury our by-products.

But do I want a very deep hole full of long-life poison next door to my family? Nein, danke. Do I even want another Torness just up the road, while I live in hope? Nuclear – its proponents must forgive the precis – is horrifically expensive and horrifically dangerous when things go wrong.

So do I want a towering turbine scarring my landscape? No thanks. So do I then think that switching off the odd light and avoiding the power shower will save the world? Some of these rhetorical questions are meant to be serious: that wasn’t one of them. What is to be done?

How do we retrieve the remains of an abused environment yet still keep ourselves in the style we now take for granted? Authentic Greens would have us do less of almost everything, from motoring and package holidays to leaving appliances on “standby”. Nice thought, but it won’t happen. Politicians on the inside meanwhile have targets for renewables – 18% for Scotland by 2010 – but that plan implies a monstrous forest of wind turbines, or a punitive attitude towards personal habits. Such a strategy will garner few votes, I suspect.

What is to be done? With wind power, above all, we have entered the realm of the illogical: the environmental solution has become the environmental problem. But what would I wish for beloved Auchencorth Moss instead? Open-cast mining? A modest nuclear plant? A biomass plantation of alien weeds for burning? My luck amounts to the fact that I am not a politician.


Blair and the Blairites are not being dishonest, just this once, when they talk of energy policy. Leave aside the politics of $75-a-barrel oil and Scotland’s national rights: the stuff is diminishing. Our gas arrives at the end of a very long pipe siphoned off by all the other Europeans when their weather turns chilly, despite all treaties. It is also a pipe controlled ultimately by Vladimir Putin, that great Russian democrat. This is known as “insecurity”. The argument over wind power and nuclear power, pro and contra, is deeply serious.

I could switch off this laptop – a hideous assault on the planet in every respect – and keep my opinion to myself. Like most white-collar people, however, I do not have that option. The planet is energy-hungry. India, China, Brazil and others have become voracious, even insatiable, and quite right, too. Their turn has come. But our government is half-right also: the correct part is that we must settle for a “mix” that will please nobody much, or place our society in distress. The mistaken portion, overlooked by our politicians, is the failure to demand justice.

Only one country consumes a quarter of the planet’s energy output. Only one nation state wages wars to secure its supplies – and let nobody tell you otherwise – of the diminishing fossil fuels. Before Leadburn’s moors become a vista of giant turbines, before one of Scotland’s five (of 12) tracts is confirmed as a “geologically sustainable” site for a nuclear cess-pit, couldn’t someone ask America to contain its greed? Just for once?

 


Source: http://www.sundayherald.com...

AUG 6 2006
https://www.windaction.org/posts/3838-in-the-battle-between-ecology-and-energy-who-has-the-real-power
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