|May 11, 2004:
Environmentalists urge farmers and ranchers in windy regions
to let energy companies build rows of huge turbines for feeding
our nation’s electricity demands. The environmentalists
argue that clean wind power will boost rural economies as well
as reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
But some residents in areas targeted for wind “farms”
fear that new high-tension lines and access roads crisscrossing
prairie will destroy its spacious character and threaten finicky
and increasingly rare grassland birds.
Ranchers should not be prevented from putting turbines on
their land. But they also should not feel shamed or pressured
to do so by energy corporations or misguided environmentalists.
There is now a push to build wind turbines in Kansas’
Flint Hills, the only remaining American prairie of any meaningful
size, and a place that has retained a distinctive ranch culture.
But there are plenty of other places to put turbines.
And reducing national carbon emissions is not really the
responsibility of ranchers or farmers there or anywhere else.
As long as most Americans can imagine that somewhere, someone
is taking care of the problem, that someone is generating
cleaner power somewhere far away, we will be no closer to
a real solution. The solution is a thrifty, energy-frugal
Environmentalists fought against oil drilling in the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge, fearing it would spoil one of the
last pristine places and that the rigs and access roads would
hurt caribou. These are very close to the arguments against
filling places like the Flint Hills with turbines.
We should not let wind power’s “green”
image trick us into abandoning the principle that some places
and some species should be saved for their own sakes. We should
reject the argument that everything must be “useful,”
that every place and every aspect of life should be commercialized.
The problem of fossil fuel consumption belongs to each community
and each person. Rural people contribute, of course, every
time they drive a truck or flip on a light switch. But this
is negligible compared with the impact of urban areas.
You might argue that rural communities are in a unique position
to help us, and that they will suffer the effects of climate
change as much as anyone. But the truth is that simply adding
new energy sources, even green ones, without a firm plan to
reduce, or at least cap, our total energy production will
not reduce national carbon emissions.
Let’s turn the question around. Why wouldn’t
each of us want to take a few simple steps to reduce our energy
use and save places like the Flint Hills and the actic refuge?
Why even consider spoiling a new place or investing another
penny in massive new projects when the opportunities for huge
energy savings are all around us?
As for wind turbines’ supposed economic infusion into
rural communities: Who will own the machines? Who will own
the power lines? Who will set the prices? Who will own the
leases? Who will take most of the profits? Wind power will
be just like every other commodity that cities extract from
rural areas: something acquired at rock-bottom prices and
sold back expensively.
A final danger is that environmentalists will place too much
faith in solutions that are big, centralized and high-tech.
Large projects such as dams, nuclear plants and wind farms
go on the cheapest land and among the most powerless people.
When we shift the extraction to some place out of sight and
out of mind, we can ignore unpleasant consequences and our
own responsibilities as consumers.
For behavior to change, we humans need immediate, visible
consequences. For an ethic of conservation to take root, energy
consumption must be more costly and inconvenient. Only then
will wind power be anything more than another cheap commodity.
If the ranchers and farmers courted by wind companies care
about climate change and pollution, they will tell urban environmentalists
to first put turbines and solar panels in their own back yards.