|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,
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
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.