Wind turbines never fail to raise a few hackles in the UK. Why is that? Perhaps partly because those steel poles have become totem poles in the national imagination – but emblematic of different ideas for different people. Depending on your perspective, they could represent a perverse eco-agenda to industrialise the British land- and seascapes, or a more ecologically-secure future, or maybe a job opportunity.
The National Trust has recently spoken out against wind farms, calling them a “public menace”*. American businessman Donald Trump is throwing a vitriolic tantrum about the possibility of them blocking the view from his new golf course in Scotland. Robert Mendick and Edward Malnick at the Sunday Telegraph recently portrayed the wind industry as an evil operation intent on gobbling up government subsidies through a horrifying network of lobbyists, to the detriment of the humble taxpayer.
At least one thing is clear: decisions about energy will always be tough. If we want to continue to live energy-intensive lifestyles, we’re going to have to produce the stuff somewhere. But if you want to become a smart participant in the energy debate, you’ll need to work out what questions to ask – and what questions other people asked before they delivered their verdicts. The way you frame the problem will constrain the “solutions” you come up with.
Trump’s framing of the problem is “how can I maximise the profit I make from my golf-course investment? And incidentally, how can I most effectively wind up those liberal interfering do-gooders who are obviously jealous of my hard-won success in life?” The questions he isn’t asking are just as interesting – like, say, “how will future generations enjoy this golf course if the sea rises up and swamps it?”
The National Trust’s problem is outlined in its mission statement: amongst other aims, it wants to “look after places of historic interest or natural beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation”. I’m pretty sympathetic to this agenda, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The NT recognises climate change as a big threat to that mission, and is doing a lot to reduce its own emissions, which is great. It needs to be very careful, however, in the way it uses its influential brand to shape the public debate about renewable energy in the UK – especially at a time where the green agenda is coming under fire from grumpy Tory backbenchers (not to mention Cabinet members who ought to be toeing the coalition line).
Mendick and Malnick’s problem is, at first sight, that of stopping government interference in what should be a free market. But read a little closer, and you see the problem becomes “how can we keep power in the hands of the already-powerful, and wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy?” Because the present situation is not even close to a free market in energy. The influence of the fossil fuel industry on UK politics dwarfs the puny political power of the fledgling renewables companies. Fossil fuel groups work hard to maintain the status quo and keep government subsidies flowing the way they’ve flowed for decades. The folly here is to ignore some of the biggest challenges to the status quo: climate change; resource shortages; and hubris.
Here are a few alternative questions. Like, how much energy is it ok for the UK to consume? How can we produce enough energy for the UK while doing our bit to keep the world from crossing “planetary boundaries” – the thresholds which lie between a safe operating space for humanity, and a dangerous loss to the biosphere’s resilience and ability to keep supporting human needs and wants. You might also ask how we can do this while supporting human flourishing. Which begs the question: what is it about the world that we want to sustain?
*Clarification (15th Feb): The comments were from the NT’s renegade chairman, not the organisation itself. The latter has said its chairman’s comments “don’t chime” with the NT’s position on wind farms.