The Monaliadth posts have got me thinking about our responsibilities to the natural world and the need to make better sense of these thoughts. Apologies, but I use blog posts to help me do this! A long a provocative post follows!
My personal approach to wild land is built on John Muir’s philosophy. But Muir was living in a very different world. Is his philosophy really up to the demands of the modern world?
First off, I should make it clear that I believe Climate Change to be a major problem. We consume too much in fossil fuels. Even those who don’t accept Change itself have to appreciate the finite nature of our resources. We may now be at Peak Oil or we might be in a few years. But whether we have peaked or not it seems to be the case that we simply cannot increase oil production any more. Yet there seem to be few limits to the rise in consumption as China, South America India and next Africa expand their economies. Business fantasies about clean coal but we have no significant carbon capture plant anywhere in the world. Nuclear development has never properly accounted for its true costs of development and operation. Its safety problems have not been solved and have you ever looked at the nations who have the biggest uranium resources? They are hardly stable.
Consumption is key. We should be limiting consumption. Renewable energy is important but in reality it too rests within a complicated commercial world. Renewable energy is not free. In terms or you and me we would all get more benefit if expenditure on renewables was put into better home standards and measures to make housing more energy efficient. But we are too wedded to markets.
The author Jonathan Frantzen addresses many of these issues in his new novel Freedom. One of his leading characters â€” an environmentalist â€” points out that renewable companies like to show pictures of nice landscapes that are enhanced by one or two pretty looking turbines. And to be fair we have all seen landscapes like that. But, as Frantzen points out, these brochures and images are myths. Nobody ever gives an artist impression of how many turbines would need to be on that hillside if we are to meet renewable targets.
And here is the first key point to absorb.
The Scottish Government has set a target for renewable production. Over this coming decade they are planning for 80% of electricity consumption to be met by renewables.
Fantastic. But 80% of what. 80% of predicted energy need is what we are talking about, not 80% of reduced consumption.
In September Alex Salmond said:
“Scotland is blessed with abundant natural energy sources, particularly in our seas, where Scotland is estimated to have a quarter of Europe’s potential wind and tidal energy capacity and a tenth of its wave resource. We are already on the path to a low carbon economy – Scotland gets nearly a quarter of it electricity from green sources.
“Scotland is ideally-placed to help lead the renewables revolution and taking account of the levels of planned investment over the next decade, I believe it is now time to aim higher and to go further.
“Recent work by Scottish Enterprise has shown the huge potential for employment in the renewable industry, with up to 28,000 direct jobs being created to service the Scottish, UK and worldwide markets for offshore wind turbines. It has also been estimated that 60,000 new green jobs could be created by 2020 in low carbon industries
“Strong leadership is needed across government and industry to attract the investment to deliver these jobs, so the Scottish Government is today raising the renewable generation target for 2020 to 80 per cent.
This is an economic development argument and not an environmental one. It may be legitimate to some extent. But it recognises the reality that we chose to deal with these issues within a capitalist construct.
The point about capitalism is that it has no limits. It strives to do what it strives to do which is why regulation is so important. But our approach to regulation is in itself an economic response. Remember it is only a few years ago that we were being told by business that the best regulation for banking and financial services involved less regulation. Politicians bought this because the dream â€” of always getting something for nothing â€” was just too powerful.
Our whole approach to renewables and the cutting of carbon is market based.
Think of carbon credits, designed to create a new kind of commodity market. The carbon market has hardly been a great success but we are told this is because the initial credits were not high enough, that the allocation of credits were too tight. Only the Greens have been clear that this carbon market is nuts. It will never work.
But if carbon credits work at a European (or wider) level what about closer to home?
What about Feed-in Tariffs? They must be good? Well, they are to some extent but just think about what they are. Electricity producers must guarantee to purchase micro generated power at an artificial price over a contracted time regardless of the cost. This is in effect a business tax. It might be a good tax but we are lulled into feeling good about it because we thing there is a personal benefit to ourselves. Of course, I’m not against these tariffs and I’m considering using them myself. But the whole scheme is artificial. We cannot mention the tax word these days. On Channel 4 news the other night they had to explain the concept of Income Tax and fairness. To oldies like me this is laughable but in reality income tax has been seen as evil since 1979!
We are attempting to create another pseudo market mechanism.
The expansion of wind power is undoubtedly market based. Landowners get an income for land that is pretty much useless for anything expect deer of grouse. Land that was an amenity, a status symbol now has greater utility. As someone pointed out to me the other day if there had been sea owners to benefit from development we would have invested much more in tidal power. But the problem with tides is that there is not such a direct benefactor. I can see how you raise money on markets for the exploitation of land. We won’t exploit the sea until a market mechanism has been developed to match technological innovation.
Now this is not really meant to be a rant but a considered view.
We will need more renewable power. Much of it will come from wind even if we should be equally focussed on cutting consumption. But we do need to come back to John Muir.
Is it right that we should protect wild land and wilderness? Should a mark of the human race be that it is advanced enough to leave well alone?
Well, yes. While Muir was living in a different age his philosophy still holds true.
But how many people properly appreciate the real level of challenges?
Consider the Monaliadth ridge that we have been talking about this week. Who knows it is there and who knows how beautiful it is? Only a handful of us! The irony is that if there was a road along the top of it there would probably be outrage at the proposal!
The real challenge of all of this stuff is for us to find ways of repackaging Muir’s message for a new generation. Do I know how to do it? No. But I am sure that it needs to be done.
VickiT has commented on my Chilly Wind post:
“Sometimes I feel as though Iâ€™m the only person in the Highlands who finds wind turbines beautiful and awe-inspiring. Far from detracting from the landscape, I feel they add to its remote, austere beauty. Few experiences have compared with walking through the Novar wind farm above Evanton, for making me feel small in the big wide world”.
I have often felt the same way. But Vicki is romancing about something of a scale that is way out of line with what is planned. Ultimately this is a political issue and one which needs some political education.
I have put all of this in a global perspective. I don’t believe a market approach will do much more than give us a more efficient set of industries and profits. I’m not against profit or business. I have one myself. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. But things go beyond even this in Scotland. What I have issue with here is an economic view of economic and nation development that is being foisted on us by the Scottish government. They are adopting a far more extreme position than many of the European leaders in Western Europe.
This year I drove along French autoroutes from the South West to Paris. Those of you who have been in this part of the world will know that it is very flat and windy. I drove happily past mile after mile of wind turbines sitting alongside agricultural land. (Let’s leave the issue of agribusiness for now!). The weather was gorgeous. The sun shone. The fields were vivid yellow for sunflowers and ripening grain. The turbine did indeed enhance the whole feel of the environment. If I had driven South I would have seen the foothills of the Pyrenees festooned with gorgeous, slow moving windmills. But if I’d ventured into the mountain habitat would I have found them. No? The French system of government â€” and philosophy of life â€” simply wouldn’t put up with it even outside of the Pyrenees National Park. The same balance can be seen everywhere.
The Scottish government is not planning this kind of French development it is looking to do something else.
Campaigns and arguments must focus again on the simple Muir principles of what is right and what is our responsibility. Campaigns need to somehow get over the scale of development. Images of pretty turbines need to be countered with images of many, many turbines. Campaigns need to focus on the real world and not these devious ‘targets’. Why are we planning to increase consumption? Why re we prepared to waste billions on underpinning pseudo markets? Why are we prepared to see Green industries be created just to put more money in the pockets of those who already have too much!
So I will wish the campaigners all the best, so long as they don’t get too loony. We do need wind turbines and the position as laid out by the John Muir Trust in their objections is just about right.
This is a political issue. We might laugh about Donald Trump and his barmy plans but I reckon Alex Salmond would be more at home dinner with him than with Cameron Macneish â€” actually, I’ve had dinner with Cameron and I might prefer dinner with Trump 🙂
But to be serious for a minute, we cannot ignore the politics. Campaign with the Lib Dems (yes even them) and with Labour in Scotland. Get the Muir message out into the mainstream of Scottish and UK political debate. At the very least, Danny Alexander should be encouraged to show solidarity with his neighbours who do not have National Park protection.
Good campaigns not only spread positive messages, they se tout to hold people to account.
80% of Scottish energy from renewables within a decade! That is one hell of a lot of windmills and dams! Perhaps even us romantics should start to think about what this looks like!
Rant off !!!