A line in the green sand

Essays Published February 1, 2009 in Published in The Guardian, 10th February 2009

Last week, the government published a shortlist of five potential schemes for harnessing the tidal power of the river Severn, in the interests of providing renewable electricity.

It is no secret which of them is favoured in Whitehall. As ever, it is the biggest one: a ten-mile long mega-barrage which would cost £14bn and could generate 5% of Britain ‘s power. This may sound like the kind of thing that environmentalists ought to be unanimously keen on. Yet many say that the damage done by this mammoth piece of technology – destroying mudflats and bird habitats and weakening the famous tidal wave known as the Severn Bore – would outweigh the benefits. A battle is being joined over the fate of Britain’s longest river, and it is highlighting an uncomfortable truth which environmentalists don’t much like dwelling on: some ‘green’ technologies can have distinctly un-green impacts.

Britain is a small, overcrowded and overdeveloped country in which wild places are at a premium. On moors and glens, on tidal rivers and empty beaches, humanity’s impact can be escaped, at least for a time. A mountain, for instance, is an example of what the American poet Robinson Jeffers called ‘the transhuman magnificence.’ It is a place which rises above the detritus of civilisation; where we may go to experience the reality of ‘nature’ and the reality of ourselves. I have had experiences on mountains which have helped me to do just this. They were some of the experiences which led me to become an environmentalist.

When I climb a mountain, then, and find that the detritus of civilisation has followed me, in the form of giant wind turbines, my reaction is not to jump for joy because it is zero-carbon detritus. My reaction is to wonder how anyone could miss the point so spectacularly. And when I hear other environmentalists responding to my concerns with aggressive dismissal – particularly if they have never even visited the mountain in question – I start to get really quite depressed.

Fifteen or so years ago, as an excitable young road protester, I tried to prevent the destruction of beautiful places by new roads. To me, building a motorway through ancient downland, or ploughing a bypass through a watermeadow, was a desecration. To me today, a windfarm on a mountain is a similar desecration. A tidal barrage that turns a great river into a glorified mill stream is a desecration. A Sahara desert carpeted with giant solar panels would be a desecration. The motivation may be different, but the destruction of the wild and the wonderful is the same.

It is de rigeur amongst greens to respond to such heresy by explaining that climate change would be far worse than any of these things. We have, we are told, fewer than 100 months to get to grips with global warming. A few turbines on the odd hillside is a small price to pay for preventing the holocaust that would result from our failure.

Well, maybe. But while renewable energy is a good thing in principle, if renewable schemes end up, like their conventional forbears, as vast, centralised mega-projects which override local feeling and destroy wild landscapes, then they become precisely the kind of projects that people like me cut their teeth trying to stop.

If you don’t understand what makes Helvellyn awe-inspiring or the Severn Bore magnificent or the Lewis peat moors evocative in some real, deep and possibly inexplicable sense, then you will have no idea what I’m talking about. These places will seem, in that case, not to be places at all, but ‘resources’, ripe for human exploitation. ‘What can we get from them?’ will be your response, and you will be asking not about breathing space or spiritual nourishment but about kilowatt hours and energy security.

Environmentalism is surely inspired by a sense of wonder at the richness of the natural world. Without that inspiration, it becomes the kind of bleached, technocratic, office-bound variety so common today, which pushes for the taming of rivers, mountains and wastelands in the name of making the ever-expanding human economy more ‘sustainable’. Desperate to seem grown-up, serious and economically literate, many greens seem to have become terrified of talking about the things which motivated them in the first place. Beauty. Wildness. A connection to the non-human, the remote, the untamed.

The human impact on the world is now so enormous that the civilisation we have built is feeling the shudders. If the world’s governments, with the collusion of some environmentalists, want to pretend that the need to question the underlying values of that civilisation can be staved off with wave machines and wind turbines, that is up to them. But we should understand that, whether we choose to dig up coal and burn it, or carpet the wildlands with barrages and turbines, we are making a statement: this is our world, and we will exploit every inch of it. We want – no, we need – more energy for our televisions, cars and aeroplanes. It is our right. There is no alternative.

There is only one place this attitude can lead: to a collision between civilisation and the biosphere. I don’t see any number of barrages doing much to prevent that. And I would put a lot of money on the winner.

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