Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The aesthetics of clean energy

My old employer, Maine Audubon, is a fairly conservative and patrician organization. It's not a strong leader on climate issues: its conservation programs are a lot more preoccupied with piping plovers (cute birds that just happen to live on the same beaches as the organization's plutocrat "major donors") than with ending Maine's self-destructive addiction to fossil fuels.

So I was encouraged and a little surprised to see, on a recent visit a few months ago, a large new array of solar panels planted in the meadows of Maine Audubon's headquarters.

Knowing what I know of Maine Audubon's constituency and its neighbors in the blue-blooded suburb of Falmouth,  I presume that this new addition to the meadows of Gilsland Farm didn't come without some controversy. Lots of Maine Audubon's members (and a number of its staff) frankly express opinions that wind farms and solar installations are ugly. They wouldn't disagree that climate change exists, or that we need to do something about it – they'd just prefer that clean energy be built someplace else, where they don't have to look at it.

Maine's community of environmentalists is strongly aligned with the back-to-the-land movement. And in the back-to-the-land narrative, rural Maine was a new frontier where a new, sustainable and allegedly self-sufficient society could be built far away from the problems of the cities.

There's a fatal flaw in this narrative, though. Rural back-to-the-landers were, and still are, cripplingly addicted to oil and private automobiles. As a rule, they don't like to be reminded of this contradiction.

I think that this is the key to what so many rural "environmentalists" find distasteful about wind farms and large-scale solar installations. What upsets them is the reminder, amidst pastoral landscapes, that we are living through a climate catastrophe.

But for those of us who will live with the consequences of that catastrophe, the reminder is overdue – and these small token efforts to avert it are welcome. 

Related: Exporting pollution to Dixie