Tilting at Windmills
When the Price is Worth Paying
by Bill McKibben
The following essay was first published in the New York Times on February 16, 2005. Reprinted with permission of the author.
JOHNSBURG, N.Y. – Finally, American environmentalists have a chance to get it right about wind power.
News broke this week of plans for the first big wind energy installation in the Adirondack Park. Ten towering turbines would sprout on the site of an old garnet mine in this tiny town. They’d be visible from the ski slopes at nearby Gore Mountain, and they’d be visible too from the deep wild of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, one of the loneliest and most beautiful parts of New York’s “forever wild” Adirondack Forest Preserve, the model for a century of American conservation. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a place better suited to illustrate the controversy that wind power is causing in this country.
I know the area well; I’ve lived most of my adult life in this part of the world, and I’ve skied and backpacked through the old mine and the woods around it, searched for (and found) lost hunters, encountered its bears and coyotes and fisher, sat on its anonymous peaks and knolls and watched the hawks circle beneath. In fact, this very wilderness—these yellow birches, the bear that left that berry-filled pile of scat, those particular loons laughing on that particular lake—led me to fall in love with the world outdoors.
Which is precisely why I hope those wind turbines rise on the skyline, and as soon as possible.
The planet faces many environmental challenges, but none of them come close to global warming. In the past month new studies have shown that the trigger point for severe climate change may be closer than previously thought, and the possible consequences even more severe. Just to slow the pace of this rapid warming will require every possible response, from more efficient cars to fewer sprawling suburbs to more trains to—well, the list is pretty well endless.
But wind power is one key component. Around the world it’s the fastest-growing source of electric generation, mostly because the technology, unlike solar power, has evolved to the point where its cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The Danes already generate nearly a quarter of their power from the breeze; the Germans and the Spaniards and the British are rapidly heading in the same direction.
In America, however, the growth of wind power has been slower. Partly that’s because the Bush administration’s stance on climate change has meant scant government support for renewable energy. But partly, too, it’s because environmentalists, particularly in the crowded East, haven’t come to terms with this technology. In fights in Cape Cod, the mountains of Vermont, and the ridgelines of Maryland, they’ve divided into bitter factions over almost every turbine proposal. On one side, national environmental groups like Greenpeace have backed many installations, arguing that the dangers of global warming far outweigh any local effects. On the other side, neighbors of proposed wind farms have joined with local chapters of big conservations groups to fight the Statue-of-Liberty-size windmills on environmental grounds, chiefly arguing that they’ll destroy the scenic beauty of their areas.
That may be provincial, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. These newer, more efficient turbines are enormous; part of me doesn’t want to gaze out from the summit of peaked Mountain or the marsh at Thirteenth Lake and see an industrial project in the distance. In the best of all possible worlds, we’d do without them.
But it’s not the best of all possible worlds. Right now, the choice is between burning fossil fuels and making the transition, as quickly as possible, to renewable power. There are more than 100 coal-fired power plants on the drawing board in this country right now; if they are built we will spew ever more carbon into the atmosphere. And that will endanger not only the residents of low-lying tropical nations that will be swamped by rising oceans, but also the residents of the Siamese Pond Wilderness. The birch and beech and maple that turn this place glorious in the fall won’t survive a rapid warming; the computer modeling for this part of the country, conducted at the University of New Hampshire, shows that if we continue with business as usual there won’t even be winter as we’ve known it here by century’s end, just one long chilly mud season.
That is not to say that every Adirondack ridgeline should be turned into a wind farm. Most are unsuitable—they’re on constitutionally protected state forest reserve, they have no roads or power lines nearby, it would be criminal to wreck them in the name of clean energy. But this site is precisely the sort of place environmentalists should applaud, and insist on: it’s privately owned, and there’s already a road and a high-voltage line. Because of the mine, much of the land was even zoned industrial, a rarity in the park.
So here environmentalists should step back and say, especially in this cradle of American wilderness, that the price is worth paying. To see that blade turning in the blue Adirondack sky—to see the breeze made visible—should be a sign of real hope for the future.
Bill McKibben, a visiting scholar at Middlebury College, is one of the environmental movement’s most articulate spokespeople. His 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first account of global warming for a general audience. He stresses that he is not for “any windmill anywhere, including the Adirondacks, but on developed sites where they make sense.”
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