About face…on the road to the Lammermoors
In December I wrote a post decrying the proposed windfarm on the Lammermoors above Ranfurly. I talked of the visual pollution that would result from erecting 170+ wind turbines in a place that is relatively visually pristine. I commented on the need to clutter the landscape with windfarms, when other measures, such as active promotion of tidal and solar generation could take their place.
Then I saw An Inconvenient Truth and began to realize how critical, complex, and global the issues for the environment and the planet really are, a problem for which we are individually and severally liable. I began to think about matters from a different angle.
Shortly afterwards a letter arrived from Jeanette Fitzsimons, outlining the Green Party perspective. It was pragmatic and realistic, and a nagging disquiet with my stated position grew. I have spent the last few months reading around the subject and trying to form a more objective opinion. I think I am there now.
There are several separate but congruent threads here. Let me take each of them in turn.
Several years ago I spent the best part of a week in the Mackenzie Basin, photographing the landscape between Tekapo and Twizel. It is an extraordinarily beautiful landscape, a pared-down, aesthetically spare place whose openness is at once refreshing, at once challenging. Visually complex mountain ranges ring a vast, wide-open series of plains. And across them stroll dams, canals and transmission towers. As I looked at the effect of man’s handiwork, the construction of an intricate framework of hydro generation, I realized that I was in awe at the scale of what I saw. I spent a morning in the control centre at Twizel and learned how complex the process of controlling this framework is. From Tekapo A to Waitaki, the flows are continually being balanced. Human needs, the maintenance of the resource and, of course, generation demands, are all taken into account.
Some months later, standing in the small visitors’ centre at Otematata, I looked out over the remains of the once-bustling hydro village and thought about the achievement of Max Smith, the engineer who oversaw the development of the scheme. I could see the boldness of the dream drawn up in a time when governments had the courage and moral mandate to put them into action. For the first time I began to appreciate the structural changes made to the landscape. As I looked, I thought about the way in which the landscape had integrated these works into its persona. And I marvelled at what had been achieved.
I remember a conversation at the time, with a fellow photographer, on the subject of transmission lines and towers. She expressed her disgust at the way that they desecrate the visual landscape, and went on to say how much she detested the Mackenzie Basin hydro scheme, how she found it ugly and an eyesore. I pointed out that I was not so troubled. Transmission towers are a part of our landscape, I postulated, and have their own intrinsic beauty.
For a long time in my landscape photography classes, I have related the experience of being out with a group of camera club photographers, and stopping one afternoon to photograph late light on a landscape in North Canterbury, which contained these towers. Once out of the bus, most of the group packed their equipment and walked more than a kilometre across the field, in order to be able to avoid getting the pylons in their shot, to make photographs which attempted to deny the existence of the hand of Man, to pretend he had never been there and had had no impact upon it. I found the experience of watching them one packed with irony. Later that day they would go home and turn on their jugs, lights and television sets. Where did they imagine the electricity came from, and how it got there?
I have always thought the transmission towers which march across the landscape like tripods from The War of the Worlds have their own charm, and I have no problem including them in any photograph I make. In a strange but surreal way they give any landscape photograph a sense of scale and impart perspective, on variety of levels. The proportions of the picture space they occupy define left-right/up-down, and also near-far. But there are other layers. The towers also add an historical dimension, a sense of Time. They also allude to the relationship between the Natural and Human. There is an interface here which a photographer can explore.
Similarly I am fascinated by what has happened with the McKenzie Basin hydro scheme. I am intrigued by the way that the landscape has moved in and covered up the scars, by the way in which manmade and natural have integrated and joined hands. I sense a symbiosis in what is before me that is entirely acceptable and indeed wonderful. Moreover the structure of the scheme seems to me to have a gentle rhythm that mimics the rhythm of the land, which moves in accord with it rather than against it. There seems to be something somehow Time-less about it, something non-invasive and fitting.
I am sure you are already seeing the inconsistency in my comments of last November. In my defence, weak though it is, I would say that that experience had faded into the background, and that it has only been in the last six weeks, as I have looked at the issues from every angle I could, that it has resurfaced, to influence my position and remind me of how I once felt. And realise I still do.
When I recalled my experience of the Mackenzie Basin and held it up to the light of my feelings about the Lammermoor windfarm, the inconsistency struck me immediately. How could I on the one hand feel OK about what had been done in the Mackenzie, and apply a quite different set of criteria to this? I have spent a lot of time considering this and wondering how to elucidate the change in my position.
So to the Lammermoors.
I went up again into the hills at the bottom of the valley a little over a week ago and looked across the rambling countryside, down towards Lawrence. It is an amazing landscape, a succession of gentle contours that flow and slide and interlock. But it is not pristine. It is not a wilderness in the pure sense. Grazing, farming and human presence have combined to alter it appreciably. Transmission lines stomp across the distant horizon. Fences and roads segment the vista. It would be well-nigh impossible to photograph it in a way that pretends it is a virgin wilderness. However, in my opinion, the attraction of the place lies not in the myth of an unspoiled landscape, but in the ability of a visitor to be alone. It is the remoteness of the area that is its chief drawcard. Would a windfarm change that, and to what extent?
Solitude, the ability to experience lebensraum, is the gift the Lammermoors really offer and which draws visitors. Obviously a windfarm will draw the curious and fascinated. To what extent that will impact on the landscape I cannot say. I am not aware of any study on the matter.
The work of the Romantic painters of the early 19th century (Constable, Turner et al) shows this human/natural interface, this idea of the sublime and of man in harmony with his environment. A further study of the first artists to paint New Zealand (Gully, Chevalier et al) will show this same ethos. Their painterly views frequently contain some element of the human; a building, farmhouse or boat dominated by a grand landscape. Nature is given its rightful ascendancy by occupying the lion’s share of the picture space. Human works are made small and insignificant. It is a pictorial tradition which came out to this country with our European ancestors and which has remained, become rooted in our national psyche. We want to feel that ours is a naturally pristine and uncluttered environment and that we can go out and enjoy that solitude when we wish. Perhaps this is why there has been so much opposition to the project. The subtext here is that living in tune with Nature is a basic human need.
As I looked across the Lammermoors, I visualised a throng of white towers, their propellers turning lazily, responding to the wind, and realised this was something I could live with, indeed something I would like to see. The idea of working with Nature in a co-operative and non-threatening, non-destructive way, seemed to reflect a harmony that is in tune with it. And underscore the Romantic thread that underpins much of my work.
You can see my thinking has changed.
I revisited my artist’s statement to reconsider what I had written and to see if it still held sway. It did. Beauty and Nature were still leitmotiven for me, cornerstones of my work. In my progress through the atua (the Maori Gods), I had found a new layer of understanding to explore. If Tawhirimatea, the God of the Winds and the focus of my work in the Maniototo, is a lesson in change and adaptation, then Tangaroa, the god of the sea and lakes, is a lesson in Abundance, with its shoals of understandings, with its focus on ebb and flow, and natural flow. How curious that there should be the consideration of this aspect of Beauty. Somehow the windfarms and the hydro schemes seem to fit into this matrix.
If Art is the concrete expression of the ethos of a society, then, in an age where the environment is the major issue, looking at these constructions and considering their relationship to the Natural seems entirely fitting.
There can be no question. As a species, and as a planet, we are in trouble. An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) makes that plain. Each and every one of us is accountable. Each time we visit that household store and buy another heater or more powerful light bulbs or put gasoline in our car, we add to the pressure on the available energy resource. We all know this, but none of us wants to be cold, to go without energy when we want it. The energy resources of this planet, a closed loop, are finite. Only the sun adds to the equation. But that is of itself finite. Only so much energy is available, even from that source. There is no thermostat on the sun. So we need to plan for an upper limit on what that can provide. It is a question of balance, and a lesson available to us from long ago.
Balance is a theme in much mediaeval literature. The French word mésure, the German mâze, all contain a lesson on balance or moderation. The protagonist in mediaeval morality stories leans towards excess and tragedy follows. So for us today. We have allowed our energy wants to exceed our needs, have squandered the easy (and most harmful) forms of energy and the environment is out of balance. The more we look, the more horror stories there are. Pollution in the oilfields of Nigeria; the disaster in the black tar sands in Canada; nuclear pollution in Kazakhstan; few corners of the planet have been left unscathed. We have been lucky in New Zealand. We have no nuclear power stations and hence no dangerous waste to dispose of; our few oil wells have a minimal environmental impact. Our power generation in this country comes mostly from renewable resources. As it should do. If AIT is to be believed, and there seems little evidence to doubt it, then we are staring into the Abyss of Environmental Catastrophe. We may already be too late.
We need to turn to technologies that both are sustainable and non-destructive. We must embrace energy resources that meet our needs but which have a minimal impact on both our local and global environment. That requires us to turn from ecological tribalism to ecological globalism, to turn from a narrow focus on the perceived needs of Self (self/family/nation) to those of Other (region/hemisphere/globe). We need to lower our energy impact as quickly as possible. And that involves some sacrifices, in this case aesthetic ones. Kaitiakitanga, guardianship of the environment, requires effort from all of us. To my mind, green energy, which may or may not have a significant visual footprint, is infinitely preferable to generation technologies which impact as severely as those that have been used in the past and which are still impacting.
As I thought the issue over I realised that while to some they might be eyesores, windfarms offer a short-term solution that is both sustainable and has a minimal ecological footprint. Furthermore they have a short lifespan (around 20 years), so combined with a building period of 5 years, that is 25 years they will be there. After that the option to replace gives a total of 50 years, and who knows what technologies will be available then (I am told the first fusion reactor begins construction in France this year). Oil will almost certainly have run out by then. Given the damage we have done to our environment by the use of oil and oil-based products, for which we are all liable and accountable, then to berate something as relatively benign as wind power is to be guilty of inconsistency. Windfarms, while they may be of dubious visual value, at least do not damage the macro-environment.
The New Zealand government has decreed that all new power generation must be from renewable and sustainable resources, a bold move (albeit a late one) that really cannot be argued against, and with which I completely agree. There are still strategies the government could put into place to encourage micro-sustainability) subsidies for solar panels, small wind turbines. I am not convinced that good sense will prevail over political exigencies, but at the moment it is critical to balance increased energy demands with the need to consider environmental concerns. Furthermore, blaming the utilities is rather like shooting the messenger. It is governments, elected representatives, who make policy, not the utilities charged with carrying them out. If we disagree with what they are proposing, it is up to each of us to make representations. It is an axiom that we get the government we deserve.
For that reason, and for the reasons detailed above, as I thought about it, I found that my initial position on windfarms in general, and that of the Lammermoors in particular, had changed. The future is now, and trying to hold the clock back will only increase the terrible pressures on the environment and on our future as a species.
We live in interesting times, times of our own making.