The answer is blowing in the wind

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One doesn't automatically think of Britain's local councils as devotees of the Romantic Sublime but if they weren't, even without knowing it, then the Government wouldn't have had to publish new guidelines which make it more difficult for them to reject applications to build wind farms, as happened earlier this week.

One doesn't automatically think of Britain's local councils as devotees of the Romantic Sublime but if they weren't, even without knowing it, then the Government wouldn't have had to publish new guidelines which make it more difficult for them to reject applications to build wind farms, as happened earlier this week. By all accounts the new proposals will require councils to give greater weight to government targets for non-polluting energy when making decisions. The implication was that this is a story which is essentially about environmental piety. In truth it's also a story about aesthetics - and about the way that a fundamental historical shift in people's attitudes to landscapes has been absorbed so completely that it has come to seem like common sense. What that "greater weight" is intended to counterpoise is the widespread conviction that pretty much anything man-made "spoils" the natural beauty of the countryside.

I doubt that you could get anyone to go on the record opposing pollution-free electricity, though the odd coal mine owner might privately feel a bit iffy about it. Very few people object to windmills on grounds of their mechanical efficiency and only a small handful have anxieties about noise or the effect on local birdlife. But a significant number are prepared to express their anxiety about the look of wind turbines. In fact the visual impact of wind farms is by some distance the most significant factor in public resistance to them. In a survey done for the Scottish Executive even 10 per cent of those who approve of windfarms conceded that they spoil the landscape.

The language used by organisational lightning rods for these sentiments is telling about the shift in sensibility this represents. One National Trust report talked of how wind farms are seen as "the taming of wild landscapes" while the Council for the Protection of Rural England noted how the very nature of the technology means that they are usually erected in the, "most remote and beautiful landscapes." Both these phrases strike us as a statement of the obvious now but there was a time when both would have looked positively perverse - a time when "remoteness" and "wildness" would have been assumed to be antithetical to the idea of beauty. Such landscapes would not have been national treasures to be protected from technological blots, but blots in themselves. They might well have been described as "horrid" - literally hair-raising in their affront to husbandry and the steady endeavour to bring nature under control. And the idea that "taming" such a landscape was an improper act would have seemed positively outlandish.

Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility at about the time one apparently timeless truth was beginning to crumble and give way to its antithesis - and she incorporates some of the friction into her novel. Marianne - impulsive enthusiast for the new-fangled notions of the picturesque - comes up against Edward Ferrers, who will have nothing to do with it. "I like a fine prospect", he tells her, "but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing." In other words he can't separate his notion of aesthetic pleasure from his ideas about economic utility. For him a beautiful landscape is one that is likely to return a good five hundred pounds a year, and the better managed it is the better he likes it. It's a curious moment in the history of taste this - one where the word "improvement" could mean one thing when applied to the countryside and the exact opposite when applied to a garden. Enclosure made the wider landscape more geometrical and ordered at the same time as old-fashioned parterres and formal gardens were giving way to the synthetic natural disorder of new garden designs, which emphasised removing the evidence of human intrusion. And when the romantic poets threw their weight in to redefine the "unimproved" landscape as an "unspoiled" one the contest was pretty much over. In broad terms beauty ever since has been understood to be in direct ratio to what you might call untouchedness - even in landscapes which are virtually all human fingerprints.

This powerful prejudice is understandable - particularly in the sooty aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. But that it is a prejudice is surely true. And I know I'm not alone in feeling some sympathy with the Edward Ferrers' aesthetic when I see a hillside of three-bladed turbines lazily chopping megawatts out of thin air. Look at any public forum and you'll see people who think of wind turbines as a visual amenity rather than visual affront. There is even an aesthetic literature of wind farms, which discusses the finer points of blade design and turbine grouping. "A wind farm can be regarded as a gigantic sculptural element in the landscape, a land-art project if you like", writes the Danish landscape architect Frode Birk Nielsen, who goes so far as to suggest that the counterpoint of manmade geometry and natural forms is desirable in itself. The government undoubtedly goes with the flow of public preconception when it chooses to use utilitarian arguments about global warming and fossil fuel dependency to overcome the presumption of guilt which hangs over wind farms. But maybe it's time for us to recognise that they have their sublime poetry too - and that some landscapes are better for being tampered with.

Comments