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Don't forget energy conservation, local economic sovereignty in rush to tap wind power

By David Van Tassel
Prairie Writers Circle

(Sunday, April 4, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Environmentalists urge farmers and ranchers in windy regions to let energy companies build rows of huge turbines for feeding our nation's electricity demands. The environmentalists argue that clean wind power will boost rural economies as well as reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

But some residents in areas targeted for wind "farms" fear that new high-tension lines and access roads crisscrossing prairie will destroy its spacious character and threaten finicky and increasingly rare grassland birds.

Ranchers should not be prevented from putting turbines on their land. But they also should not feel shamed or pressured to do so by energy corporations or misguided environmentalists.

There is now a push to build wind turbines in Kansas ’ Flint Hills, the only remaining American prairie of any meaningful size, and a place that has retained a distinctive ranch culture. But there are plenty of other places to put turbines.

And reducing national carbon emissions is not really the responsibility of ranchers or farmers there or anywhere else. As long as most Americans can imagine that somewhere, someone is taking care of the problem, that someone is generating cleaner power somewhere far away, we will be no closer to a real solution. The solution is a thrifty, energy-frugal culture.

Environmentalists fought against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fearing it would spoil one of the last pristine places and that the rigs and access roads would hurt caribou. These are very close to the arguments against filling places like the Flint Hills with turbines.

We should not let wind power’s “green” image trick us into abandoning the principle that some places and some species should be saved for their own sakes. We should reject the argument that everything must be “useful,” that every place and every aspect of life should be commercialized.

The problem of fossil fuel consumption belongs to each community and each person. Rural people contribute, of course, every time they drive a truck or flip on a light switch. But this is negligible compared with the impact of urban areas. You might argue that rural communities are in a unique position to help us, and that they will suffer the effects of climate change as much as anyone. But the truth is that simply adding new energy sources, even green ones, without a firm plan to reduce, or at least cap, our total energy production will not reduce national carbon emissions.

Let’s turn the question around. Why wouldn’t each of us want to take a few simple steps to reduce our energy use and save places like the Flint Hills and the arctic refuge? Why even consider spoiling a new place or investing another penny in massive new projects when the opportunities for huge energy savings are all around us?

As for wind turbines’ supposed economic infusion into rural communities: Who will own the machines? Who will own the power lines? Who will set the prices? Who will own the leases? Who will take most of the profits? Wind power will be just like every other commodity that cities extract from rural areas: something acquired at rock-bottom prices and sold back expensively.

A final danger is that environmentalists will place too much faith in solutions that are big, centralized and high-tech. Large projects such as dams, nuclear plants and wind farms go on the cheapest land and among the most powerless people. When we shift the extraction to some place out of sight and out of mind, we can ignore unpleasant consequences and our own responsibilities as consumers.

For behavior to change, we humans need immediate, visible consequences. For an ethic of conservation to take root, energy consumption must be more costly and inconvenient. Only then will wind power be anything more than another cheap commodity.

If the ranchers and farmers courted by wind companies care about climate change and pollution, they will tell urban environmentalists to first put turbines and solar panels in their own back yards.


David Van Tassel is a scientist at the Land Institute in Salina , Kan. , and a member of the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle.