The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.

The Paradox of Walden

July 17, 2012

Yesterday, watching Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Worstall spar on Twitter over the price of milk, I was struck by two notions. Firstly, it’s fun to watch people who are wrong for different reasons argue. Secondly, the reasons for their disagreement are so fundamental that such a debate is pointless; there’s insufficient common ground for any kind of resolution to be reached.

Tim is a neoliberal, while Paul fancies himself as some kind of neo-Thoreau. Tim describes neoliberalism using the following:

“[Neoliberalism] does rather assume that individuals maximise, to the best of their ability and knowledge, their utility. But as any fule kno, utility and profit are not the same thing. Utility leaves room for feeling better about contributing to the care of others for example, something that profit doesn’t.”

This is actually an astonishingly weak claim; all it’s saying is that individuals aim to achieve their goals, whatever they may be, and however short-term they are. I can maximise my utility by buying either a full-fat meaty burrito this lunchtime, or a healthy snack consisting entirely of fruit, depending on my preferences and objectives. As such, it’s so tautological as to be almost entirely uninteresting: claiming that ‘people aim to achieve their aims’ is not going to set the intellectual world on fire.

The interesting claim is the second half of neoliberalism: ‘and markets are frequently the best way of enabling people to maximise their utility’. Tim might contrast this with an alternative, which is getting the Government to decide how best you maximise your utility. Certainly, it seems clear that you have a better understanding of your preferences than a far away civil servant in Whitehall, and that being able to decide which product or service that will be better at meeting your needs can be a preference in itself.

However, there is a problem with this approach, and it relates to the idea of untradeable goods. In deference to Paul’s position, let us consider this in the context of Thoreau’s Walden, accounted one of the greatest American novels and a forbear of modern environmentalism. Walden is a pond near Concord in Massachusetts by which Thoreau spent two years of his life in an effort to develop his understanding, intellect and spirituality through the tenets of the contemporary philosophy of transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism holds that society and its institutions corrupts the purity of Man, and that a true community can only be derived from self-reliant and independent individuals. In Walden, Thoreau goes a little beyond this to discuss the role of nature and wilderness in the introspection necessary to cultivate the spiritually self-reliant individual.

The self-reliant man creates the goods he needs to maximise his utility himself, and his utility is maximised because he created them himself. The utility provided by these goods is therefore not wholly intrinsic, but rather their extrinsic quality of being untraded.

It is this value – that a good being untraded provides maximum utility – that presents a problem for neoliberalism. If a good has utility because it is untraded, then this form of utility cannot be maximised by a preference expressed in a market. Thoreau expresses the price of the components of his hut at Walden in dollars, in order to demonstrate how cheaply it is possible to live a fulfilling life, but the actual cost of the hut should include the labour he spent creating it. If Thoreau were to buy such a hut on the open market, it would have a value, but because the utility of the hut to Thoreau is given by it being his own creation, the two are incommensurable. The paradox is that the market value of the hut is simultaneously zero and infinite: zero, because it is not offered for sale, and infinite, because no amount of money would persuade Thoreau to part with it.

This value presents a problem to neoliberalism because any dispute over a good to which some ascribe utility as a result of its non-traded status must necessarily be solved by politics. That is to say, when some members of a society ascribe value to a good as a result of it not participating in a market, the resolution of a dispute over its use can only be carried out within an agreed political framework, as the alternative is violence. If trade or negotiation is impossible, then the only way of resolving a problem is through force, whether in person or via the Government. Therefore, the Government must have a role to play in determining how we maximise our utility if such disputes cannot be resolved within a community. Moreover, if you ascribe value on the basis of goods being non-traded, it is preferable to have Government resolve disputes than leave it to the market.

It is worth noting that the wisdom of ascribing value as a result of a good’s non-traded status is not considered, I merely observe than there are people who do so. Paul’s attribution of non-tradeable extrinsic value to small-scale ‘uneconomic’ dairy farmers is something about which Tim will never be able to persuade him. I therefore suggest that both gentlemen resolve this issue in an appropriate fashion, with duelling pistols at dawn.