Monday, July 20, 2009

Liberty as boundless as the sky

I live in Massachusetts -- a state that imports virtually all of the energy it needs to function. We import coal from regions of the country that have sacrificed their mountaintops so that we can power our computers and high definition televisions. Eastern Massachusetts hums comfortably on coal imported from Albania, Colombia. The coal mines there have all but destroyed land and lives of the people who live there.

Massachusetts happens to lie beneath some of the most robust wind resources in the nation -- and indeed the world. These winds hold the potential for the Commonwealth to assume some responsibility for meeting its energy needs by sustainably harvesting its abundant indigenous renewable energy resource.

But hold on. Activists from the Berkshires to Cape Cod are resisting the development of wind energy along the state's ridge lines and in its coastal waters. What are their primary objections? They don't like the way the look.
To say that their priorities are skewed would qualify as the understatement of the century. (GW)

Windscapes: American Vistas Where Energy Is in the Air

Infinite power from the wind is an American dream almost as old as the country itself, an idea that has entranced generations of scientists, artists and visionaries. In the early 19th century, when most labor was still done by human hands, an immigrant inventor named John Adolphus Etzler, pondering the windmills of his native Europe, sat down to scribble out some calculations. When he finished, he declared that wind power could be harnessed to liberate mankind from toil, providing as much energy as 40 trillion workers, or about 40,000 times earth’s population at that time. Imagine the glorious — and languorous — future that awaited!

All that Etzler’s plan required was a grid of 200-foot windmills crisscrossing every continent and ocean of the globe, in hedgelike rows set a mile apart. The perfect place to begin was in the wide-open spaces of the United States.

Perhaps fortunately, Etzler’s dream hasn’t come to pass, at least not yet. But recently, wind turbines — the modern equivalents of his miracle contraptions — have become ever-more-familiar features of the American landscape. From upstate New York to the Iowa prairies to the mountain passes of California, they sprout like pale and slender flowers.

Political leaders, too, cherish plans for a future liberated by the wind: President Obama speaks of doubling alternative energy by the end of his first term, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg conjures visions of a Manhattan whose skyscrapers bristle with turbines, like the windmills that once dominated the skyline of Dutch New Amsterdam. (Last year alone, according to industry figures, the nation’s wind-power capacity increased by 50 percent, although the recession and lower oil and natural-gas prices have slowed growth significantly since then.)

But will the spreading fields of giant pinwheels help safeguard the environment — as their advocates maintain — or mar it, aesthetically at least, for posterity? In many areas where wind farms are built or planned, neighbors rally against them, warning that America’s majestic vistas are being spoiled by high-tech eyesores.

Just a century ago, however, windmills by the hundreds of thousands dotted many of the same landscapes where their present-day descendants now loom. Nearly every farmyard had its own spindly device atop a steel tower, pumping water and powering lamps. Those windmills, in their time, stood for the settlers’ proud dominion over nature, for their self-sufficiency and for the Yankee ingenuity that produced something from nothing, literally from thin air. Dozens of manufacturers competed for customers, hawking machines whose brand names formed a kind of American poetry: Buckeye, Climax, Daisy, Dandy, OK, Tip Top, Whizz.

Artists enshrined them in the national landscape, connecting with a tradition that stretched back across centuries of European art. When Grant Wood painted a self-portrait, he put a farm windmill over his left shoulder. For the cultural critic Lewis Mumford, the invention of windmills, along with water power, represented nothing less than a revolution in the course of human events: “A large intelligentsia could come into existence, and great works of art and scholarship and science and engineering could be created without recourse to slavery: a release of energy, a victory for the human spirit.”

Looking at Mitch Epstein’s photographs on these pages (from his book “American Power,” to be published by Steidl in September, which includes images originally shot for this magazine), I wonder whether the turbines of our own century may come to stand for newer forms of self-sufficiency, less individual than national. Rising from the land in shapes as gracile as Brancusi sculptures, they seem to inhabit a middle ground between technology and nature — perfect emblems, perhaps, of a conflicted culture that cherishes its iPhones and organic gardens in equal measure. Maybe, too, they will still stand for the old American dream of snatching something from thin air: a future without sacrifice, and liberty as boundless as the sky.

Adam Goodheart is the director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


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