Saving The Shires

A windmill in Lincolnshire has been restored and will grind flour using the power of the wind for the first time since 1894, removing the need to rely on electricity sourced in part from coal, gas and nuclear. It is now the tallest working windmill in England.

Awww.

The story is sweet, but it symbolises something that has fascinated me for a long time. The windmill was restored as a result of strong community pressure, presumably from people not at all worried about their sleep being disturbed by noise or infrasound from the windmill.

Moulton mill

That may seem like a cheap jibe. Obviously these arms, a fraction of the size of modern blades, will make less sound, particularly in the lower register. On the other hand, there are probably people living much closer to this local landmark than most of those objecting to turbines a kilometre or so from their houses. By the inverse square law, they’ll probably actually experience greater sound pressure, even at the lowest frequencies.

The interesting difference lies in the attitudes of the British and Australian right to climate change, and specifically to windfarms as a method to fight it.

The UK is hardly immune to climate scepticism. Lord Monkton frequently reminds us of its presence, and the Daily Mail in particular is the source of much of the rubbish repeated by the Murdoch press here. I came across the above story while reading about the major gains the climate change denying, and fiercely anti-wind, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made in elections for rural local councils, of which Lincolnshire was arguably their greatest success.

Nevertheless, the contrast with Australia is stark. The Conservatives have held onto targets for greenhouse gas reductions that exceed anything the Labor Party would tolerate here, let alone the Liberals. UKIP indeed did well, but they picked up only around a third of the number of seats of the Liberal Democrats, and an eighth of the Conservatives, in the areas they would expect to be strongest. Even looking at changes in seats alone, Labor’s gains were twice as large.

Yet one might expect the UK to be much more fertile ground for these sorts of views than Australia. For one thing, the idea of warmer temperatures looks much more attractive in Birmingham than Brisbane. The prospect of longer and more intense droughts would strike fear into few local British hearts. True, there is now evidence that melting sea ice will cause more intense cold snaps in northern Europe, but the idea is sufficiently counter-intuitive it probably has not sunk into many people’s consciousness.

The so called “Landscape Guardians” originated in England, and are probably a greater force there than here, but not to the extent one would expect considering the vastly larger population density in areas where windmills are sited. Many English objectors have turbines close enough that one can understand their angst, even if one doesn’t share it. In Australia, anti-wind groups often have to throw the net out to distances of several kilometres in order to find someone who isn’t actually hosting one the turbines, yet still manage to whip up storms of anger.

You can attribute the difference to hostility to the coal miners and Thatcher’s endorsement of global warming as a concern, but I think it lies deep in the psyche of the conservative movements of the two countries. In the UK the right has deep roots in the soil. The British aristocracy has been there for almost 1000 years at minimum, longer in some cases. Time to grow real attachment.

For me this is most visible reading The Lord of The Rings. Tolkein was a thorough Tory, seeing a king as the solution to the problems of the land. Ursula Le Guin wrote that Sam’s deference to Frodo made “one want to found a hobbit socialist party”. Yet love of the land breathes through every word of the book. Evil is associated (explicitly in the introduction Tolkein wrote for a later edition of the book) with despoliation of the environment and over industrialisation. In this he was drawing on much older traditions. The nature poets may have been radicals in their youth, but their work was adopted by conservatives such that Wordsworth and Keats were considered essential parts of the curriculum to be defended against encroachment from more modern writers.

This perspective is not entirely absent here, represented by the founders of the Australian Conservation Foundation including such leading conservative lights as Sir Garfield Barwick. Nevertheless, in general the  Australian right has taken a rather different view of the country, seeing it as something to rip up as quickly as possible while making out like bandits. While Dorathea Mackellar may have been writing of her love of the sunburnt country, the line that is most remembered is of “droughts and flooding rains”, seen more as a complaint, evidence the land is hostile to us, and therefore deserves the same in return.

Why worry about what climate change, or invasive species or biodiversity loss for that matter, might do to the landscape when you hate the bloody thing anyway?

For the people of Moulton, who took up a collection and lobbied to restart the windmill the mill is not just a “much loved local landmark” but a symbol of how the old England can live in harmony with the planet, a reason why, for all UKIP’s success most voters in a very conservative area still voted for candidates dedicated to saving the environment. Can anyone think of an equivalent here? I can’t.

 

 

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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