Windmills can’t blow away a love of the land

18 Jun, 2015 07:55 AM
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Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
This love of land is the common ground between traditional enemies: farmers and greens
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

NO DOUBT it's funny, in a bleak and windswept kind of way. Tony Abbott, proudly philistine leader of a proudly philistine country, makes world news by declaring war on renewables for reasons of, you betcha, taste. Windmills bad because windmills ugly.

When was the last time Australia had conniptions over aesthetics? Like, ever? Even the Opera House controversy centred around money. Yet Abbott's war on wind – indeed his entire campaign against the renewables industry and targets – is, he says, because windmills are "visually awful [and] make a lot of noise".

So yes, we're having our first national debate on aesthetics. That's good. But we're having the wrong one, and that's bad.

Let me say up front, I like windmills. I like their whiteness and grandeur, and how they catch the morning light like so many celestial beings beamed across the landscape. I like the spin of those spiky trefoils, all slightly out-of-sync in eerie contrapuntal rhythm.

I like what they signify, as Esperanto symbols of green progress. I like that you can see the clean energy being made, or at least snared and sent to civilisation. And I like how, without trying, they do what art should – combining the visual, the kinetic and the semantic in a single gesture that lets deep meaning look like arresting simplicity.

Naturally, I abhor Abbott's declared intention to lay waste to these clean-energy mills as vehemently if they were boatloads of starving humans (What's he going to do? Pay them to leave?). Yet I can't help admiring his admission that the entire argument, albeit many-armed and much-flailing, pivots on taste.

You think I'm being facetious. Not at all. Admittedly Abbott's aesthetic concern could be fake. Mr Budgie Smugg is the last person you'd suspect of closet visual refinement, and opposing wind energy aligns him neatly with both the shock-jocks and the coal lobby, insofar as they're distinct.

But wittingly or not, Abbott has voiced genuine aesthetic heartbreak. You needn't press a farmer very hard on the windmill question before you get to: "I just don't like them, they're ugly." Or, even more telling, "My grandfather farmed that hill. I watched it from here as a boy. It should stay as is." At its core, the argument is aesthetic.

Australians, being Australian, habitually trivialise aesthetics and treat aesthetic utterances as admissions of weakness. Increasingly, beauty is seen as "subjective" – personal, relative, therefore undiscussable, unimportant, scarcely even real. Hence the critics' whoops of delight at proving Abbott's windmill objections to be "purely aesthetic".

One by one, quite rightly, they pluck Mr Abbott's wind-farm arguments and toss them to the breeze. Health impacts? Pah. There are none. Report after report has revealed this as decades of furphy. Climate conspiracy? Fiddlesticks. Alan Jones notwithstanding, climate change can no longer be dismissed as some lefty commo cause, since all serious businesses now strategise for it. Inefficient? Fooey. Wind farms may be less efficient than, say, onsite solar (because of transport losses) but they're outta-sight cleaner than coal-fired.

Gone, gone, gone. This leaves just a single, aesthetic figleaf hiding the PM's shame.

The glee we feel in this is itself telling. It's as though, in citing aesthetics, the PM had been caught sinning. You have visual preferences? How unAustralian!

But beauty is real and, even in a practical world, powerful. As Steve Jobs knew, there is nothing trivial about how things look.

Beauty, like love or friendship or sacredness, is a fundamental human hunger. As Roger Scruton notes, "Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people." This is as true in the country as the city, and truer for being subjective.

Most philosophers, from Alberti to Kant, agree that beauty is partly in the object, and partly in the beholder. This makes taste educable, and educative. It also makes beauty a collaboration, a relationship. It can be erotic, transcendent or sublime but, in all cases, connecting with beauty lifts the human from its grabby ego, effecting a kind of transformation. Beauty cannot make us good, but it whispers of the sacred.

This is why the deliberate smashing of beauty is so terrible. We needn't buy the theology to feel their beauty as sacred and its destruction, quite literally, as desecration. This holds for the Taliban's destruction of the winged Assyrian bull but also for longwall mining in pristine bluegum wilderness.

So although the aesthetic argument is precisely the one to have, we're having the wrong aesthetic argument.

To appreciate nature for its practical virtues – succour, shelter, warmth – implies precisely the utilitarian value system we expect from the Australian cocky. But many farmers, sometimes in secret, appreciate the beauty of their land in and for itself. This is a subjective and emotional act. It's called love.

This love of land, where destruction becomes desecration, is the basis of pantheism, paganism and romanticism. It is also the common ground between those traditional enemies, farmers and greens. So the aesthetic debate is not a wind-energy side-issue. It is the heart of the matter.

It might seem odd to debate aesthetics around an invisibility like wind. But aesthetics is always about the relationship between the seen and the unseen – object and subject. And (although I don't see it this way) a farmer may well feel the newly arrived wind turbine as a desecration of a sacred hill.

But that's not the proper comparison: hill-before and hill-after. The proper comparison is hill-with-windmill, or a hundred windmills, on the one hand, versus the massive tripartite desecration, on the other, of longwall mine in national park, great belching power station in fertile valley and global climate change.

Coal is not good for humanity, Tony. Coal is a death cult. Perhaps with a little more practice in aesthetic debate, and a little less dominance by yobbo shock-jocks, we'll understand that all decisions are aesthetic decisions, but that framing something out of your picture-window doesn't make it go away.

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READER COMMENTS

Invey
18/06/2015 11:05:32 AM

That's two minutes of my life I will never get back! What a load of dribble. You are protected from both wind and coal in your man made, artificial Sydney basin. Those that aren't effected by either don't have a right to force poverty and sickness onto others. The SMH has it's agenda and it's very clear that it doesn't care for rural Australians and our troubles.
Percy
18/06/2015 12:00:42 PM

All this tilting at "Windmills". A windmill is one that pumps water a "Wind Turbine" is one that generates energy!
THE FARMER
19/06/2015 7:58:17 AM

When your living in the shade of the towers close enough to hear them then your light-hearted school kid witticisms may mature. Tony's smugglers you can walk away. Those towers are there for a life time.
daw
4/08/2015 10:10:25 AM

Percy I note that this is not the first time you have commented on windmills/turbines. It is all a matter of terminology and you are not necessarily correct. Traditional 'windmills' didn't just pump water they were also used to drive things like grain grinders, anything that required a mechanical drive through a shaft could be supplied but only when the wind blows. A turbine differs in that blades are shaped for greater efficiency but still only provide the mechanical force needed to drive either an alternator for AC electricity or a dynamo ( generator ) for DC electricity.

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