correspondence (I): John Burnside

From time to time these blogs will feature essays or informal texts by other contributors. There follows a correspondence between the poet John Burnside and Alec Finlay ('Eck').

Rhinns of Galloway; photograph, Ken Cockburn 2011

Dear Eck

John Burnside here. I just wanted to say that I find the title 'art, landscape and renewable energy' very disturbing indeed. To my mind, there is something very worrying about what look like the terms of this discussion, but I am going to assume that it will be informed by the central and insupportable moral flaw of the wind turbine as a social phenomenon, viz that every single occurrence of said turbines in any landscape, anywhere, is a sign of social injustice, and that issue outweighs all other concerns, especially aesthetic ones.

Why? Because the feed-in tariffs ensure profits to landowners and others for 25 years, by a consumer tax on poorer energy customers, (estimates say c.25%, probably more) and that is clearly unjust. Even if one could be convinced that turbines were a good source of renewable energy and had no negative environmental impact, such an unjust system should not be countenanced.

Sadly, I'm not able to attend the event, but can I safely assume that these points will be raised in the discussion of 'contested identity' of commercial wind turbines? If social justice - one of the four pillars of the green movement - is not seen as an overriding concern, then we might as well just hand everything over to the Landowners' Association and commence instruction in the gentle art of forelock tugging.

Best wishes


Rhinns of Galloway; photograph, Ken Cockburn 2011

Dear John,

I'd love to send you a proper reply, but it would be better to talk about it when we meet – and I hope we will, when you come down to read in early June. In the most fond sense you are someone that I would be honoured to disagree with, meaning as part of a discussion. 

I agree with you entirely about ownership, but I think of all the current power sources renewable energy points most clearly to social, community or national ownership – or reminds us of that principle. I take that as a given, even if it is not yet a fact. That this is not the case as of now is deeply regrettable, but not unique to wind. 

Our common ownership of energy has been lost, and that has itself distanced us from the decisions we need to make, including the choice we seem to never make, socially, to forgo some energy.

It's true, I have come to love turbines, as things, though not for every landscape, and not if they bring pylons in their wake. I think of them as symbolic monumental sculptures, in opposition to the ghastly monumentalism of Gormley, Plensa, et al, who conceive artworks which make a pseudo claim to represent 'us'. At least a windmill is a sculpture which produces energy and illustrates the possibility we could all take responsibility for that scarce resource. 

But I don't admire them unconditionally. I see they will define an era, as coal did, and that era will also pass. Like you I hope that what follows is more benevolent. I also hope we learn to embrace scarcity. And that we find new ways to share land in common.

These are just a few thoughts.



1 comment:

  1. Dear Eck

    I regret to say that I do not share your admiration for wind turbines as objects; not the larger ones at least. Smaller (in the twenty odd foot range) turbines - which deserve the name 'windmill' can work nicely in a farm setting, true, but I'd hardly call them sculptures.

    I am more of a bird guy myself - not a birdwatcher, as such, just someone who derives joy from seeing birds in flight. Like the pink-footed geese and peregrine falcons near my home in Fife, (currently threatened with blanket turbines to feed the money cravings of local landowners...)

    Oh, well, people will say turbines don't kill birds; to them, I say, check out this site:

    And to those who say we can put bird scarers around massed turbines, I say, thanks but no thanks. To scare migrating birds from their traditional feeding grounds would only be worth contemplating if Big Wind were a solution to our energy and climate change problems - and all the independent studies say it aint.

    All the best