Northern New Hampshire is wild, or at least it looks wild. Driving north on Interstate 93, you enter the White Mountains. Concord is the last large city near the interstate. After that, the terrain opens up to sweeping vistas of mountains, forests and meadows. The area seems remote, from the comfort of your car at 70mph. Looking at the edge of the forest, there is still a feeling that a moose will swoop down at any moment (with the understanding that moose can swoop). This feeling is reinforced by signs warning of moose collisions.
The vista of remote wilderness is interrupted by a jarring visual impact near Plymouth, NH. To the west of the road, the top of the ridge line is covered by a row windmills. The impression of wildness is changed to an impression of industrialization. This is reinforced by several not-well-disguised cell phone towers.
As power generation goes, windmills are pretty green in comparison to coal burning plants or other more noxious options. The windmill structures, themselves, are sleek and can be beautiful, kinetic sculptures. But, context is everything. In the context of a remote area, a mountain ridge topped by steel windmills doesn’t communicate the idea of wilderness.
Most will agree that civilization needs power, but it is not easy to compare costs and benefits when deciding whether or not to build windmills. The benefits for power generation include less greenhouse gasses, less pollution, and reliance on a renewable resource. The drawbacks: injured birds that fly into the blades, noise at the site, and the loss of wilderness, or at least the impression of wilderness. To consider loss of wilderness, one needs to define “wilderness”. This definition, itself, is a moving target. What exactly is the wilderness that is to be preserved, and what are the parameters? Are we preserving a wilderness based on the current geologic age (the Holocene), or should we go back to the Jurassic or some other period not despoiled by humankind? When does the wilderness clock stop ticking so that no further impacts are permitted?
Humanity intrudes on the wilderness, in that we change the landscape to suit our needs. Engineers and constructors are most directly involved in that process. But humankind is a part of the environment. So maybe “wilderness” should be redefined to be based on a habitat suitable for human beings. This habitat includes well developed urban areas, and more remote preserved parks and wildlife areas. In this way, wilderness is not for the sake of wilderness. It is for our benefit.
In her book, “Adventures in the Anthropocene”, author Gaia Vince argues that mankind has so altered the earth’s terrain that the current geologic period should be redefined based on human-induced changes. Instead of the Holocene period, this new geologic period would be named the “Anthrocopene”. The Anthropocene includes such changes as revised atmosphere (more carbon dioxide), changed fauna (mass extinction of many unfavored species but huge increases of mankind’s selected domestic animals and others that have adapted), and changes to the land.
In this argument, there is no real wilderness, since each habitat is a function of the species living in them. The current environment is a man-altered place that (hopefully) supports and facilities human life. Defined wilderness areas such as national parks then are museum-type spaces. These areas are not real wilderness, since the world has been so greatly changed by human activities.
It begs the questions: do we need real wilderness (assuming that can be defined), or what do we need to preserve? Real wilderness, if considered to be an environment on earth without people, is not something we really want, because we want people to live and flourish. The answer is to design and construct infrastructure that supports the lives of human beings, both in the short term and the long term. Past infrastructure development has tended to be piecemeal, project by project, with a focus on short term “opening day” goals. Only recently have long term sustainability issues been seriously considered and weighed as part of project decision making.
In deciding to build windmills on a ridge in New Hampshire, an illusion of wilderness is lost. This illusion is of a place largely untouched by humans, where hunter gatherers hunted and gathered but did not greatly alter the terrain as we do today. It is a romantic ideal, but it may not be in our best interests overall. On the other hand, windmills on a remote ridge can symbolize wanton development and the despoiling of a landscape that ultimately is not good for humanity in the long run.