5 February 2005

Ethics or aesthetics?

By Marguerite Finn

When Cervantes made his knight errant Don Quixote ride at full tilt against a windmill, that impulsive charge was the principled reaction of an honourable if eccentric man against a monstrosity defiling the green and pleasant Spanish landscape. Whether wind turbines creep towards National Parks or raise their questionable heads around Shipdam, they provoke the same sort of intuitive objection. The Bishop of Hereford described a plan for turbines on Cefn Croes in mid-Wales as an act of vandalism equal to the destruction of the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan by the Taliban. One's aesthetic senses bristle against such disfigurements.

The International Climate Change Task Force suggests that the threat of irreversible climate change is even more urgent than we supposed. Stringent measures have to be taken within the next ten years if we are to avoid reaching the levels of carbon dioxide in the air that trigger run-away climate effects; we have not got until 2050 as we thought, which itself did not seem long enough to save the planet. We begin to see maps that show the North Sea lapping at the doors of Norwich Cathedral; but even so, our problems will be trifling compared with low-lying Bangladesh. There, irregular and extreme weather would probably kill millions, displace tens of millions and destroy thousands of square kilometres of unique habitat. Cataclysms of comparable scale involving desertification may affect China and South American countries from loss of snow-melt water. As always, the poor would suffer disproportionately from the greed of the rich.

That is what is to blame for excessive global warming gases: our desire, as the rich of the world, for every short-term comfort that profligate energy expenditure may buy. And who can blame the developing countries for increasing their own harmful gas emissions to seek those comforts they have watched us enjoy? We are responsible for tempting them towards their own appalling destruction, which will make Boxing Day 2004 seem mild in comparison.

Such considerations are profoundly ethical. So long as we are our brother's keeper, we have a duty to do everything we can to avoid inflicting those calamities upon him. And the fact that the victims may indeed be as closely related as brothers, and not some descendant distant in time and place, as we used to imagine, concentrates the mind upon finding ethical solutions.

The huge scale of the problem suggests that we need to employ every sensible option, from drastically reducing our energy consumption and wastage, to developing fuel cells, carbon sequestration and a hydrogen economy without delay, and every benign form of renewable energy. The panacea of nuclear energy is illusory, since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) advises us that nuclear stations cannot possibly come on stream quickly enough, even if they were acceptably safe. And they are not. Their radioactive waste would litter the world for 240,000 years, to add further to our intergenerational shame. The World Bank will not invest in current nuclear technologies - even to fight global warming.

Other positive contributions come from more efficient and less used vehicles, energy efficient buildings (including new-build homes), moving from coal to gas generation, biomass, afforestation and conservation tillage. No one knows yet what the problems of each may be, so we must proceed with each, cautiously but at once.

Panting healthily on the crest of a windswept moor or gazing out between the chintz curtains of the best bedroom, of course one is aesthetically disconsolate at the awesome march of the wind turbines. Yet every little helps, including them. In comparison with the future disconsolation of the Bangladeshis, such heartache of ours is trivial. Just as in wartime we melted down fabulous wrought-iron work to make guns, covered the fells in conifers for pit-props and tore up well-loved gardens to dig for victory, so we must swallow our aesthetic pride and bite on the ecological bullet, to avoid this far worse enemy - one we have created ourselves.

No one is quite sure what Cervantes meant by parodying courtly honour in the ridiculous figure of his quixotic hero but, as I remember the story, the knight was always true to himself after his own fashion. Perhaps we can be truer to ourselves in the current critical situation, if we forego the aesthetics to hold on to the ethics.

Norwich citizens can march in London on Saturday, 12 February, - to persuade world governments fully to back the Climate Treaty to restrict greenhouse gas emissions now. For travel details / tickets ring the Greenhouse on 01603 631007.

I am grateful to the Editor of Resurgence Magazine for ideas from letters therein from Rob Collister and Peter Harper.