Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Elephant in the Room

I started to write a blog about wind farms; it was going to be a rant about how we are defacing our hills with these ugly structures, not to mention the pylons and access roads that go with them. It was going to be that they are the wrong strategy for tackling global warming and we should be looking to minimising our energy use and investing in nuclear power. The more I wrote however the more I realised there was an elephant in the room, one of my own hypocrisy and I think a wider hypocrisy within the outdoor community as a whole. So it’s not going to be a blog about the relative merits of wind farms but the decisions I have to make about how my lifestyle choices are affecting the planet.

Global warming is the most serious issue facing humanity today. It's happening, it's caused by us, and it will indirectly kill millions of people through water and food shortages, wars over the basics of human life, changing disease patterns and half a hundred other interlinked effects. Unlike many of its detractors I have actually read the IPCC evidential reports which are freely available on the internet and am convinced by the science. Frankly if 98% of scientists buy into the idea well, if you took your car to 100 garages and 98 said your brakes were dangerous you would be a fool not to do something.

Of all environmental issues wind farms appear to be the one that generates the most debate within the outdoor community. Most of "us" including myself are against them or deeply sceptical. I think for me this is mostly a gut feeling, I go on a lot on these pages about how I feel deeply connected with the landscape and how it’s experiencing the mountains in all their glory whilst walking, climbing, and camping that’s the key motivating factor that sends me to the hills.

It’s the thought of the visual intrusion of these massive structures, beating time with such a regular rhythm into the stunning views from the Scottish and Welsh hills (because it is primarily Scotland and Wales that are suffering) that depresses me so much. To me they feel so obviously out of place.

Copyright NASA

It's not as simple as that is it though?

I'm complaining about wind farms for aesthetic and principally selfish reasons, they spoil my enjoyment of the county side. Thinking deeper though and it's obvious that my love of the hills has contributed in it's small way to the problem we face.

I like to consider myself a green person, I recycle, cycle to work, turn of lights, put on a jumper and turn down the heating, avoid air freighted food. Whilst at university I even would get up early on climbing trips and collect the 100’s of bottles and cans from the night before and take them to the local recycling centre.

I also have a blind spot, my car; I must drive 15,000 miles a year for no reason other than having fun in the hills. Already this year I've been to Scotland three times, Wales twice, the Lakes. In the next few months I will drive to Cornwall, Scotland again, and to Chamonix, and Fontainebleau in France. Every mile I will be spewing CO2 out into the atmosphere.

I think we forget this in the outdoor circles, our carbon footprints are awful. A back of an envelope calculation for my car shows that those 15,000 miles equate to 2.8 tonnes of CO2. Considering the average UK carbon footprint is 9.7 tonnes the fact that I get a almost a third of the way to that total just through my main leisure activities pretty much off sets any good I do in other areas.

Destroying the things we love?
It’s easy to criticise others, but actually who is to say if the carbon footprint from my mileage is an inherently a better or more worthwhile use of carbon than someone who wants to drive their gas guzzling SUV round town or run half a hundred electrical appliances in their house.

So here is the conflict. My outdoor interests are crucial to whom I am; I can’t imagine myself not going walking and climbing in the hills as these activities define a core part of my soul. My aspirations to move towards becoming a mountain instructor means I will inevitably increase my carbon footprint and through my actions contribute to global warming that may alter the landscapes a love with catastrophic effects for all their inhabitants.

Can I really be green whilst doing this mileage for fun? Can I offset the damage by ruthlessly minimising my footprint elsewhere? I guess before I go shouting off about wind farms I should see if I can set my own house in order because at the moment I don’t know how to square this circle.

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