My thesis regarding the aesthetics of wind turbines is that they have an objectively negative quality. A few freaks and weirdos might personally like the appearance of wind turbines (which is fine by me: as a classical liberal I’m all for freedom of thought and freedom of expression), but objectively speaking I’d like to make the case that wind turbines have a provably negative aesthetic value, and therefore it’s morally wrong to inflict their presence on people against their will and without their consent.
(This is the same ethical principle as saying if people really want to eat a plate of cold sick, it’s their perfect right to do so, but the moment they force someone else to eat their regurgitated vomit, it crosses ethical boundaries.)
Now of course we are all forced to see things that have a negative aesthetic value many times daily; are they also morally as aesthetically impaired? Generally speaking, progress involves gradually removing or improving bad aesthetics wherever we come across room for improvement. Most of the time our town planning has been very tight and stringent about maintaining as good aesthetics as possible, although every now and then we have made catastrophic mistakes.
A lot of late 60s town centre redevelopments and social housing schemes suffered from incredibly poor aesthetics, which only increased crime, antisocial behaviour and social injustice. The worst examples, such as Manchester’s Hulme Crescents, have gone down in history as Titanic-sized planning mistakes, universally acknowledged as such and henceforth referred to in textbooks as what to avoid in the future.
I’d like to put the UK’s wind energy planning policy (1992 to 2015) in the same category: a catastrophic underestimation of just how badly wind turbines screwed up the aesthetics of some our most cherished landscapes.
The term “psychogeography” refers to how our landscapes affect our moods, which is also an underpinning tenet of feng shui. The ethics of the psychogeographical impact of a development are a no-brainer on every level: good aesthetics make us feel better, bad aesthetics make us feel worse, therefore it’s morally wrong to impose bad aesthetics on people. Anyone who doesn’t get this basic principle should be strung out of the Planning Inspectorate on their ear.
GOOD AESTHETICS ENHANCE OUR MOODS.
BAD AESTHETICS WORSEN OUR MOODS.
Anyone who imposes bad aesthetics onto people against their will is therefore acting unethically.
So what are aesthetics, and how do their differ from taste? The whole point of aesthetics is that they are objective, rational and based on mathematical and geometric principles, not subjective in any way. Liking something is NOT the same as appreciating its aesthetic qualities, although what you tend to find is the more people understand aesthetics, the more their tastes will converge.
When you read some Green BS that tells you “aesthetics are a personal thing… I’ll like wind turbines if I want to, nobody will tell me otherwise”, they’re actually talking about individual taste rather than aesthetics. Personally liking wind turbines is fine, just as long as they are the only one in the world to see them. But the moment they inflict their turbines on anyone else, against their will and without their consent, is the moment they lose the moral argument.
One of the simplest ways of determining the aesthetic value of something is to look at how few noticeable flaws there are in its contextual presentation (ie the right look, sound and feel, in the right time and the right place). If there’s nothing obviously wrong with a picture, a song, a movie or a landscape, then you could say it has an aesthetic value of 100%. Each little mistake, everything that breaks the spell of perfection, pulls the percentage down by a fraction. We could therefore say that anything with a total aesthetic value of over 50% is essentially aesthetically positive, albeit with imperfections; whereas anything with a total aesthetic value of under 50% is essentially aesthetically negative, even if it does have a few highlights.
A good analogy is a driving test. Each individual instructor will have their own unique perspective on your driving abilities, but overall your score will be based on specific, quantifiable criteria, universally agreed as the default indication of people’s fitness to be let loose behind the wheel. We can apply the same principle to aesthetics: we can use specific metrics to evaluate something’s aesthetic qualities – in this case, let’s say a landscape.
How many man-made structures are visible from this viewpoint?
What is the tallest object visible?
How many moving objects are visible?
What colours are visible, and in what proportions?
What shape is the landscape?
What are the most prominent natural features?
What percentage of the landscape is contiguously built-up?
What percentage of the landscape is wooded?
Looking at a map, work out how many metres between the lowest point you can see and the highest point you can see.
As well as questions directly and specifically related to geometry and colour, we can also use other indirect criteria to help us ascertain a landscape’s general amenity value.
How much is property worth in this area?
What are the crime statistics in this area?
How many people visit this beauty spot every year?
The better the questions, and the more appropriate to the individual landscape, the greater the likelihood that several people answering the same questions will all come up with broadly similar answers. We could certainly aggregate people’s scores to come up with a pretty mathematically watertight list of the defining aesthetic qualities of every landscape in the UK.
What is subjective, up to a point, is the emotional reaction we each have to these qualities, but when it comes to simply describing what something looks like, there are objective truths that override any personal taste. In the words of the song: Black is Black!
Understanding that aesthetics are based on measurable values is the trick to changing or modifying anything. A before-and-after assessment should be made of how an additional feature changes these aesthetic values. Nothing that gets added should have any detriment to what is already there. Changes or modifications should complement or enhance the existing form, enriching it or adding subtle definition. All elements should be in harmony and synchronisation with each other (I’ve mentioned this before in regard to out-of-phase wind turbines: were they ballerinas, they would have rotten vegetables thrown at them!).
Yes, there can be a time and place for dissonant “shock” aesthetics that obliterate everything in their path – eg The Sex Pistols or a Tarantino movie – but in order to be good they have to be deliberate (or just highly intuitive), well aware of their stark impact on those who come across them, doing it for a reason.
And this is the key to why wind turbines have bad aesthetics: any element that appears in high contrast to its surroundings will stand out as the dominant feature… just like this sentence! (The same applies to pop vocals over an instrumental backing track, cartoon spaceships exploding into huge fireballs, graffiti spraypainted onto a train, and sterile white wind turbines erected in a lush, verdant meadow.)
The extremely high visual prominence of wind turbines set against a green background (a contrast more prominent than virtually any other structure you can imagine) has the effect of dramatically transforming the colour balance of a rural landscape; all the natural green elements are relegated to the background, whilst the artificial, gleaming white pillars and blades are promoted to the foreground.
Question: What colour is the landscape?
Before: green as far as the eye can see, topped by blue sky.
After: a green background overlaid with several high-visibility white pillars and spinning metal blades, topped by blue sky.
AESTHETIC VALUE CHANGE: the percentage of landscape which is pure green reduces from 90% to 60% as high-visibility white pillars and spinning blades are introduced.
The basic error of the wrong colour is compounded by the even more rudimentary errors of the wrong size (wind turbines by far the largest elements of a rural landscape) and the wrong shape (skeletal, jagged and deathly). The larger and more intrusive the wind turbines, the smaller and more insignificant all the natural, green elements of a landscape.
Question: What is the most prominent feature of the landscape?
Before: a long, unbroken ridge of rolling green hills.
After: 11 industrial wind turbines, higher than the hills supporting them.
AESTHETIC VALUE CHANGE: the most prominent feature of the landscape is no longer the green ridge of hills, but the massive turbines astride it.
Question: What shape is the landscape?
Before: soft and undulating lowlands rising to a steep-sided, elongated ridge.
After: soft and undulating lowlands rising to a steep-sided, elongated ridge, topped with 11 huge vertical towers each supporting 3 long, slightly bent blades, all spinning out of sync with each other.
AESTHETIC VALUE CHANGE: the soft and subtly curved shapes of the hills are now capped by a row of towering, metal, out-of-sync spinning stars.
Taken together, these three schoolboy aesthetic errors – wrong colour, wrong size and wrong shape – ensure that, far from being Green themselves, wind turbines have the effect of blocking out, belittling and blighting all that is truly Green.
I can’t work out whether the brutal aesthetic of high-visibility white wind turbines slashing their way through our deep green landscapes was simply accidental (based on stupidity, ignorance and utterly Philistine levels of aesthetic appreciation); or whether, according to a rather more sinister explanation, it was actually deliberately intended that huge white wind turbines would be allowed to trash traditional green countryside views and reinvent our “rural landscapes” as “turbine landscapes”…
Either way: the only possible logical explanation anyone could have for enjoying the aesthetics of wind turbines would be IF THEY REALLY, REALLY DIDN’T LIKE THE COUNTRYSIDE. Then, and only then, might there be a conceivable reason to claim the confrontational impact of wind turbines was aesthetically successful in any way.
Let’s now look at a real-life example of how distant turbines can have a ruinous effect on our National Parks.
This piece was directly inspired by the views from one stretch of road, which I advise everyone to visit, so you too can experience this impact for yourselves. Get yourself up to the Peak District, specifically the top of Ringinglow Road, then head east down towards Sheffield. What an amazing vista, so wide that you can almost see the Earth’s curvature. You’ll also see for yourself the impact of various wind farms, most prominent of which is Penny Hill, a good ten miles away. Even from up here on the roof of the world, the giant turbines catch your eye and take your attention.
What we have at Ringinglow Road is an amazing landscape stretching as far as the eye can see, a great place for amateur painters to set up their easel and try and recreate the vast panorama. Sheffield City Centre is huddled at the centre of the landscape, with Rotherham a little further away and Doncaster bringing up the rear. Unfortunately the haphazard turbines at Penny Hill change the focus of the view, so that instead of the squat, cubic towers of Steel City being the focal point, now these giant spinning monsters queue-barge their way to the front of your attention span.
It seems that wind turbines extract more energy from humans and animals than from the wind itself.
Unless the Planning Inspectorate specifically wanted visitors to the Peak District to have their views dominated by these spinning wind turbines, and their “shock” aesthetic was deliberately added to unnerve people and make them feel awkward, inadvertently what they’ve done is to transform the aesthetics of a treasured National Park viewpoint into one in which electricity generators are now the most eye-catching feature. It’s true that you can see Drax, Eggborough and Ferrybridge power stations from up here, but their aesthetics are nowhere near as negative, the curved cooling towers far, far distant on the skyline, anchoring and framing the landscape.
The aesthetics of spinning wind turbines on this Peak District landscape are akin to the aesthetics of flashing text on a website…
In searching for a hilariously bad example of flashing text ruining a website, I came across this website with some actual design principles. I think most of these apply to landscapes as well, so ask yourself how well wind turbines apply to these fundamentals of good aesthetics:
- Proper use of colour (are wind turbines painted the right colour for the landscape?)
- Proper use of animation (let’s say motion… how do the blade movements help the landscape?)
- Pleasing to the eye (COMPARED TO HOW IT WOULD LOOK WITHOUT THE TURBINES!)
- Appropriate to the topic (ie appropriate to the surrounding landscape)
- The design elements don’t get in the way of the content (ie your sense of well-being isn’t interfered with by the turbines)
Now I’d like to debunk another old trope, and time to put to bed yet another hoary old Green BS line… just after writing my last entry, which ridiculed the strangely common usage of the word “majestic” amongst pro-wind councillors and commentators, I came across that ludicrous description yet again in an online debate:
“I love wind turbines. I find them majestic and beautiful.” Or words to that effect. OK… Pause… Deep Breath… With all due respect to everyone’s right to think whatever they want, I’d love to break down this sentiment and expose what lies beneath the surface, something quite surprising actually:
WHEN PEOPLE SAY THEY FIND WIND TURBINES MAJESTIC, THEY ARE REVEALING THEMSELVES TO BE FAR-RIGHT CAPITALISTS AT HEART.
EVEN FURTHER RIGHT THAN THE TORIES!
Firstly, it has to be said that “majestic” is a ridiculously pompous adjective, very rarely used in everyday speech. When was the last time you used it, dear reader? When was the last time someone wandered around Gipton saying, “Ey oop it’s reet majestic is that Knowlesthorp wind turbine.” It’s a Polly Toynbee word. Nobody under 60 would use it.
But what exactly is “majesty” when it’s at home? Well, there are two definitions, clearly linked: (1) “impressive beauty, scale, or stateliness”; and (2) “royal power”. So fundamentally the concept of “majesty” is linked to the power of the monarchy, and one’s perception that such power is beautiful and impressive. The aesthetics of “majesty” are stateliness, ornateness, opulence and splendour, all denoting wealth, power and privilege.
I understand these aesthetics perfectly, after all as I keep saying, aesthetics are not a personal thing. I’m just not convinced these are the aesthetics people really want to be confronted with, high in the wild moors of the Peak District. Especially when that “majesty” comes in the form of a high voltage electricity generator owned and operated by a corporation. I’m not sure that’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of “The Manchester Rambler”.
Now one might say the very Peaks themselves are majestic, especially the mighty lion-like Kinder Scout as viewed from the east, nestling its surrounding peaks like cubs. But here’s the psychological difference between finding a mountain “majestic” and finding a wind turbine “majestic”: the whole ethos of the National Parks is that every single one of us, physically able to do so, can go and climb Kinder. That’s what the struggle was for. To give each of us the opportunity to stand a few feet taller than the highest land in the region. To be on top of the world. To have all that majesty BENEATH OUR FEET!
Yes, it’s all well and good having views of distant mountains, in fact this in itself is good psychogeography and healthy for all of us. But it’s something else to be able to climb to the top of them and look down! It’s empowering, self-actualising and incredible for mental health 🙂
Unless we are able to climb to the very top of a moving wind turbine, our only experience of its “majesty” comes from gazing up at it. This is surely highly passive and disempowering!
When people say they find wind turbines “majestic”, they really mean they like to gawp up at great big gadgets, and luxuriate in their perceived “Royal” stateliness. Which to me seems incredibly right-wing in so many ways… firstly the deferential, forelock-tugging, bowing and scraping to ANYONE or ANYTHING is the antithesis to the rebellious spirit of the original Kinder Trespassers. But when the object of such deference is a metal machine, owned and run by some huge corporation, then it’s off-the-scale Worship at the Altar of Capitalism!
As I say, even the Conservatives aren’t that right wing. Even the Conservatives, especially Man of the Moment Sajid Javid (you read it here first… what did I tell you about the high correlation between opposing wind blight and doing well in life?!), care more about the majesty of Kinder than the majesty of yet another wind farm.
So when you next come across someone raving about the majesty of wind turbines, ask them if they’ve always been more right-wing and capitalist than the Conservatives?
The only other conclusion to be drawn is that they’ve mixed up the word “majesty” with “travesty”….