Beauty and the Beach: Cape Wind, Part I

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I’m from Cape Cod, and I’ve never liked it when the ocean is interrupted. I like my view of the ocean to be cut short only by the curve of the earth, not by some meddling chunk of land or anything like that. It’s easier to feel continuous with the ocean if I can see a continuous ocean.

The 130 giant wind turbines proposed for a site six miles off the shore, the power from which would supply 75% of the Cape and Islands’ electricity, would definitely interfere with my oceanic feeling. The fossil fuel-burning power plant in my hometown of Sandwich, which currently supplies almost half of the region’s electrical power, is certainly less conspicuous. I vaguely remember the plant’s smokestack coming into view on each trip to the A&P. I grew up with the belief that it had something to do with Santa Claus, but I never thought much about it.

For many parties opposing the project, although they may buttress the argument with complaints of fishermen accessibilty and bird safety, the real concern is that marred seascape. The controversy smacks of NIMBYism and NIMSHBY (Not in My Summer Home’s Backyard) ism.

I can’t just write it off, and mutter to myself, “NIMSHBY, SCHMNIMSHBY.” Because nobody, including me, wants an ugly seascape. Especially on Cape Cod, where aesthetics equals economics: tourism is successful there because of beauty. So instead of questioning the validity of aesthetic concerns, why don’t we question whether the wind turbines are ugly in the first place.

In assuming they’re ugly, the first mistake is lack of imagination. Oil is beautiful, when you get past the black greasiness and think about the millions of once-living creatures and the slow pressurization that caused their mass metamorphosis. Wind power is beautiful when you think of pure sea air flowing into and powering your hair dryer. Global warming tends to elude aesthetic judgments because it is still so invisible. But try to feel the ugliness of too-warm air on your skin, or the wreckage from a severe hurricane, and weigh that against the ugliness of wind turbines in the ocean.

The second mistake is thinking too narrowly about wilderness. In the American imagination, wilderness is thought of as pure land, unmarked by humans. Everything else is civilization. This black-and-white mentality leads us to resist a wind farm (something that would help the environment) in the “wilderness” of the sea, while encouraging or at least accepting the construction of trophy houses and chain stores in the already “civilized” parts of the Cape. Yet these enormous homes and stores are more of a threat to beauty and to the environment. We may do better, both environmentally and aesthetically, to have a more integrated view of wilderness.

Rather than repelling tourists because of ugliness, the wind project would probably bring in more tourists. In addition to natural beauty, the Cape has history. Tourists come to see the marks of some of the first European settlements in America. If the Cape Wind project happens, tourists would come for not only 17th century history, but 2007 history. Right now we can’t see the ocean for the machines. But looking ahead, building the first off-shore wind farm in America, in the heat of the global warming crisis, is going to attract visitors, admirers, and most likely, followers. Coastal areas should be competing to be the first, not hemming and hawing about tainted seascapes.

This post is called “Part I” because I am going home to the Cape next week and plan to write another post after re-experiencing the place and doing some first-hand research on the Cape Wind project.

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