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A pump jack works in front of a wind farm in the background in Southwestern Ontario, July 2012. (RANDALL MOORE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A pump jack works in front of a wind farm in the background in Southwestern Ontario, July 2012. (RANDALL MOORE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why preserving the view in Canada is not just tilting at windmills Add to ...

In Prince Edward County, I always feel like I’m in a painting come to life.

Cheesy? Sure. But whether it’s the ethereal quality of light across the fields, the rustic shops and wineries or the sunset views over Lake Ontario, something in this bucolic little region about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa makes it easy to imagine myself daubed into a familiar pastoral landscape, one remembered from a million postcards, textbooks and magazines. It’s the same feeling, I suppose, that brings a steady flow of plaid-clad urban defectors here, looking to re-imagine themselves as one of the County’s local artisans.

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Lately, though, turbines have been haunting the horizon. Last December, the Ontario government approved an application by Gilead Power Corporation to develop a “Wind Energy Park” at Ostrander Point, which would put nine turbines on the County’s south shore, not far from Sandbanks Provincial Park.

Residents balked, and a showdown ensued. Gilead pointed out the economic and environmental benefits of wind energy; locals pointed to potential effects on human health, disrupted bird migration routes and habitat loss.

Two community groups, the Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County and the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, filed formal objections, and in July an environmental tribunal stopped the development, ruling the turbines would cause “serious and irreversible harm” to a threatened amphibian called Blanding’s turtle. Many residents cheered, and the turtle became a kind of local hero, its charming yellow-chinned face popping up on pamphlets and T-shirts.

But it wasn’t hard to see that there was more than turtle habitat integrity stoking the joy. Underneath the various educated concerns over bird and bat safety, threatened ecosystems and low-frequency noise, most wind opponents in Prince Edward County agreed on one thing: The turbines would really ruin the view.

Officially, it’s considered something of a facile position to argue on the grounds of nice scenery. This is the crucible of the dreaded NIMBY syndrome. In 2009, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty vowed to combat this nefarious pox on green energy, proclaiming, “It’s okay to object on the basis of safety issues and environmental standards; if you have real concerns there, put those forward.” Visual disharmony was decidedly not on Mr. McGuinty’s list of “real concerns.”

When it comes to resource development, we like to keep things rational. Metrics rule, especially the bottom line. Why worry about something abstract like beauty, when jobs are on the line? How dare we quibble over sight lines and vistas, when sustainable power is at stake? It is hard to argue with the numbers: Nine 2.5-megawatt turbines at Ostrander Point would have the potential to charge 5,600 homes a year. What place do aesthetic concerns have in a discussion about energy?

The answer may be more significant than we’re currently willing to allow. The more we disconnect from nature in our daily lives, the more the way in which we imagine it becomes important – not only as a source of beauty, but as the thing that tells us who we are.

Imagine “Canada.” What comes to mind: A maple leaf? A golden prairie? Maybe a Tom Thomson canvas, with its drooping pines or skeletal spruce. Or perhaps the tailing ponds of the northern Alberta.

Since before Confederation, our view of the land has shaped our view of ourselves. Early painters such as Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff filtered their images of the country through a European lens. The Group of Seven aimed for direct contact with the wilderness. In Margaret Atwood’s Survival, in the films of Peter Mettler and Denis Côté, in the photography of Edward Burtynsky – we continue to position ourselves as people with a stake in the landscape. (This, without even beginning to address the traditions of First Nations, for many of whom arts and culture are inseparable from the land.)

All of this natural stuff in our culture has not only created a national identity but a distinctly Canadian aesthetic: the idea that nature is about beauty as much as it is an economic and material resource.

So if we start altering our landscapes with turbines – or pipelines, or natural gas flares – and there’s objection over how it looks, should we take it more seriously than we do? Is it unfair to dismiss the NIMBYs? Does beauty matter?

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