MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We've heard of "earthshaking decisions"--but the Kansas Supreme Court's October 30 decision affirming Wabaunsee County's ban on commercial-scale wind-energy conversion systems (CWECS) was an earth-saving one. It allows predominantly rural Wabaunsee County to protect its endangered tall grass prairie from industrial-scale wind "farms." The Nature Conservancy has called CWECS one of today's greatest threats to grassland ecology, in particular the keystone species of grouse, including prairie chickens. The green flag which wind energy wraps itself up in has prevented many people from taking seriously the environmental damage which CWECS can inflict. But Wabaunsee County looked through the green rhetoric and came down firmly on the side of the prairie.
As a resident of neighboring Geary County who has lived on the tall grass prairie for many years, I could talk all day about the importance of this decision. The majority of Geary County, too, is native unplowed prairie--an extraordinary landscape, given that over 94% of the tall grass prairie elsewhere in the United States has been destroyed. But the ecological value of Geary County's land is magnified a thousand fold by its contiguity with Wabaunsee County's prairie and with the 4-5 million acres of intact native grassland comprised in the Flint Hills. Grassland species need genetic diversity to survive, and nothing endangers that diversity more than fragmentation--just the sort of fragmentation that CWECS would have caused. With fragmentation, populations become isolated, their gene pools less diverse. Studies have shown that prairie chicken populations crash when confined to prairie remnants. They have also shown that prairie chickens in the northern Flint Hills are currently able to mix and match with prairie chickens in the southern Flint Hills. Wabaunsee County's decision helps to keep it that way.
Wabaunsee County considered such ecological factors when it imposed its ban on CWECS, along with a long list of other factors, all of them rich with lessons for the rest of us. But today I would like to focus on just one of those other factors--aesthetics. "They didn't want them because of the general notion that [they] would be an eyesore," said Wabaunsee County's zoning administrator David Stuewe about Wabaunee residents' reaction against CWECS. The Supreme Court agreed that the County Commission had acted reasonably in determining that "commercial wind farms would adversely, if not dramatically, affect the aesthetics of the county and for that reason should be prohibited."
There are those who hate that decision and hate that reason. To them, "aesthetics" is an effete concern, irrelevant to the main business of life. Survival comes first, they say, and in our society that means making money. When people object to the smell of a hog confinement operation, these utilitarians say, "it smells like money." To them, aesthetics and economics are incompatible, and the Wabaunsee County Commission was stupid not to go for the money wind developers would have paid to landowners to lease their property and donated to the county in lieu of taxes.
I would like to share some of my thoughts about this very American tendency to pit aesthetics and economics--beauty and survival--against each other. I've been thinking about this issue partly because this fall in the Flint Hills has been so beautiful. The growing season was long and wet, and so the leaves of grass and trees grew lush. Now they catch the autumn light each day in a new way, while colors come and go, and clouds build up over the hills. This ever-changing beauty feels--not like an object which I can observe from afar--but like an encompassing force. It inspires joy, love, delight--but it also upsets, challenges, and disturbs. The pragmatic American me feels guilty for spending so much time in it, while the experiential me feels guilty for doing anything else. What does this contradiction mean? What is the nature of this beauty?
I can't say much for sure on this subject, but I can say with reasonable certainty that there is a mystery in the beauty of the Flint Hills that cannot be plumbed. Mystery moves us, though, to feel, to think. The beauty of the prairie feels powerful to me, central to life, not at all the peripheral, unnecessary amenity of the utilitarians' caricature. Out of that feeling, I have gravitated toward some ideas that posit the centrality of beauty. Let me share a few:
The tall grass prairie has fed human beings for ten thousand years, through ancient megafauna, bison, and now cattle. During all those years, the health of the prairie has meant the health of the people. Isn't it possible that over time a perception of beauty became an instinctive way to respond to the health of the land? Certainly, a beautiful prairie is a healthy prairie, with vibrant grasses able to feed large grazers and an array of wildflowers, able (among other things) to tap the groundwater and put nitrogen into the soil. If a healthy prairie is beautiful, an unhealthy one is the opposite. Certainly, ranchers today find over-grazed pastures ugly. Wendell Berry says the same about traditional Kentucky livestockmen. In his essay, "Economy and Pleasure," Berry describes sheepfarmer Henry Besuden, "one of the best of the traditional livestockmen," who checked his pastures every morning, looking for an indefinable quality of well-being. "He recognized it, of course, by his delight in it," writes Berry. The livestockman's delight mirrored his sheep's delight in grazing there--a delight which connected directly to the bottom line.
The aesthetics of landscape may even go hand-in-hand with new business opportunities. Throughout the Flint Hills, including Wabaunsee County, nature-based tourism is on the rise. Visitors come to experience the beauty of the prairie, and residents who accommodate them are able to add to their bottom line. But only those farmers and ranchers who themselves appreciate the beauty of the prairie are able to imagine offering that experience to others. Aesthetics brings economic opportunity to them, and aesthetics allows them to take advantage of it.
However, many of us today are unaware of any beauty-prosperity link, but that doesn't mean it's not there. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but did anyone find the Dust Bowl pretty? And surely people in the 1930s noticed that the ugliness of the dust storms and hunger went together. Similarly, Berry argues that today's factory farming is not sustainable, and that one danger sign is its unattractiveness. Perhaps our aesthetic sense is trying to alert us to something our common sense should not ignore.
But it is famed entomologist and ecologist E. O. Wilson who has taken disparate links between natural beauty and prosperity and turned them into a theory of human evolution and human nature. Author of the "biophilia" hypothesis, he argues that an attraction to nature shaped our survival as a species. At the dawn of Homo sapiens, those individuals who were cold to the world, who grabbed from it only what they wanted in the moment, did not live long enough to pass on their genes. They were out-competed by those who felt an affinity for their environment, who were drawn to plants and animals and therefore learned everything they could about the web of relationships in which they were themselves enmeshed. Those individuals survived and passed on this quality to their progeny. Over time, this attraction to the natural world became a part of us. "We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms," writes Wilson in Biophilia. "They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought."
If Berry's and Wilson's theories are true, then the beauty that feels central to some of us is central. Admittedly, many in today's society have no feel for nature but love machines and money instead. Only time will tell how adaptive the love of cold metal turns out to be. Theirs is the radical departure. Given the history of human survival as viewed by Berry and Wilson, the Wabaunsee County Commission was in the conservative mainstream when it took aesthetics into account. It's only prudent, practical, and pragmatic, therefore, not to underestimate the loveliness of the prairie. The mysterious beauty of the Flint Hills could well be red in tooth and claw.