It’s important to see the big picture in climate as in anything. But also to remember that the big picture is made up of the actual details, some of which have horns and a tail. For instance a new paper from the Global Warming Policy Forum warns that solar panels are chewing up Britain’s farmland due to a general mistaken conviction that alternative energy has a small footprint and there will always be food just because. But also a very specific policy error that makes it easy to convert ordinary agricultural land to industrial uses. Including solar farms that are bad for the environment in a great many ways, from toxic waste to being ugly, artificial, swelling blots on the landscape.
It is somewhat remarkable that any of Britain is still green given that its population has expanded from 44 million in 1921 to perhaps 66 million today in a nation that, at just under a quarter million square kilometers, would fit into the Great Lakes. And of course farmland is not pristine wilderness, and enthusiasts for population growth need to come up with some sort of plan for preserving the latter as well, especially in regions not as spectacularly blessed with space as Canada or Australia. Also known as most of the world, though few places are as badly off as Belgium where a forest is a rarity, or Singapore where a farm is.
There are practical consequences to having insufficient land to produce enough food to feed your people, something that was already a problem for Britain in both world wars, as there are in having insufficient energy to keep your people alive, something that is now a problem for Britain in its dealings even with France, let alone Russia or China. And there are also practical as well as metaphysical consequences in raising a generation that, as G.K. Chesterton warned nearly a century ago, would rather get milk from a nice clean store than some dirty old cow. And we think there are also, dare we say, spiritual drawbacks to people who live without contact with nature even if they are hectored constantly about this thing called “the environment” in their sterile, artificially lit classrooms surrounded by asphalt, cement, high-density residential areas and strip malls. And solar farms are to nature as a high rise is to a cottage. And of course solar farms on top of their other failings need to be heavily subsidized (see for instance the end of this post). But even if you disagree, let’s talk about doing things on purpose.
In Britain, about 100,000 acres of farmland is converted to industrial use each year. Not all solar farms, of course. But the solar farms have a growing subsidy-fed appetite. Is this initiative intentional? Or just due to bad, outdated planning decisions? The latter, it seems. And it is not risk-free in any sense of that term.
The UK is down to under 15 million acres of arable land, its lowest level since 1945. And it is now, the paper says, about 61% self-sufficient in food production, and 75% in food you can actually grow in Britain. (Well, as Adam Smith wrote a quarter-millennium ago, you could grow grapes in Wales if sufficiently determined but it would be very resource-intensive… unlike in Roman times when it was, what’s that word, warmer. Some stubborn people do it anyway.) Suppose either geopolitical or pandemic conditions made importing it hard. It would be necessary to reconvert land, find somewhere to dispose of those toxic solar panels and windmill blades, and start looking about for a source of warmth. And for what?
If these solar farms were going to save Britainkind from the menace of global heating and climate collapse, maybe something else could be turned into farmland to feed the solar blob. But whatever one’s view of that prospect, at least make planning decisions on purpose. It’s important to have vision. But also to keep sight of the details, because of who enjoys lurking there.