Wind, trains, bicycles and progressive culture
- April 27, 2012
I was surprised by the recent controversy over wind turbines in Floyd County. After all, Floyd’s reputation is as a place where Virginia Tech professors go to be gentleman farmers.
It has a countercultural ethos where bluegrass intersects with homegrown of other varieties, where barter is a way of business among local residents.
Floyd has historically had no zoning restrictions of any type. A ban on wind turbines would be the first time that its Board of Supervisors has imposed its will on local landowners.
Among places in Virginia that seem ready for alternative energy, Floyd would appear to be a likely candidate. It is an “alternative” kind of place.
I had a chance to see the effects of alternative sources of energy and transportation during a spring vacation in Europe.
Small clusters of wind turbines dotted the landscape as I traveled by high-speed train between Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London. The turbines were aesthetically pleasing additions to the view of the countryside from the train. Seeing wind power on the horizon was nice and not the least bit offensive.
Plans for high-speed rail in Virginia bear little resemblance to what I experienced in Europe. Trains there traveled at 180 miles per hour, far faster than any passenger rail system being contemplated for Virginia.
It takes both better trains and better tracks to accomplish high speed. Subsidized by the federal government, Amtrak potentially could provide better trains, but private freight carriers own our tracks. Private assets need to see a return on capital to justify the infrastructure improvements necessary for true high-speed rail in the U.S.
As long as the appetite for public-sector investment remains low on this side of the Atlantic, I doubt our trains will be moving much faster. One has to wonder why both Europe and Asia have high-speed trains and the U.S. does not.
During my trip, I was impressed by the prevalence of bicycles in Amsterdam. Without counting, I’d say that bicycles outnumbered the cars on city streets by 100 to 1. Two-wheeled transportation is regularly associated with Asian cities but is less common in the West.
The people of the Netherlands are remarkably physically fit. Bicycling is no doubt good for one’s health and also a carbon-lowering activity. Still, I doubt we will see it coming to our cities in Amsterdam-like numbers anytime soon.
Thinking about cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe, I’m reminded of Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” I studied this in high school (and yes, this was public school in Virginia, long before the days of an SOL-laden curriculum, but that will have to be the subject of a future column).
Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” argued that the existence of open land in the American West resulted in a new culture that was vastly different from its European antecedents. The availability of open land created a culture in the U.S. that was more optimistic, innovative, creative and entrepreneurial in nature.
A downside to the optimistic underpinnings of our culture is a tendency to discount solutions produced elsewhere in the world. The U.S. has a high standard of living, but that should not be an excuse for arrogance.
In our own generation, culture was significantly influenced by the rise of the baby-boom generation. While boomers’ influence has been greater in the U.S. than in Europe, along with technological advancements it has given rise to a global popular culture unknown to previous generations.
Coming of age means developing one’s sense of self-identity. For baby boomers, a sense of self was often gained by identifying things to oppose. We opposed war, racism and generally all of the values held by the World War II generation of our parents. Defining oneself in terms of opposition to things is the very essence of the term “counterculture.”
Coming of age for boomers may well have involved a fair amount of collective insanity, but it was a fun and creative time. By now, the exuberance of youth has hopefully been leavened by some collective wisdom.
Still, we have a generational tendency to identify ourselves by what we oppose. This has bled into the political arena with the unintended consequence of making progress more difficult on some of the same causes we passionately supported in our youth.
Much of our election-driven political culture seems driven by fear of things we are against. An idealism focused on goals worth striving toward would be more effective in producing progress. Whether it be in Floyd County or elsewhere in Virginia, if we are for wind energy, high-speed rail and even bicycles, we need to support them.