Shetland Life Editorial

A healthy debate

At the end of any year there will be things you wish to remember and things you would prefer to forget.

Looking back over 2009, there are many things we might want to forget. The sorry state of our council would be one obvious example, though there is little chance of that matter slipping our minds. In fact, this coming year is likely to bring further embarrassments from that direction, so I suppose we might as well get used to it.

Offered three wishes for 2010, in Marsali Taylor’s article this month, more than one person said they would like to see an end to the “awful polarity” of the Viking Energy windfarm debate, which has raged so fiercely over the past year. I can understand this view. The debate has been divisive; it has pitted friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour, and unfortunately a significant percentage of the discussion has managed to be both vitriolic and unilluminating.

But I’m not so sure that we should write off the argument as an entirely negative force. It is not, I think, something we should try to put behind us. For at the heart of the windfarm debate – behind the facts, the figures, the opinion and speculation – there is, on both sides, something positive. There is a genuine desire to sustain and improve the place in which we live.

Discounting the financial greed of a few individuals, the motivating force of this discussion, and the reason it has become so heated, is the passion that people feel for their community (and I am including landscape and environment in my use of that word). Naturally, there are differences in people’s values, their specific priorities and perspectives, but the heat that has been generated has been the result of the same basic fuel.

Around the United Kingdom – around most of the developed world – the idea of community is no longer properly understood. The word is still used quite freely, but that thing to which it refers has been allowed to crumble and collapse. Few people are now lucky enough to live within a community.
Individuals no longer feel any kind of connection with those around them; they feel no responsibility towards their neighbours; they feel no membership. The breakdown of social cohesion that has been allowed to happen elsewhere has been slower to take hold in Shetland, and for that we should be extremely pleased.

There are few places, I believe, that could have mustered the kind of passion that we have seen here in Shetland over the windfarm, and while there are elements of this debate that we might wish to forget and put behind us, we would do well to remember the root of that passion. A community can contain a multitude of contrary opinions, and we should recognise that our disagreements are part of what holds us together; they should not be allowed to tear us apart.

Within the debate itself I have found things from which I have taken comfort also. It has been satisfying, first of all, to see environmental issues take centre stage locally, just as they have done internationally. There has been much contradictory information available, and some very unhelpful and ill-informed opinions have been given more space than they ought to, but overall I think most people will feel more informed about climate change, habitat loss and renewable energy today than they did 12 months ago. That is a good thing.

Perhaps it is my (almost) youthful naivety and idealism, but I have also felt exceedingly positive about one of the central tenets of the argument against the windfarm – you might call it the anti-financial argument. According to many opponents of the project, and I would count myself amongst them, not everything should be for sale, and a landscape is not something on which we should be prepared to put a price. Indeed, it is precisely the attitude that places money, energy and technology above all else that has landed us in this environmental mess in the first place. The recognition of this fact is, I think, hugely significant.

There are many who claim that the windfarm’s opponents should “get real” – particularly in our current economic situation. They argue that money is, always, the bottom line. But it is not. The bottom line is much deeper than that. And it is to there that we must look.

Malachy Tallack


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