visual blight

The rampant air and water pollution resulting from fossil fuel use has garnered considerable attention in recent years, with landmark studies on the human health effects and other costs of coal burning, and alarming accounts of declining air quality in gas-and-oil-drilling boomtowns. Toxic accidents such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and the massive 2008 spill of coal-combustion waste into the Clinch and Emory rivers in Tennessee, temporarily galvanize public attention before fading from the news. But the everyday nicks and cuts caused by energy development that mar the beauty and health of the Earth’s ecosystems do not make headlines.

The creeping cancer of visual pollution is difficult to quantify but everywhere apparent. From strip mines and power lines to oil spills and sprawling wind power developments, energy-related visual blight is rampant. It is no accident that the great conservationist Aldo Leopold included aesthetics in his oft-quoted summation of the land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to support the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Ecological integrity and beauty are connected. Wild, intact landscapes are intrinsically beautiful. Degraded, despoiled landscapes are ugly.

Beauty matters greatly to human health and happiness but is frequently discounted. Conservationists fighting industrial-scale wind projects because of their visual impacts are mocked by wind power boosters as being overly concerned about “scenery.” This is an old refrain; legendary congressman Joe Cannon, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who frequently opposed President Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive conservation policies, once quipped, “Not one cent for scenery.” Boosters of economic growth have been echoing that ignorant sentiment for the past century.

An energy economy that truly supported the health of the land community would not degrade beauty but foster it. It would promote ecological integrity on land and sea. A central criterion by which to measure any proposed energy development would be its contribution to visual pollution.