In environmental justice, the wind still rides roughshod over the rules

The proposed Viking development, which would have seen 103 wind turbines erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland, has been prevented. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business in

On 24 September, Lady Clark of Calton, the chair of the Scottish Law Commission, ruled against the proposed Viking development in which 103 wind turbines would have been erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland.

The Scottish government had manhandled the project through the final planning phase, despite massive community opposition and the objections of the RSPB, the John Muir Trust, Shetland Amenity Trust, Sustainable Shetland and Scottish Natural Heritage. Citing a range of concerns, Lady Clark made particular note that she was not satisfied Scottish ministers had complied with their obligations under the Wild Birds Directive 2009, adding: “it appears not to be disputed by anyone that whimbrel [a curlewlike member of the snipe family] are a declining species in the UK, with approximately 95 per cent of 290 breeding pairs in Shetland”.

This ruling was, as my mother used to say, “a real tonic” for Scots who, over the past several years, have seen our wildlands and their birds subjected to senseless damage by ill-considered rural projects ranging from the 220km Beauly-Denny super-pylon line to that now-notorious luxury golf resort on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Menie, imposed by imperial fiat from Holyrood after it was rejected by local decision-makers. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business interests and the whims of high office.

This hope for environmental justice may be short-lived, however, as the Scottish government quickly announced its decision to appeal Lady Clark’s ruling. It has every right to do so, but one wonders why a government that constantly trumpets its sustainable credentials and commitment to “freedom” would be so intent on ignoring not only a piece of European legislation designed to protect endangered birds, but the outcome of a High Court judicial review in which a very small David rightfully triumphed over a very large Goliath.

Sadly, the threat to Shetland’s wild birds continues, considering the resources that big corporations, backed by government, can bring to bear against a local environmental group such as Sustainable Shetland, whose only funds come from members’ donations.

I suppose there are those in Holyrood who take the view that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “if you’ve seen one whimbrel, you’ve seen ’em all”. One can but hope that others would echo recent comments in the Lords by Viscount Ridley, when he points out that “There is a feeling that wind seems to be exempt from the normal rules. If I were to erect a structure 140 metres high, doubling the height above sea level of the hills alongside the valley of the Stinchar in Ayrshire, for example, there would rightly be an outcry. If I were to kill hundreds of birds of prey every year, there would be outrage. If I were to kill thousands of bats, I would go to jail. How can it be that the wind industry uniquely is allowed to ride roughshod over the environmental rules that protect the rest of us from anyone spoiling the view, killing eagles and pouring concrete into peatland?”

I believe that there are many Scottish politicians, even within the SNP, who worry not only about the land but about their government’s propensity to override any local decision it finds inconvenient. Unless they speak out now, we will see a real blot on Scotland’s environmental copybook.

If Judge Clark’s ruling stands, it sets the stage for a new era of serious environmental protection throughout these islands.

If it does not, a few people will become very rich indeed, but the whimbrel (to use the Gaelic name, Guilbneach-bheag, or “little lamenting one”) may well vanish from Shetland, lamenting to the end, not only for itself, but for us all.

 

Gannets above stormy seas in the Shetland islands, where a wind farm plan has been rejected. Photo: Corbis

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump