The breeze ain’t good merely because it dries my washing. It has played a pivotal (though generally unacknowledged) role in human history, and will do so again.
In 1492 Columbus sailed smack-bang into the Bahamas. The historical significance of the moment was much greater than the deed itself. As far as sailing went, traveling five weeks across an open sea wasn’t much chop.
And the great man’s geography was off. The doofus thought he’d landed in Japan! Even an averagely observant parrot would have noticed that the natives didn’t slurp when they ate their noodles.
Perhaps that’s why he killed them all off. They knew his shame. Was Columbus so vain he committed genocide to save himself from public embarrassment? I think we all know the answer to that . . ..
He was certainly an ego-maniac, claiming for himself the prize for being first to sight land when, in fact, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana had hooked that lucrative fish. History remembers Rodrigo as the only man to have been shafted worse than Pete Best.
Columbus wasn’t even the first European to reach to the New World. In addition to the Vikings, the fisherman of Bristol knew the American coast well, having harvested the cod of the Grand Banks for donkey’s. Unlike Columbus, they kept the precious resource quiet, hoarding it for themselves.
So Columbus gets the credit because of what followed in his wake—and I’m not talking about yer usual icons of Americanic trumpeting such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights or gun deaths. No, the most significant consequences of Columbus’s voyage sprung from his discovery of the trade winds.
These bands of prevailing breeze circle the earth from East to West astride the equator. This was the power Columbus harnessed to whisk the Santa Maria from Africa across the Atlantic. He also learned that at higher latitudes the winds blow the opposite way, and so could whisk him home again.
Thus the Portugese established a triangular commercial route: Europeans to Africa, misery to America and riches to Europe.
It was all about cash. Good for some, disaster for many, but in either case the harnessing of the trade winds tipped the balance of economic power in favor of Europe. And (as always) with economic power came political power.
As it was, so it is, and now the world is on the cusp of wind-driven revolution once more.
In Europe, wind now generates more power than hydro, and the gap to coal and gas is closing fast. In Denmark, wind supplies 42 percent of all electricity, the highest percentage of any country. They’ll reach 50 percent by 2020 and 84 percent by 2035.
The Scots are racing them neck and neck. This January, wind provided almost half of all electricity on the Scottish national grid. For twenty-two days in the month, wind alone generated enough electricity to supply every home in the country.
Over in Norway, they’re building Europe’s largest onshore wind farm, a 1GW network to deliver 3.4TWh of power each year. And in Sweden, the government has announced plans to become fully reliant on renewable energy within thirty years. The idea is to cut domestic emissions by 85 percent and offset the remainder by investing in energy projects abroad.
The technology to be free of fossil fuels is out there. At the moment, the economy needed to achieve that does not exist. But history has shown that the harnessing of wind has driven great economic change before, and may do the same again.