I was thrilled to come across this book written by a fellow Calgarian that received some high praise from critics. The premise of the book is simple - spurred by the birth of his daughter Chris Turner looked around and saw a world careening out of control. Global warming, pollution, destruction of natural resources, excessive consumption and faulty economics drive our consumerist engine, and there is no shortage of problems to look at and wonder when this train ride will come to a wreck. But dozens of books have been written about the staggering problems facing our world and future as a species, but quite few offer real suggestions as to what we can do about it. Chris Turner went on a whirlwind tour around the globe looking for existing, often very local solutions to a truly sustainable future that work splendidly and point the way to a more hopeful future.
Off the bat I’ve got to say that I am not a proponent of anthropogenic climate change. i.e. I do not feel that man-made global warming is our biggest problem, nor do I condemn CO2 as the largest pollutant in our atmosphere. This book is largely structured around this very premise, and the undertone wonders how is it that any rational human can continue to deny the movement largely started by Al Gore et al. Now that several years have passed, and Al Gore’s faulty research and blatantly incorrect hockey-stick graph has been soundly denounced even by the most ardent global warming proponents, not to mention his energy hogging lifestyle, it is clear that he himself, is probably not a good advocate for the cause.
I personally tend to think that plants breathe CO2, that any volcano eruption as well as our oceans dwarf our CO2 output, that the largest drivers of climate are the sun and the oceans and our orbit, things so vast that we cannot even understand their effects, never mind control them, that the planet is typically a much more tropical place and in fact we are geologically speaking in the middle of a short warm pocket that happens to be in the middle of an ice age, and most important of all – that carbon sequestering is a huge money making scam that will make some people very rich, while doing very little to impact our climate. I also fear that the debate whether pro or con is stealing all the spotlight while ignoring the ridiculous pollution issues plaguing our planet. But what I do understand is that whether we agree on global warming specifically or not, we can both be appalled at the damage to our planet wrought by our species, and overwhelmed with the negative press and dialogue that seems to lead us no closer to real solutions.
The book itself is a manic romp around the world skipping from Denmark to Thailand and even yes, Okotoks. His writing style is a unique mix reminiscent of Gladwell and Pollan, both of whom are referenced, except for on speed. Interspersed with commentary on popular culture, pop psychology and history lessons the book is best digested in small increments lest it simply overwhelm your brain. Since he is local, some of his stories revolve not too far from home, a wind farm nearby, a green community in a small town only a twenty minute drive from my house, even our very own downtown Calgary. To me this was obviously exceptionally interesting since I can add my own observations to the mix.
I found it rather worrying that all the examples of a new way of living that he profiles – a fully self sustaining home in Thailand built using local renewable resources, that costs about as much as a ‘conventional’ style dwelling, a small Danish island where the villagers fully bought into wind farms and barely have any need for oil, a community of Earthship dwellers proudly living in a rather hostile climate with all the creature comforts of the average urban home but with almost none of the energy requirements, E+Co which pioneer a genius partnership to turn waste ponds into energy, and amazing real estate developments which allow people to live and thrive in their communities, not simply exist, – are so few and far between taken in the larger context. They are small pockets of wonderful enterprise, human ingenuity and revolutionary principles on display, but they are quite rare when looked at globally. And frankly we’ve always had great people doing amazing things. All the pioneers above use existing technology in innovative ways, they are not inventing anything as such, but until they reach a ‘tipping point’ a la Gladwell, they will always remain an oasis of sanity with hardly an impact on the global scene.
Calgary is a prime example. The book ends with the author looking over the city and noting how things could be different. How the large empty concrete tracts can be re-imagined as green spaces and truly livable mixed use neighborhoods, how flat sloping roofs seem made for solar panels (in a city with over 300 days of sunshine per year), how urban sprawl can be curbed once and for all and many other wonderful ideas. But since this book was written I can’t say any of those changes have materialized. I’ve yet to see a solar panel on any roof whatsoever, our neighborhood that was once on the edge of the city has been surpassed by further development, mixed use neighborhoods are still things that are developed by far more progressive planners than ours, urban agriculture has not exploded, we do have recycling but strictly as downcycling, and sadly, Seaside Florida, one of the communities lauded in the book is currently drowning in oil from a terrible man made disaster.
I also haven’t seen any of those flexible solar panels that were going to drastically decrease prices in the markets, and in fact I haven’t heard any follow up on that story since it was hyped a few years ago. A shamefully quick google search turns up flexible panels that cost several times more per watt that a generic one does. Okotoks’ award winning Drake Landing community has not been followed by any more, despite its cachet.
Chris travels the world looking for examples of a new sustainable economy. Places where the change is people driven, whether it’s machete wielding villagers peeling bamboo for their micro-hydroelectric dam, or a community investing in wind farms without government mandates, oversight or involvement really. In contrast there seem to be pitifully few solutions to be found around our very own urban yards. Since we don’t have to choose whether to spend money on kerosene or purchase a small solar panel, we don’t have the immediacy of looking for a solution as we continue to live in our urban houses constructed with toxic materials and heat them with coal and gas.
Speaking with a local solar installer generates an estimate that to convert a typical house to be entirely off-grid would cost in the realm of $25,000 – a figure hardly affordable and yes, it would take a very long time to pay for itself. Unless you built a passive solar heated home which costs about the same as a conventional house, but you would likely never get the permits to build one. Sure we recycle, but we all know that at best it’s postponing the trip to the landfill by a reuse or two, and at worst – well, how much does it cost (literally and carbon-wise) to ship our recyclables to Asia where they can be processed/landfilled as prices dictate?
Perhaps it’s my propensity for cynicism and gloom that leads me to read this book, and ask what’s changed since it was published? Or the recent environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf is too vivid and underscores the plight of the planet too much. But where many reviewers see hope in this book, I still see a planet heading for disaster simply because I, the reader, still feel powerless to help stop the train. Unless the residents of this fine city start getting together and implementing our own solutions we will continue to have small pockets of hope around a very sick planet.
Not only that, but as he cleverly points out change has to be FUN and beneficial – no one wants to do things out of desperation out of coming doom and gloom. A great example is cell phone technology and internet – the technology is so convenient and so seemingly necessary that hundreds of homemade solutions sprung up to bypass entirely the slow governmental machine that would have taken decades to deliver the service. What we need is someone to bring a sense of fun, cachet, unbelievable convenience and necessity at an affordable price point to renewable technologies. When that happens, consumers will drive the engine of change faster than you can blink. So to me it’s a brilliantly written book that offers the possibility of hope, but note hope as such.
If you’ve made it this far, through the very long book review, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interesting and vital topic: what do you think of climate change, our path as a species, what we can do to actually change rather than greenwash our lives? Do we have hope?