How to Survive and Thrive
in the Sustainable Economy
By Chris Turner
Random House Canada, 364 pages, $30
YOU are riding an old and rickety train. It is hurtling along a narrow chasm on an ill-maintained roadbed, heading towards a washed-out bridge.
Just the other side of the ravine speeds another train. This one is fast and comfortable. Its track will soon diverge from yours towards a safe crossing.
Your only chance to save yourself is to jump to the other train. You must leap — sideways.
With this metaphor, Chris Turner, a Calgarian who writes on sustainability and clean technology, upends the usual symbol for progress.
The forward leap is history. The urgent changes required to face the latest riders of the apocalypse — peak resources, climate change and financial collapse — will be sideways.
Sideways leaps feature much of the same uncertainty as the forward variety, but crucially do not require new technology. They re-conceive the existing state of affairs in paradigm-shifting ways.
This puts Turner on the optimistic side of the new genre of futurists, but well shy of absurd techno-cornucopianism exemplified by, for example, Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity.
Turner received plaudits for his two previous books, Planet Simpson (2004) and Geography of Hope (2010). His approach here is a believable mélange of individual, corporate, state and grassroots innovations and actions already proven on the city-wide, or even national scale.
Turner begins his exposition of the sideways leap with the story of the Black Ball Line.
In 1818, Jeremiah Thompson started a shipping business out of New York City based on an outrageous concept — his ships would sail at a specified time, no matter what.
Previously, merchant ships postponed departures until their cargo holds were full, sometimes for weeks. Thompson's simple innovation, though extraordinarily risky at the time, soon revolutionized not only the shipping business, but every business. No new technology required; the shift was cognitive.
Another great leap from that time was the Erie Canal. Massive, but essentially a new application of existing modes, it utterly transformed the New York economy in ways that were unimaginable at the time of its planning and execution.
Using these examples to explain the necessity and features of sideways leaps, Turner then moves into the present time, and our pressing need for leaps to sustainability.
Notable successes include:
— Reclaiming city streets from the automobile, as has been done with astonishing benefits in Copenhagen and New York.
— Using "feed-in tariffs," whereby small, renewable energy sources generate revenue for their owners by putting electricity back into the grid. This has led to huge gains in carbon reduction in Germany and other countries, as well as launching countless new businesses.
— Walmart's commitment to become a completely sustainable company, perhaps the most important decision ever made by a corporation.
But the most inspiring story comes from a small district of Freiburg, Germany. Vauban was a Cold War army base, abandoned after the fall of the U.S.S.R.
Almost immediately, it became a spontaneous community of camper-vans. Soon students from the nearby university were clamouring for the barracks to be converted to dorms.
Through unprecedented co-operation among the various interested groups, Vaubon eventually became a model of sustainable urban living — walkable, democratic, running on renewable energy and feeding itself from its own gardens. It reads like a fairy tale of grassroots action, but it's real. Kapyong Barracks, anyone?
Turner makes much of the value of social capital — the trust among people that is the true foundation of any society. His hopeful message for us here in Winnipeg: "Abandoned urban space is never more than a few good ideas away from thriving community."
Jeff Presslaff is a Winnipeg musician with a strong interest in environmental issues.