Eclectic Curiosity

The Geography of Hope

Posted on August 17th, 2008, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Miscellany. No Comments

…[H]ere’s the real crux of it, the thing that puts bounce in the step of the ones already on this path – there is the chance to be part of possibly the greatest project in the history of civilization, to be at the forefront of the generation that confronted the worst conflagration the world had ever seen – and sorted it out. Scientific American calls climate change “arguably the most imposing scientific and technical challenge that humanity ever faced”; a veteran British politician warns of “an ecological time bomb ticking away”; and the former chief economist of the World Bank predicts “major disruptions on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the twentieth century.” To look back, perhaps half a century from now, to say to our children – to our grandchildren – that we took all this on, fought and thought, worked our asses off, tried and failed and tried again, and finally got this wondrous new contraption moving down a clear path toward the sustainable city on a hill – what could be better, more worthwhile, more flat-out balls-to-the-wall exhilarating, than to be part of that?

This paragraph is pulled from the prologue of Chris Turner’s new (2007) book The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, which I’ve been reading over the last month or so. Taking a phrase that economist Kenneth Boulding once said – “Anything that exists is possible.” – and running with it, Turner eloquently riffs for 439+ pages about the immense and significant possibility and opportunity wrapped up in the daunting and depressing climate, energy, and environmental crises. It acknowledges yet dispenses with the fearmongers’ dire warnings and instead chronicles one after another stories from around the world of imagination, ingenuity, ambition, invention, cooperation, and, most notably, real action; hopeful stories that show that a sustainable future is possible and that many people are already successfully and profitably achieving it.

The book breaks down into chapters about vision, power, transport, housing, design, cities, economics, ideology, development, and community. It examines wind farms in southern Alberta, carbon neutral islands in Denmark, microfinance in Bangladesh, Earthship housing in New Mexico, solar villages in Thailand, New Urbanist communities in Colorado, farming in Cuba, North Carolina, and South Central LA, architecture in India, carpet manufacturing in the US, and countless other examples of innovation actually happening today. He questions everything from the environmental movement and UN development initiatives to the idolatry of Le Corbusier and the whole big concept of GDP. And he weaves it all together masterfully in a casual yet passionate voice.

There used to be a great little culture and technology magazine here in Canada called Shift. I discovered Turner there several years ago and came to appreciate his writing style in everything from his opus about The Simpsons (which became his first book) to lighter dispatches like the delicious one he did for Maisonneuve (the mag that I once managed) about mangosteens. The Geography of Hope flows exceptionally well, even as it goes from serious subjects to things like Dr. Suess or The Big Lebowski (yeah, there’s a connection). Turner proves to be a very enjoyable, internationally-minded, and informed guide for this tour.

This book was an antidote of sorts for me. Over the last couple of years, I’ve read many books and watched several documentaries about weather, oil, industry, suburbia, civilization, globalization, progress, and more. Combined with all that’s in the news (including the frustrating backwardness of our federal leaders on these matters), and despite that fact that most of what I’ve studied is rational, thoughtful, important, and of great interest as a generalist, it’s also had the cumulative effect of being rather depressing. In no way dismissing the magnitude of our big picture challenges – quite the contrary, actually – Turner turns the discussion around and indeed shows that there is hope, that hope inspires, and that inspiration is a very good thing. The Geography of Hope is a truly outstanding book – highly recommended!

Some random excerpts:

— …the truly innovative thing about Samsø’s energy revolution: Not only had it reconfigured the archetypal image of a post-carbon future from looking apocolypse to regional renaissance, it’d done so with readily available tools and the skills and enthusiasms of conservative people living in villages that were all but antiquated. There’s not one radically new technology installed on Samsø, not a single untested experiment. Samsø’s real revolution was social, and it provides a compelling model for how to implement radical change without freaking out the regular folks whose lives are disrupted by it. [37]

— …This was the nature of the wave, and though it could look absurd on its dotcom surface, it crashed ashore carrying all manner of magnificent technological pearls: dirt-cheap, instantaneous, wireless communication of near-global reach; the muckraking citizen journalism of the blogosphere; the spread of telecommuting; the flat-out knowledge dissemination miracle of Google. And it’s reasonable to assume that without the big, dumb [dotcom] wave, the useful stuff would have remained at the bottom of the sea.

So then: Stop for a minute. Hit the END button on your cellphone, close the three windows currently open on your web browser, wrap up that Instant Messenger conversation and hold off on that text message you were just about to start typing on your keypad. Stop. Think of your life in 1992. How you found information, who you shared it with, how long it took to do so. Think of hunting for a pay phone, leaving word with the restaurant’s hostess to let your friends know you were running late, hoping they got the message. Think of writing a letter, putting it in an envelope, mailing it and waiting for a reply. Think of the library, of card catalogues, of cranking your way through a dozen spools of microfilm looking for that quote, that bit of trivia, that slice of nostalgia. Think of all that stuff – obscure hobbies, half-formed thoughts, weird bits of pop-culture esoterica – that simply vanished, never to be heard from again. Think of all that went into transforming that world into this one.

Now just imagine all that reckless energy pointed in the direction of a real problem. [62]

— There might be more than one answer to any given problem, a number of technically satisfactory right ways to do the job, but the rightest thing is the one that does it most elegantly – and it might not be the most scientifically advanced. This is where the sustainability boom diverges most sharply with the dotcom approach: it celebrates efficiency, not pure technological achievement. And often as not, this includes at least a partial return to old ways, a resurrection and reworking of abandoned techniques, an embrace of intrinsically more earthbound and rational systems. Not new gadgets, then, but new strategies. Or, to phrase it more precisely, hungry sheep instead of top-of-the-line lawnmowers. [69]

— Mark Falcone [real estate developer]: “I think that the business enterprises that are going to allow the North American economy to be relevant, you know, fifteen years from now are going to be those business enterprises that have devoted themselves to providing services that enhance the quality of people’s lives in a very holistic way.” [261]

— …the environment, as an actual physical thing, is not a political issue. It is not open for debate, at least not in the same way that marginal tax rates or trade agreements with China are. It is not a human invention, nor a force capable of being bent entirely to human will. Quite the contrary, we are wholly dependent on its mercy for every single breath we take. The same delusion of externalities that permits economic growth to be balanced against maintaining a healthy planet also feeds the misconception that one can be, in any real sense, anti- (or for that matter pro-) environment. That it could be a political issue and not the sea in which all political issues swim. Sustainability should be built into enlightened constitutions alongside – ahead of – all other rights and freedoms, woven into the very fabric of political life the same way it needs to be folded back into the global economic system. The first unalienable right in America’s Declaration of Independence is life, and it means nothing – no civil right does – without a sustainable climate in which to function. It should be that simple. But here comes a colossal understatement: It isn’t. [317]

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