The popular rhetoric of environmentalism has so often been hand-waving shrieks of impeding cataclysm — polar caps melting! tsunamis! — followed by a list of simple daily activities — recycling! better lightbulbs! — intended to stave off doom, activities that canâe(TM)t help but seem trivial in comparison. Instead of inspiring change, this juxtaposition can be paralyzing, and probably the biggest punch in the arm from Chris Turnerâe(TM)s excellent, crucial new book The Geography of Hope is in rejecting that rhetoric for an outlook thatâe(TM)s not just more optimistic, but more fundamentally useful.
Elan Mastai:Iâe(TM)m having a baby this spring and, no doubt like most parents, Iâe(TM)m wondering about the world in which my child will grow up. Itâe(TM)s hard not to be pessimistic, let alone abjectly panicked. You start your book with a two-month old daughter, wondering the same thing. Unlike most parents and pessimists, you actually set out on a cross-planet search for evidence of a more optimistic future, in workable everyday practice rather than vague wide-eyed promise. And the best part — you find it. Were you surprised by how much of the applicable strategy and technology needed for genuine sustainability already exists?
Chris Turner: Surprised, delighted, eventually elated. I began, as you say, with a notion. It felt kind of like a self-imposed dare: could I find all the pieces of a durable society? I’d read an article written by two professors at Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative which stated in no uncertain terms that it all existed (Pacala and Socolow, Science, 2004: “Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century”). But I hadn’t seen much of it first-hand.
I imagined I’d be spending a lot of time squinting optimistically at half-cocked demo projects and extrapolating from one or two prototypes to a grander future-tense idea. I certainly didn’t think I’d stroll through a neighbourhood of 50 elegant middle-class townhouses that produce more energy than they consume (as I did in Freiburg, Germany) or shop in a farmers’ market on a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops and offices on a patch of land that was a decrepit suburban shopping mall five years ago (as I did in Lakewood, Colorado).
By the end of the research, I had this sort of self-interested fear that I’d pick up the next issue of Dwell and see Rolf Disch staring back at me or open the next New York Times Magazine to find an intimate portrait of Denmark’s zero-emissions islands. It just seemed so obvious and crazily under-reported. And so most of my frustration now — my lingering pessimism, I guess — is that somehow people just won’t cast their gaze in the right direction. I mean, your house — everybody’s house — could be a power plant. It could make you money when you’re not in it. Never mind the fate of the planet or the climate crisis — who wouldn’t want that for the most venal of reasons?
I remember Soontorn Boonyatikarn, who designs net-energy-producing houses in Bangkok, telling me that his buildings were like airplanes a couple generations ago. You could say humanity had invented air travel, you could describe the flight you just took in vivid detail, but until people had seen and touched a few aircraft and watched them zoom overhead — more than once — they wouldn’t really accept the truth of it.
That, in essence, is the purpose of the book and pretty much everything I’ve been doing with my writing since: to stand up on the ridge and point at the sky and scream “Look! Look!” until everyone not only sees the airplanes but wants to fly on one as soon as possible.
EM: Among the many ideas in your book that knocked me out, maybe the most eye-opening was this notion that with the sensible application of existing technologies my house can produce more power than I need — extra power that I can profitably sell. Power distribution as a one-way consumption model is a pretty engrained concept, but you neatly point out how the explosive growth of the internet demolishes the robustness of traditional one-way models. Companies large and small were involved, governments were involved, but what made the internet the internet was millions of people using their home computers to both consume and produce material of value to other people. Whatever legislation or corporate initiatives emerged to encourage growth, the real revolution happened because of individual drive and self-interest. So whatâe(TM)s keeping me, right now, from turning my house into a power-plant, other than will and a bit of infrastructure?
CT: Actually, infrastructure barely enters into it — it’s mostly will and a tiny bit of legislation. That legislation — net metering, the legal framework for home-scale power generation — already exists in some kind of embryonic form or another in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. In each case, though, there are different kinds of strange bureaucratic overcomplication — Ontario’s Hydro One, for example, will allow you to put a small wind or solar installation on your roof but won’t buy back access power from you. I have no idea why this is the case, other than start-up cost and foot-dragging.
Anyway, in an ideal world — by which, on this topic, I mean Germany — the net metering legislation and infrastructure (which consists of pre-existing, market-ready two-direction metering barely more complicated than the current meters on your house) would be accompanied by a feed-in tariff. In Germany, not only is the infrastructure, expertise and equipment ready available for a few rooftop solar panels, but power distributors are obliged by said feed-in tariff to buy that power from you at far above market rates (something like 50-some Euro cents per kilowatt-hour, versus the about 15 Euro cents per kwh that Germans pay for fossil-fueled power). The logic behind this is that the price of green power is set at the calculated cost of avoiding that kilowatt being produced by coal or gas — i.e. by accounting for the full cost of dirty power and then giving that to individuals as a market incentive instead of penalizing existing power generators. (The exact same legislation, in effect for a few years in California in the late ’70s, gave birth to those first iconic California windfarms that appeared so often in the background of ’80s action movies.)
The conventional free-market wisdom when Germany passed its feed-in tariff (ca. 2000) and beefed it up (ca. 2003) was that Germany was committing economic suicide. But not only did it totally outpace the British “market-based” legislation in terms of creating a domestic green-power industry — Germany, neither particularly sunny nor particularly windy, is a world leader in the production of power from both — but it has also given a huge boost to the job market and almighty GDP, and is partially credited with Germany’s economic recovery in the last couple years.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If I was, say, the leader of the Official Opposition and a former environment minister with evident problems communicating an inspiring vision to my fellow Canadians, I’d be staging a photo op tomorrow where I stood next to a typical suburban electricity meter and said, “This thing? Thomas Edison would’ve recognized it, it’s identical to the ones he installed in Manhattan in the 1870s. I’m the leader who’ll make it run two ways. I’m going to make it so your house earns you money when you aren’t in it.” And then I’d build my election campaign on houses-as-power-plants and a federal feed-in tariff, and I’d truck out half of Germany’s finance ministry to deflect the slings and arrows of the naysayers, and then, Elan my man, you could have your power-plant house post-haste, and I would join you on its porch in a giddy revelry.
Meantime, seriously, just what the hell are the purported leaders of this country waiting for?
EM:If you could stuff as many of this countryâe(TM)s (purported) leaders as possible into a jet-plane, is there one specific spot on your geography of hope youâe(TM)d take them to find that influx of imagination, common sense, and courage they seem to need, one particularly potent antidote to the outmoded yet depressingly vocal perspective that insists sustainability stands in opposition to economic feasibility?
CT:Just one spot? Samsoe, I guess, though a half-dozen others might also do.
But yeah, Samsoe. Denmark’s first “Renewable Energy Island,” a tightknit island community of 4,500 that essentially eliminated fossil fuels (and all of its greenhouse gas emissions) in less than a decade. And when I got that gang of VIPs to Samsoe, I wouldn’t take them to see the wind turbines or solar district heating facilities or even the Energy Academy they built specifically to school such VIPs.
Nope, I’d take them to the Brundby Rock Hotel in the village of Brundby on a cold October night. Settle into the dining room for dinner, have a lovely meal with an extra side of the delicate local potatoes that are Samsoe’s most famous product in the rest of Denmark. Sit afterward, with a brandy, say to them: Look around. This is an inn hundreds of years old, and Jimi Hendrix’s last girlfriend lives up the block, and the best live rock acts in the region come through every now and then to play the old banquet hall at the end of the courtyard. Go upstairs, and you can look out the window and see state-of-the-art wind turbines and Shetland ponies. These lights here in the dining room? Wind-powered. That cozy warmth against the fall chill? Hyper-effiecient district heat, powered by straw grown here on the island; up in Nordby they use solar. So let me propose a toast, all you assembled VIPs, for this is the arduous future-tense world of sacrifice and economic hardship that awaits you if you choose to do the only rational and responsible thing and tackle climate change head on.
I think we’d all sleep soundly that night. I did every night I spent in Samsoe. After all, we really have very little to fear.