The Leap


The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy by Chris Turner. Random House Canada 2011.

Around Ottawa, and no doubt across the country, new housing tracts continue to spring up like mushrooms. Many feature McMansions complete with a bathroom for every bedroom, granite countertops, and all the trimmings necessary for one-upping the Jones’s. You won’t see solar panels on the rooftops, or streets oriented to best take advantage of passive solar floor plans, or even solar water-heating units. Meanwhile, the federal government, with a view to the 1950s, is determined to turn Alberta into a petrostate, while simultaneously gutting all environmental protection or government supported scientific research. Canadians might be forgiven for thinking that clean energy is just some wild pipe dream. But they would be wrong. While Canada lags sluggishly mired in the past, many countries have been moving decisively to build for a better future.

Chris Turner compares our current business-as-usual approach to a train careening down a track towards a yawning abyss. Sustainability offers a better option, one that journeys to the same destination but travels on a safer track. We need to make the leap from our current track, across the abyss to the safety of a better way of living. In The Leap, Turner examines the arguments against change and offers up a worldful of inspiring examples of Leaps already in progress. Innovations are being developed by cities, by countries, by entrepreneurs, even by Walmart! Some changes are recent, while others have been underway for decades.

The city of Copenhagen began re-envisioning itself as a place where people have priority over cars some 50 years ago. In 1962, the main downtown shopping street was closed forever to motor vehicles. When the plan was first proposed, merchants and other critics predicted the death of downtown shopping. Instead, the closure led to more people strolling, visiting cafes, shopping, visiting. Copenhagen now has an outstanding pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, carefully integrated with its public transit and road systems, and the city is regularly listed as one of the most livable and sustainable cities anywhere. A verb has even been invented for the process of improving city centres: Copenhagenization. And in this city where 35% of commuters ride bikes, the traffic lights are coordinated to favour cyclists! The city plans to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

Germany is an acknowledged world leader in the field of renewable energy. By the end of 2010, 17% of Germany’s electricity was coming from renewable sources. In that year, Germany brought more new solar generating capacity onto its grid than existed on the whole planet in 2005. Recently, on May 26th and 27th of 2012, German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity – through the midday hours of Friday and Saturday. Germany’s government decided to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, closing eight plants immediately and shutting down the remaining nine by 2022. They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. An UK Guardian article is linked here.

China continues to spew out dirty, coal-fired energy, but nevertheless is working hard on its renewable energy future. By way of example, consider that some 150 million Chinese households use solar-heated water, and an alliance of 16 Chinese automakers has set a production target of a million EVs (electric vehicles) per year by 2015.

Even Walmart is on board. In 2005, CEO Lee Scott announced Walmart’s new sustainability strategy. Walmart would invest half a billion dollars in technological innovations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Its supply chain would be 25% more efficient within three years. Walmart’s long term goal is to be powered entirely by renewable energy, create no waste, and sell only products that ‘sustain our resources and environment’.

I did enjoy Turner’s description of North America’s dysfunctional agriculture megabusiness, given to contrast sustainable farming initiatives to the current norm:

The mainstream of food production…remains committed to a system of industrial monocrops grown in artificially over-fertilized soil, kept alive by petrochemical pesticides, tended, harvested and distributed by an oil-addicted processing system, and maintained by a vast web of perverse subsidies.

Yep, that about sums it up. Unfortunately, Turner isn’t always so succinct, often allowing his enthusiasm to bubble over in a verbose style that would have benefited from some serious editing. Still, it is encouraging to read of the great progress being made in other parts of the world where, unsaddled by the Harper regime’s petrostate vision, true leaders are making strides toward a better tomorrow.

Here is Chris Turner’s TED talk about the leap.

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