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Chris Turner (Handout)
Chris Turner (Handout)

Review: Non-fiction

That's one giant cognitive leap for mankind Add to ...

Chris Turner thinks that North Americans have boarded the wrong train on the wrong track. For starters, the fossil-fuelled machine can’t keep civilization on the move much longer because of rising costs. Moreover, a good number of nations and cities dependent on oil imports are now jumping platforms, Turner says. The world’s oil slaves in Europe, India and China are not only laying a new energy track, but inventing a different future. And they are doing just fine.

Turner, a Calgary guy, military brat and resident of Alberta’s full-blown one-party petro-state, calls his vision “the leap.” He says it’s neither far-fetched nor utopian. He also admits that it is not a slam dunk. His engrossing investigation of the globe’s green industrial revolution is also an astonishing piece of good reporting. It contains the sort of stories that rarely appear in our media any more as Canada increasingly salutes bitumen exports as a sort of totalitarian energy future. Turner, however, doesn’t have much time for the 20th-century bitumen establishment. Instead, he focuses on what is being fixed, renewed or retooled.

The journalist, former sustainability columnist for The Globe and Mail, writes like a charm. He begins with a few declarations obvious to a growing number of citizens. He argues that the world’s fossil-fuel supply has peaked and the burning of dirty and expensive hydrocarbons is undermining the economy. Because of rising energy prices, the globe’s financial system has already fallen apart. Last but not least, he believes that fossil fuels have acidified the oceans and darkened the skies. We can now choose the volatility of extreme oil (and its rising environmental sacrifices) or the promised stability of a green transition: Civilization can change – or decline.

Thus begins one of the most arresting arguments for building a green economy yet in print. Not only is The Leap free of chest-thumping ideology (Turner is a practical Calgarian, after all), it is chock full of interesting success stories as well as lots of green failures. Feed-in tariffs, the policy of offering long-term contracts to renewable-energy producers, is a revolutionary concept for building renewable-energy capacity that didn’t work well in Britain and Spain because those countries bastardized the winning German formula. Turner also makes it plain that the green revolution is being led by the same sort of characters who promoted the petroleum energy party 100 years ago: profit-seeking enterprises, municipal politicians and technology innovators.

But switching energy and business tracks takes both vision and luck. Turner notes that the Erie Canal, a project that transformed the U.S. Midwest and energized the city of Chicago, began “first and foremost as a cognitive leap.” It was an idea that the status quo couldn’t see any benefits from, yet it transformed the landscape because humans generally learn by doing, not by fearing things.

Turner identifies inertia as the greatest obstacle to green-leaping, or any kind of energy transition. “We are much more deeply invested in where we are than in where we might be able to go,” he notes. No one fought abolition harder than 18th-century slaveholders, who could no more imagine a world run by hydrocarbon slaves than Big Oil can imagine a world powered, in part, by green ones.

According to Turner, the future won’t be about disruptive technologies but rather disruptive techniques. It’s about tweaking existing ways of doing things “that leads to new ways of solving problems and organizing systems.” (It’s almost as simple as putting wheels on baggage, an innovation that took 5,000 years.) India’s Solar Electric Light Company, for example, lends money to poor people to put solar panels on their homes. The market-driven enterprise has installed 100,000 solar panels in rural villages without damaging the climate or the economy. In fact, it’s lightened rural life altogether.

Turner also takes a fascinating look at Germany’s renewable business model and the revolutionary work of the late solar energy expert Herman Scheer. Unlike most greens, Scheer recognized that the carbon pollution now acidifying oceans and destabilizing continental climate patterns was a symptom of a bigger problem. The real issue remains the burning of dirty fuels. Scheer eschewed complex international agreements such as the doomed Kyoto Protocol and promoted clean-tech and smart-energy policies at home. He also saw change not as burdensome duty but as an economic opportunity. He was right on both accounts. At a cost of $50 per citizen per year, Germany’s feed-in tariffs created a $50-billion solar industry and 300,000 jobs.

Any energy leap, Turner says, also has to involve the restoration of public places. After Copenhagen took the automobile off its streets and gave pedestrians the freedom to stroll or cycle in the 1970s, urban life became human again. The Danes understand that there is life between buildings and that livable cities nourish culture instead of machines. The mayors of Bogota and Medellin also discovered that the best way to fight crime and poverty was to ban the automobile.

In the end, Turner’s high-speed analysis overplays the importance of energy efficiency and plays down the imperative of consuming less. If one regards bigness as the source of social misery (and I do), then renewable projects such as industrial wind farms are both green monstrosities and more industrial thinking. But I greatly admire Turner’s contagious enthusiasm and recommend his book as a compelling menu for energy reform. Even people working in the oil patch will find its striking analysis invigorating, while “ethical oil” extremists will huff and puff like indignant slaveholders.

But for politicians wedded to the shackling revenue of hydrocarbons, Turner’s reporting will come as a revelation. Do your municipal, provincial and federal politicians a favour, and send them copies: Our oil-besotted politicians need every “cognitive leap” they can find.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a long-time critic of rapid oil sands development, is the author of Empire of the Beetle, a surprising look at the landscape-changing power of bark beetles. He is writing a book on how oil changed civilization.

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