Reading Canadian journalist Chris Turner’s new book, The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, over the past few weeks, during the provincial-election campaign, has been a simultaneously inspiring and depressing experience.
Published by Random House, The Leap documents just how attainable, lucrative and exciting a shift to a green economy can be. Turner has travelled around the world, documenting the ways that various cities and countries have already made dramatic changes. He shows us a thriving green-energy industry in the downtrodden shell of what was once East Germany. He documents the dozens of boomtowns in the Spanish countryside that have suddenly appeared since the advent of high-speed rail. And he tells of how the city of Bogota, Colombia, cut its murder rate by 70 per cent and fostered an urban renewal in some of the world’s worst slums by introducing mass transit, pedestrianization and 300 kilometres of bike lanes.
Turner’s thesis is that we’re not in the midst of a slight tweak in the way the world works, but of a major shift—a leap. The transition from a world economy built around carbon-based-fuels to one built around sustainability isn’t simply a matter of changing the fuel we plug into the existing system, he argues. It changes the system itself fundamentally, from the layout of our cities to the way the electricity grid is designed. Because of that, it’s hard to see from this side of the chasm exactly how painless the leap will be—we can only see the things we’re losing. But Turner convincingly demonstrates a key point: The leap to sustainability isn’t an expensive process of sacrifice, it’s a huge opportunity to create a better, happier, wealthier world. The biggest, most difficult part, Turner says, is making the cognitive leap—changing our thinking to understand all of this. That’s the inspiring part.
The depressing part, here in Toronto and Ontario, is that we still haven’t made that key cognitive leap. A few years ago, it seemed like we were ready—former mayor David Miller was pushing green initiatives that revitalized neighbourhoods and built economic opportunity, while the provincial government introduced North America’s first feed-in-tariff system for sustainable energy (a type of system Turner highlights as a key innovation that revolutionizes energy production). We weren’t converted into a sustainable Shangri-La, but at least we were poised to begin our journey.
What’s even more depressing is that in the past year or two we’ve reversed course, backing away from the leap altogether. Mayor Rob Ford is cancelling mass transit lines and ripping out bike lanes. He thinks we can’t afford sustainability, and the majority of council seems, right now, to agree with him. Both of the provincial opposition parties—one on the left and one on the right of our political spectrum—have just finished election campaigns based on the central premise that we can’t afford green energy because a three-per-cent increase in the cost of electricity in the short term is unacceptable.
As per Turner’s “laws of Leap mechanics,” these politicians can’t see the forest for the clear-cut field: because we haven’t made the leap yet, they don’t understand that the changes will save us money, create new industries, improve the livability of cities and save the planet at the same time. When Rob Ford complains that surface light rapid transit will hinder cars, he can’t see that a great many of those cars will remain parked when their drivers have access to a reliable, fast transit system. Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak recently complained that electricity costs had gotten out of control, but once the technology is built, there is no incremental cost to green energy—solar panels and windmills cost literally nothing to operate.
After reading Turner’s book, and seeing, through his sharp storyteller’s prose, how various innovations have already worked elsewhere in the world, the naysayers seem like flat-earthers. Listening to Ford, Horwath and Hudak, I hear an office manager saying he can’t afford an internet connection because his budget is allocated to carbon paper and typewriter correction fluid.
The good news, as Turner shows, is that a simple cognitive leap can change everything for the better. The bad news, as our politicians show, is that sometimes minds are the hardest things to change.