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Book Review: The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner

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Like most people of a certain age, I found environmentalism through the hole in the ozone layer and in the muck of the Exxon Valdez, performing years of Blue Box pennance for my sins. At thirteen, I thought that was enough to change things; by 30, I'd mostly given up hope. After all, even as the environment seemed to lose prominence in poltical and social discussions, the predictions from scientists were getting gloomier. That the prognosis was so poor frustrated me (how could we squander so much!) but it never caused me to grieve until my friends started having children. Suddenly, I understood just what was at stake; hand-throwing futility seemed an awfully chancey game to play.

So, too, for Chris Turner, who found himself reexamining environmentalism in the wake of his daughter's birth. What kind of world could he imagine for her? He set out to discover "a place in the mind worth fighting to build," an examination of the new practices — and the new ways of thinking — that might create a viable future not just for his daughter, but for the planet as a whole. Something sustainable. And something different from the apocalyptic tales of old school environmentalism. Something rooted not in fear, but in hope. The end result is "a scrapbook of a year spent living optimistically," a record of journeys from Denmark to Florida, through India and Tibet, to New Mexico and back home again to Calgary: A Geography of Hope (published by Random House Canada).

Turner's approach is different from standard looks at climate change and global adaptation. He does not candy-coat the potential consequences of inaction ("looming catastrophe or catastrophe unfolding—whatever debate remains over climate change will occur within these parameters"), but he chooses to focus on what we can do. Right now. Today. And he's thinking bigger than sorting plastics or buying a hybrid car.

Turner's journey is filled with familiar wind turbines and solar cells (albeit on bigger scales than you might imagine), dreamily named down-to-earth dwellings built from recycled tires and glass, the importance of public transit, and a rant against modern architecture — and particularly Le Corbusier's boxes — that brings to mind William Shatner's insistence that there is a demon on the wing of plane. He visits Europe and Asia, as well as North American communities that are dedicated to changing the way they power their lives. Along the way he meets with Tibetan refugees, housing developers and a woman who used her life savings to convert her home to solar power, figuring the costs savings would serve her better than her interest rate.

Each story highlights how a community has made a change. Change is easiest when it is local and big change is just a collection of small choices, Turner seems to be reminding us. Time and time again, we see high tech and low tech adjustments to the unreasonable demands we have been placing on the earth. Turner highlights different options — and by this I mean not just technology but also methodology — that reduce the impact of modern life on the planet.

Quickly, it becomes clear that the problem is not a lack of technology. We can build many of the tools we need. But, as any ad man would tell you, we need someone to tell us what those tools are; we rely on someone telling us what to buy. Traditionally, environmental groups have warned us of the dire consequences of our actions (a cliched tactic that I have already used in this very review). Yet this creates a marketing problem. We prefer to buy into the good, after all. You sell mouthwash by telling people that it will make them better kissers, not by warning them of social ostracism if they don't. Likewise, we hate to give things up, which is perhaps why the Blue Box recycling initiatives have been so succesful. It's also why Turner's approach — and the solutions he found — is so important: These technologies allow us to gain something, rather than depriving us of something. They offer continued comfort, rather than demanding we give up our treasured "lifestyles" entirely.

Ultimately, though, Turner recognizes that things will have to change. That much can be seen from Calgary. For instance, Alberta's behemoth efforts to turn "tar sands" into the kind of fuel that runs modern society, says Turner, "might be a symptom of a particularly advanced strain of mass insanity." It is the kind of madness that promises big yards, big cars, big houses. More of everything. A post-War kind of madness, inflated with each successive generation. Or, as Turner puts it: "The Good Life: Democratized, trademarked, mass-produced, shipped worldwide." Those are not the words of someone who believes the way it is is any kind of way to continue.

It all comes down to this: sustainability. Or, as Turner puts it:

Living deliberately: this, in the end, is the common ideological thread linking an ecovillage in rural Scotland and a resort development in Florida vacationland. And tying those places to Danish Renewable Energy Islands, New Mexican survivalist communities, solar-powered townhouses in southern Germany and hydro-powered villages in the hills of northwestern Thailand. To live deliberately: this is the life's blood of these communities, of any sustainable community…. If these communities seem more vital than a great many others, if they have lessons to teach about how the rest of us could bring such vitality to our own communities, they begin, all of them, with the simple art of living deliberately. It is, in a sense, the opposite of a fantastical, far-off Utopia: it starts with here and now, with whichever here and now you happen to find yourself in.

And so, in his year of living on the (sustainably-powered) brighter side, Turner discovered solutions on large and small scales, tailored to the needs of local people, geography and desire. It is good to know that it can be done, to know that hope, it turns out, has a pragmatic side. Still, there is in the end, as much frustration as there is hope: If it can be done, if places like Thailand and Denmark and Florida can do it, why aren't we? I picture Turner as an environmental evangelical, preaching not of sin and eternal fires, but of virtue and paradise.

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 the 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.

Turner, in all his optimism, just might be on to something. He's got me imagining.

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