Tall Poppy Interview: Chris Turner

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Tall Poppy Interview: Chris Turner

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Photo of Chris Turner at the Greater World Earthship community in New Mexico by Ashley Bristowe.
It’s been impossible to ignore the issue of climate change. Al Gore bounced back to relevancy with An Inconvenient Truth, and even NHL players have gotten into the act by teaming with David Suzuki to put global warming in the penalty box. With Earth Day coming up on Tuesday, Torontoist sat down with Globe and Mail sustainability columnist Chris Turner to discuss his critically acclaimed book, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need.
Turner cut his teeth at the much missed Shift magazine where he received four Canadian National Magazine Awards. His first book was the best-selling Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation, which explored cultural and social shifts through clever references to the show. His new book tackles a more serious subject, but Turner retains his navel-gazing style. The Geography of Hope sees him travelling around the world and uncovering people and projects that point to a positive sustainable future. Over coffee in Kensington Market, Turner talked about his travels, the impossible goal of finding a perfect environmental solution, the greening of Wal-Mart, Mr. Splashy Pants, whether The Simpsons Movie gets his two thumbs up, and why things aren’t as bad as they seem.


Torontoist: How did you come up with the idea for The Geography of Hope?
Chris Turner: In a way, it began in an essay I did for Shift on “Why Technology is Failing Us.” I had just done a year’s worth of special reports for the Canadian edition of Time which were all about looking at where the dot communication led and it was all interesting stuff, but it didn’t seem to me that it was dealing with anything of particular significance in terms of the problems the world was facing….Probably the secondary inspiration was the birth of my daughter. It felt like I didn’t want to be writing about anything else, really. The scale of the problem when you look at it fully is so large and so immediate that everything else seems trivial by comparison.
For the longest time, I wanted to go to Tuvalu, which is probably the first sovereign nation to disappear once the water temperature rises. Reading a few things at the time, it just occurred to me that that message was not working anymore. The idea that you could shock and scare people into caring about this doesn’t make you act, it actually makes you afraid of the change instead of embracing it. So the book originated with a dare of: “could I find a world that worked? Do we in fact have all of the tools and are they ready?”
You actually start off your book talking about planning a trip to Tuvalu but instead going to the Danish island of Samsø, which you describe as the world’s first carbon-neutral island. Could you talk a bit more your experience there?
All along this book, it was kind of this breadcrumb trail where I would find these hidden gems along the way and Samsø was one of the first ones like that. I came up a story in Discover that was basically about how on a technical level they solved this thing. So you get to the end and realize this guy didn’t just bury the lead but didn’t touch it; which is that a modern, comfortable, wealthy society had eliminated its carbon footprint entirely. So I went with the notion that describing life out there would be pretty compelling to people because it’s not future tense. It’s a modern, functional European community that is working completely fine having done what they’ve done.
You write that Samsø was getting 92 percent of its electricity and 85 percent of its heat from fossil fuels and by the time you visited there in 2005, it was getting all of its heat and electricity from renewables. Is that something you can believe when you first see those stats?
There was a bit of surprise in the fact that it was all completely functional and worked. More than that, it was the process. The way that they brought the entire island and every single person on it into the project on some level was a completely inspiring and powerful model of how you talk to people about change. That, more than anything, was where the surprise came. Not that there had been some magical technical fix but, instead, a dramatic social change that didn’t upset much on the surface. It still looks like rural Denmark to be honest, but they had done all that within the existing framework. It didn’t require some sort of brave new world of dramatically altered landscapes to do it. That was probably the most surprising and inspirational thing about it.
In that section, you have a footnote where you basically acknowledge that the technical processes of creating renewable energies aren’t environmentally safe and you end with the line “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” And I find that interesting that when you talk about environmentalism, there’s this desire for a perfect environmental solution. Is that even possible?
No, I don’t think perfectibility is a legitimate goal. I understand the impulse among people who have been to say that these half-measures aren’t enough, but I think that if you have enough of the social, political, and economic capital pointed at a thing; even if its initial step is a half step, it’s all in the right direction. I can understand the reluctance to say that this time it’s really happening. We’re weary of thinking that this time it’s for real but I really do think that this time it’s for real. And I don’t think it helps to subdivide into all of these categories when no one’s doing enough but everyone’s trying to do their best. I think celebrating the victories rather than dwelling on the failures or the shortcomings is a much better way to talk about it basically.
Historically, there’s been an acrimonious relationship between environmental groups and business. I think that stubborness has prevented potentially effective partnerships; just this narrow minded approach.
christurner5.jpgIt gets in the way for sure. I was just at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Conference where Adam Werbach was delivering the keynote. Werbach was a person that was considered a traitor when he quit the Sierra Club and announced that environmentalism was dead. When he went to work for Wal-Mart, he was doubly dubbed a traitor and he’s a great example of realizing that perfect isn’t the enemy of the good.
He’ll tell you that, “I look at what Wal-Mart is doing and they’ve just begun to scratch the surface but they are asking the right kinds of questions now. And I’m there to guide them. I can make a lot bigger change than I could by only talking to the people who are completely hardcore committed.” By the environmental movement’s own rhetoric the change has to happen really, really quickly. You don’t do that by demanding ideological purity. You do that by working with everyone who is willing to work with you as opposed to waiting for this green consciousness raising event that will suddenly make everyone wake up. Amory Lovins talks about this and he’s also considered heretical because he also works with Wal-Mart and the Pentagon. When he talks about that stuff, he wants people to make the cars that he wants, which are hyperefficient. He doesn’t care who makes them. The important thing is reducing the emissions, not who’s doing the reduction.
If you play it as speculative fiction, if you were talking to a hardcore environmentalist who says, “Wal-Mart can’t possibly be green and the Pentagon can’t possibly be green,” you would say that, “maybe it’s true. But are you envisioning a future ten to fifteen years off where Wal-Mart no longer exists and there is no US military? Because if that’s not the case, then those things have to go green too.” That’s the reality. And I think that it’s really good to have the people on the fringe pushing further, it’s a very necessary part of the process. But so is the other group of people that are willing to work with the more mainstream.
You talk about Wal-Mart and their decisions to reduce carbon emissions from their shipping fleets. Is this a time where corporations are more open to change?
That’s what I’m told. When you talk to business people, they are much more aware of the need for change and much more willing to talk about it. But you have to figure out their language to talk about change. This gets down to really minute stuff that no activist wants to deal with. I’ve done a bit of work on the corporate writing level with Fed-Ex and you get right to the fact that for this to work for them, their fundamental process has to change but the willingness to talk about it is becoming more widespread. And even if there isn’t willingness, there’s that sense that no smart corporate leader wants to be completely left behind. They may not look at it in quite the same way as an activist would but they recognize that the wind blows that way.
Do you see the idea of sustainability as becoming more marketable?
Oh absolutely. That’s where you get these accusations that it’s a very superficial commitment and it sometimes is. But the fact that business people see a viable economic opportunity is a strength, not a weakness of this movement for change. To my mind, it will be a very grave mistake to ignore the idea that once you got the ears of these people, you can change a lot of stuff pretty quick. It’s just a matter of working with them; not making demands of them.
You always come back to the Wal-Mart example, because it’s so iconic. Wal-Mart’s commitment to sustainability includes the sustainability report cards that they send to 60,000+ product manufacturers in North America alone. One of the things on it is that they have to reduce their packaging by at least five percent. That may seem like nothing, but if you talk to people who are working with packagers, they are asking questions they’ve never asked before and they are realizing there are all kinds of really solid economic gains to be had from thinking this way. It’s just how this question gets introduced to you as a business—not as a punitive thing so much as an opportunity. And the change happens quicker and more thoroughly on that plain than if all we were talking about is corporations feeling like they have to appear green in order to be politically correct and consumer friendly in this marketplace. You’re going to see both but just because the one exists, it doesn’t mean the other isn’t real change.
In Green Living, you talk about how you dropped two ways of looking at sustainability in the process of writing this book. One of these was the doom and gloom way of looking at things and the other is the notion of having to restart to address the issue. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
The doom lens is the first one. The sense of two things: one, historically a lot the ways that we’ve created environmental awareness is demonstrating how awful one trajectory is and that’s where part of this gloom scenario comes from, because it seems like it’s probably beyond our ability to change. And losing that sort of sense that we can’t engineer this kind of change was a really big step. Embracing what is possible and deciding that even if some warning signs don’t look great, there’s still room to make this thing happen.
And in terms of the starting over, that almost dates back to Thoreau: the idea that what you do with an industrial society is that you leave it entirely and begin anew and it’s not practical nor talk to most people’s aspirations. Most people, even if they see lots of problems with the modern world, they kind of like it. So when you start looking at it in that way, you get into less dramatic stuff. You don’t get these really spectacular new technology developments but you realize that there’s huge opportunity. To come back to Amory Lovins, the Rocky Mountain Institute has determined that when you drive the average car, less than one percent of the actual energy expended propels you—it propels the entire car, it’s wasted in braking, it’s wasted in friction on the road—so you’re dealing with an efficiency rating of less than one percent. Without reinventing automotive transport, you still have a huge opportunity to improve efficiencies. And that’s the kind of stuff you’re starting to see happening at a much larger scale. Not just the major automakers but a whole ton of entrepreneurs and backyard tinkerers are all playing now with ways to reinvent the car without starting from zero.
In the book, you mentioned that you got to experience using a hydrogen fuel pump. Could you talk a bit more about that experience?
It was in Singapore and British Petroleum has a pilot project where they built a small number of modified hydrogen fuel cell Mercedes and they built two gas pumps. One is a typical suburban gas station where they actually manufacture the hydrogen elsewhere and then bring it in. There’s another unmanned one over by this technology park and it basically is completely unmanned. By an incredibly automated process, electricity is: pulled off the grid, electrolyzed, turned into hydrogen, compressed, stored, and then pumped out in what is essentially a standard pump. In my case, the concierge from the hotel that has one of these cars was the guy who did the pumping. It’s not a technician’s job. And hydrogen is one of those things that there are huge problems with but the technical problem is entirely solved; that you can have an entirely unmanned hydrogen gas station.
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Photo of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel rooftop garden from Greenroofs.com
You don’t really talk too much about Toronto in the book, but you do mention the rooftop gardens of the Royal York Hotel. Is this something that can be replicated across the city?
There’s no reason not to. There’s absolutely no reason why any rooftop surface couldn’t do it. For example, in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Germany, they decided that this was the thing that they were going to really, really strongly encourage. And there are now like hundreds of thousands of green roofs in Germany. It’s one of those techniques that there is no downside. It’s more pleasant to look at, it reduces your heat and air conditioning requirements, it channels water better, it flat-out works. The only reason why we haven’t done it more widely is because we’re kind of in the habit of not doing it. When you fly over Toronto, you see these vast sort of big box warehouse roofs. Those could be green in a month.
I also really enjoyed the way you described your trip to Okotoks in Alberta. Why do you think they don’t really advertise the fact that they are making basically sustainable homes?
They do, in the sense that the town is proud of it. The building developers who got brought in to actually build them were very concerned about building something that might make people feel like they were living in an experiment. And this was essentially a suburban housing development of Calgary. They wanted the houses to look like the type of houses that people would normally want to live in. I think that they underestimated people’s openness to change but they decided that the way to do it as standard as possible except with entirely district solar heating and hyper-efficiency all the way through. And they’ve been proven right in the sense that those houses sold out very quickly and are appreciating at faster than market value. But the home building trade is a really conservative business. Not in an ideological way, they just don’t like to take risks. If the current system is serving them a lot of profit level, their motivation to change is really low and then there’s a lot of lumps that you have to take to be the first to do something.
You use Dr. Harish Hande as an example of business being a tool for sustainable development. [See the DP-TV story on Hande below.] His company SELCO has had a positive economic and environmental impact on rural India but fail to receive investments because they weren’t an NGO. Could you talk about Hande?
There’s a company called E+Co based in New Jersey that functions like an NGO but thinks like a business. It funds private social enterprises, not charitable projects. So they ask their stuff to return a profit and do due diligence checks like an investment bank would. And what Harish ran into was rather than getting the UN or whoever to give away these singular two panel solar home systems, he convinced the banks to loan the money to the people. The thinking behind that is that people do better when there is a direct self-interest than they do when they are simply given technology. And he still runs into these traps.
If you want to build differently, you’re going to run into all of these antiquated bylaws. He runs into the fact that a whole lot of funding bodies can only give money to non-profit organizations. And he says, “I’m hypocritically going to go to these people in rural India and say that you need to turn a profit and pay back your loan but I get that money free without any due diligence?” There was a mode of thinking on a whole bunch of fronts that we got into the habit of that is pretty counterproductive.
How did you map your trip around the world for this? Was it months of research and picking out spots?

Yeah, pretty much. It sort of was opportunity and circumstance. I had an advance from Random House, but then the book didn’t sell internationally, so I didn’t have that second chunk of money. So I had to kind of go where I could get the most bang from my bucks. I got invited to a conference in Germany which meant that I had a free trip to Germany, so I turned that into a research trip. I had lived in India for a year, so I knew if I went to south and southeast Asia, I could find stuff. I knew my way around. There’s some great stuff in South America and Africa but I didn’t have a limitless budget. So it was finding the stuff that logistically made sense and there was a lot of luck involved. I basically could’ve gone indefinitely. The longer I’m on this beat, the more stuff there is to talk about and it’s really under-covered. There are a million points of light that aren’t being connected together but when you connect them all together, what you’re seeing is an enormous amount of great change. We are just not talking about in language that makes people see it. And that’s sort of partially what I was trying to do with this book. Not to say that this is the definitive ten things that we are all going to do to save the world, but rather here’s a whole world that’s worth fighting for.
Do you see the way that this issue is being covered changing?
Slowly. It still suffers from the media cycles, but you’re starting to see certain editors and producers awakening to the idea that this is a constantly unfolding, really, really large story and there’s no limit to the amount that we can talk about it. But it’s taken a while and it still remains stuck in a lot of old thinking. I think that kind of thinking is starting to very slowly fold as people are realizing two things: the immediacy of the problem and the wealth of solutions to it. And the fact that this is the fight of our generation, it’s not a wimping trend. It’s going to be something that we’ll be talking about for a long time.
Do you see a change in the way environmental groups are adapting their strategies?
Starting to, for sure. They certainly all realized that people weren’t giving them the sort of authority they were hoping for. One of the things I talked about in my Globe and Mail series is Greenpeace deciding to allow one of its whales to be named Mr. Splashy Pants.
[Laughing.]
And this is exactly the reaction. You’ll remember that and Greenpeace had this whale detained. The Japanese government still allows a certain amount of whaling under the guise of scientific research. It’s total bullshit. There’s no science or research in it and they actually freeze the meat because there isn’t a significant demand for the meat. It’s a ridiculous thing. And so Greenpeace partnering with the scientific research team that was putting satellite transmitters on forty humpback whales to watch them go to this Antarctic whale sanctuary decided that they would get the public to name one. So they asked for suggestions got all of the usual things like the Polynesian word for divine spirit of the ocean or the Japanese word meaning hope. And then one of the suggestions was Mr. Splashy Pants.
One of the people that worked on it said that, “we had this huge internal debate and the majority said we find it funny but what if people find it disrespectful?” Eventually, as the guy said, “it’s almost like being dour is a branding requirement of Greenpeace,” and they decided to let it go. It became a huge Internet viral thing and 79 percent of the voting went to Mr. Splashy Pants. There are T-shirts and mouse pads and coffee mugs and the campaign was a success—the Japanese declared a moratorium on whaling for the year. Whether that was directly because of Splashy Pants, I don’t know, but it certainly demonstrates that a gag can cut through and actually spark in peoples’ heads.
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Photo of the Melancthon Wind Farm by John Vetterli.
A side effect of this book was that it makes you want to travel. So for people who want to do a sustainable tour around Canada, what kind of things can they see?
Well, we mentioned the solar stuff around Okotoks. Ride the wind power C train in Calgary, and LRT is also wind powered—it has been since 2001. There’s a lot of new stuff. There’s a condo developer in downtown Montreal that’s building basically a zero footprint condo building. A lot of the stuff that’s being done in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, in particular the old dock lands that they are turning into the Olympic Village, is all state-of-the-art LEED multi-platinum. Industrial wind farms in southern Alberta and just north of here, outside of Shelburne, they’re fun to watch.
In Toronto, Tridel has an eco-suite. It’s the first green condo that they did—the Element, right next to the building formerly known as Sky Dome. They have this suite that’s state of the art green condo living from materials to furniture. The deep lake water cooling system that Toronto uses for its downtown air conditioning system is a brilliant thing. Almost anywhere you go, you’ll find a thing or two that’s kind of cool. The thing about it is that there’s not a look to look at other than solar panels or wind turbines unless it’s a neighbourhood like the Distillery District.
So are you still watching The Simpsons?
Not so much. I don’t go out of my way to find new ones. I’ll catch a rerun and whatever else. I do think they’re verging on overstaying their welcome, almost. It still has its moments but it just doesn’t seem to have spark to it anymore. And the movie was a bit of a disappointment in that way as well. It was funny but it had no edge.
It did kind of touch on environmentalism.
But they only touch on it. The Simpsons in their glory days would’ve kicked the little crap out of it, whereas all they did was use it as a backdrop.
Photo of Turner at Dr. Soontorn Boonyatikarn’s bio-solar house in Bangkok by Ashley Bristowe.

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