Chris Turner

Canadian journalist Chris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, is in Melbourne for the 2008 Alfred Deakin Lecture Series, ‘From DNA to Deep Space’. He will give a lecture based on his innovative new book – a positive look at solving the problems of climate change – on Wednesday 4 June at 6pm. Jo Case spoke to him in Melbourne for Readings.

How can the power of the market be harnessed to combat climate change? Why do you think it will be effective?

Not only can it be harnessed, it already has been. A random example: in response to Germany’s feed-in tariff law of a few years back, which rejigged market conditions to favour renewable sources, the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer is now a company called Q-Cells which employs nearly 4000 (up from 19, circa 2001) in the previously stagnant and brutalised industrial towns of the former GDR and is growing as fast as humanly possible.

Given the right parameters – where climate-damaging actions are discouraged and climate-improving ones rewarded – the global capital market is the most powerful tool yet devised for the rapid allocation of scarce resources toward productive ends. No centrally planned economy or government agency can organise something like the technological advancement and global-scale deployment of solar power installations as quickly and efficiently as the market can. It is far from perfect, but it is the best tool we have at hand, and there is simply not enough time (even if it were possible and desirable) to replace it with something else.

Tackling climate change is often equated with doing the need to do without, to shed power-guzzling new technologies in favour of more energy efficient ways of doing things. (For example, there is apparently a high profile push for a return to drying clothes on a washing line in the US.) However, you also see opportunities for climate change to drive the adoption of new technologies that will help us to do things better and smarter. What kind of changes are you talking about here?

Forgive me for another German example: in Freiburg in southwest Germany, a visionary architect named Rolf Disch has built a community of 58 middle-class townhouses. They have all modern conveniences, are priced near standard market rates, are quite pretty and situated in a wonderfully vibrant neighbourhood. Each one also, over the course of a year, produces more energy than it consumes. These are houses as power plants, and I’d argue going without power and heating bills is the kind of going without that just about anyone would agree is a marked improvement on our current system, whether the climate were compelling us to change our ways or not.

You believe that frightening and guilt-tripping people about climate change is counterproductive when it comes to creating behaviour change. How does that work?

I’d say in a handful of distinct, but related, ways. First off, fear is a poor motivator for thoroughgoing long-term change. Fear provokes conservative responses; we’re hardwired, when afraid, to want to bunker down and protect whatever we’ve got against the anticipated onslaught. The last thing someone worried about the collapse of everything they hold dear wants to contemplate is switching their water heater to solar.

And the doomsday scenarios around climate change have been so convincing that you now hear the argument that the problem’s too big to be tackled from the same quarters that just a few years ago argued there was nothing to worry about.

Finally, I’d argue the finger-pointing and shaming approaches endemic to the environmental movement are far too divisive to be effective. When the goal was, for example, the protection of a single animal species, perhaps it was effective to demonise those whose actions directly caused that animal’s demise (through hunting, say, or habitat destruction). But climate change affects everyone, and there is not one of us – least of all in prosperous industrialised nations like Canada and Australia – without blame. The scope of the problem obliges us to create the largest, widest, most diverse and multivalent movement for social, political and economic change in human history, and we will not get there by stratifying ourselves by degrees of guilt. We’ll get there – if we get there – by creating an enticing vision of a world people will fight to be part of.

Halfway through writing this book, you changed from an observer, in your role as writer and journalist, to a ‘committed participant and activist’. What influenced this change?

Several influences, but most of all it was the realisation that I’d never been so fully engaged by a subject as a journalist, never so fully convinced that the story I was trying to tell was the most vital story I could possibly be covering, and ironclad in my certainty that the story’s outcome would provide a definitive statement on the success or failure of the whole durned human comedy (to quote my beloved Big Lebowski).

The sort of audible click moment of all this came around a campfire at a conference in rural Germany, an intimate affair focussed on the mutually reinforcing catastrophes of climate change and peak oil. This was, on its surface, a sort of business conference, but here we were around a bonfire on this German manor that had been turned into a conference facility, late into the night: a dozen conversations still circulating at fever pitch between journalists, activists, scientists and business executives. Not because it was our job – though it was, in every case – but because this was the most worthy life’s work any of us had found and we knew it. Or in any case, I now did. To use a Texas Hold ‘Em poker term, I went all-in on the climate crisis that night, and I’ve written about almost nothing else since.

You have observed the way that various communities around the world are addressing climate change with new technologies and solutions to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. What are some of the innovative solutions you’ve uncovered?

I certainly don’t have space here to enumerate them all, so instead I’ll mention just one, which is dead simple and cheap and isn’t even a direct response to climate change. In 1962, the city of Copenhagen became the first Western city to close its main street to motor vehicle traffic. In the years since, it has expanded its downtown pedestrian network to include a half-dozen streets and a dozen squares, transforming itself into Europe’s most pedestrian-friendly metropolis and a model to the world that has been imitated by cities from Oslo to Barcelona, including, most impressively, downtown Melbourne. In recent years, the encouragement of commuting by bicycle has been particularly successful in Copenhagen, where 36 per cent of downtown workers now get to their offices by bike – not in order to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero, which they have, but mainly because it’s such a pleasant city to bike around and because the social and health benefits of biking a lot are so convincing.

The architects of this transformation – particularly the visionary urban theorist Jan Gehl – call their work ‘reconquest’. They began not to beat climate change, but to improve the quality of life in a dreary, car-choked city. This is one of the most vital battles in the sustainability revolution – reorganising human systems for people instead of their cars – and its success in Copenhagen and everywhere else Gehl has worked demonstrates that reducing emissions also augments the quality of life in a community in substantial measure.

Are you optimistic about the future, given the immense challenges that lay ahead?

Absolutely, yes. I began my book in 2005 as a kind of dare – could I find solutions? How hard would I have to squint to make them look viable? Would anyone pay any attention? I’ve watched marginal, drawing-board stuff vault rapidly into the centre of the mainstream in the past three years at a pace I never in my wildest dreams would’ve predicted. Last year, Wal-Mart and GE partnered to sell 100 million energy-saving compact flourescent lightbulbs in the United States. This doesn’t make them perfect, but never in a million years would I have predicted, back in 2005, that I’d be saying ‘Wal-Mart’ and ‘sustainability’ in the same breath and meaning it. We’re turning the corner on this thing very quickly, and the only thing I find frustrating nowadays is when I’m told that something I’ve touched with my own hands is impossible or that the cost is too great. If you think we don’t have the tools, you aren’t looking closely enough, and if you think the project is too great, I’m disappointed at your lack of faith in humanity. When John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon in 1961, there were engineers at NASA who suspected it was impossible; by comparison, I’ve now slept in too many rooms heated by the sun and powered by the wind to count.

And finally, not acting is not an option. You know where I heard that most recently? In the conference room of a multinational oil company.

Chris Turner will be speaking at the Deakin Lecture Series this Wednesday June 4th in Ballarat and this Thurs June 5th at BMW Edge, Federation Square.