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magazine / oct11

October 2011 issue


BOOK REVIEWS

Might as well jump

SUSTAINABILITY
THE LEAP
How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy
By Chris Turner
Random House
384 pp.,
$29.95
hardcover
The best thing about Chris Turner’s new book is the way he addresses the greatest conundrum about any transformation to sustainability: now that we know the dire extent of the problem fossil fuels and our profligacy have caused, now that we have the amply proven technologies to solve it, now that we have the means how do we find the will? How, in a world economy in meltdown with a politics in dysfunction, can we manage the necessary transition to a fully sustainable planet?

Turner’s answer, in an argument of considerable reach and subtlety, is to demonstrate that the transformation can be made without massive subsidies, without the burden of gratuitous taxation, without draconian social engineering, but with a simple conceptual shift, a new way of looking at the world (thereby bypassing the cumbersome structures of the present). His conclusion? Just do it. Others are. He shows that the transformation is not about escaping from but moving toward. “I’ve seen first-hand the exhilaration the Great Leap Sideways inspires,” he writes, “and I can see no good reason why anyone wouldn’t want to be where this leap lands us.” Indeed, much of the book is a guided tour of people and places, businesses and communities (and, in the case of Germany, a whole nation) that are, in his words, “already thriving in the sustainable 21st-century world order.” In this way, The Leap is an extension and amplification of his earlier book, 2007’s The Geography of Hope.

Turner, a Calgary-based writer who has made sustainability his specialty, is an engaging tour guide, mixing reportage with conversation, anecdote and artfully inserted research. He shows how communities all over the planet are bypassing the sterility of current policy debates. He is very good on decentralized energy generation, and his is the best exposition of a “smart grid” — the energy-transmission equivalent of social networking — that I have seen. In some of the most involving passages, he shows how communities such as Copenhagen and the German city of Freiburg, designed to human scale and human needs, can encourage trust and so entrench experiment and innovation. He also shows, conclusively I think, that “alternative energies” can compete in price and reliability with the oilindustrial complex.

Still, there are caveats. I mistrust some of his numbers. Turner believes that wind and solar power could quickly replace fossil fuels and provides multiple examples of multi-megawatt wind and solar farms coming on stream. But the scale of the challenge is missing. While it is true that globally renewable energy provides almost one-fifth of our electricity, most of that is hydro power. Wind provides 1 percent of electricity, solar only 0.1 percent. Renewables may be experiencing exponential growth, but from a laughably tiny base. Even James Hansen, the pre-eminent exponent of rapid change, is dismissive: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter bunny.”

For example, Turner writes that “all told, the U.S. Southwest has flat, sunbaked land in sufficient abundance all by itself to host an estimated 7,000 to 11,200 gigawatts of solar thermal energy production — somewhere between twenty and forty times the amount currently generated by all of America’s coal plants.” But even getting to the 7,000- gigawatt figure would mean covering nearly half a million square kilometres (almost twice the size of Arizona), edge to edge, with generating panels.

My other caveat is Turner’s too easy dismissal of the nuclear option. In a few paltry paragraphs, he suggests nuclear energy is typical of an obsolete powergenerating paradigm. But nuclear power is the only non-fossil fuel with sufficient energy density that emits no greenhouse gases at all, and if we really want to stop burning coal, it should be endorsed, not dismissed. Turner argues that nuclear power is too expensive (which is no longer true) and that its toxic legacy is too unsafe, perhaps forgetting that beyond the deaths from coal mining and burning, even hydro power is more hazardous than nukes.

These criticisms aside, The Leap is well argued, well researched, well written and persuasive. Its wide dissemination would do us all a favour.

Marq de Villiers

Marq de Villiers is the author of 14 books, including Our Way Out: First Principles for a Post-apocalyptic World and Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. He lives in Eagle Head, N.S.


City slicker

URBAN
WALKING HOME
The Life and Lessons of a City Builder
By Ken Greenberg
Random House Canada
400 pp.,
$29.95
hardcover
Subtitled The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, Ken Greenberg’s Walking Home is more about lessons than life. Although the book is part memoir, the reader learns little about Greenberg the person. Bits of the award-winning urban designer’s life experience — such as a childhood split between city and suburb, between Europe and America — are woven into the text. But the personal elements are purely functional, existing mostly to explain key ideas, much like a university lecturer’s use of anecdotes to make complex concepts easier to grasp. This approach works well, because 1944- born-Greenberg’s life spans major shifts in the way we think about cities and because he has acquired more than enough knowledge in his career to pull it off.

Walking Home is written for layperson and expert alike, and certain passages cater more to one than the other. Greenberg devotes much of the first 100 pages to distilling the big ideas of urban planning into plain, concise language. Ideas such as Le Corbusier’s proposal to level much of Paris and replace its ornate buildings with soaring nondescript high-rise apartment blocks are unthinkable today, but they are an important part of how our cities and suburbs came to look as they do. Those with a budding interest in the evolution of urban planning will find many of the ideas that drove the development of the modern city explained briefly and effectively.

Those already well versed in the discipline’s literature, however, will likely skim through the early pages and find that later chapters hold more interest. There, Greenberg looks back on his career, speaking to specific urban developments in which he played a role, such as the creation of Berczy Park, a parking lot that was transformed into a vibrant public space tucked inconspicuously behind the triangle-shaped Gooderham Building in downtown Toronto. Greenberg brings to the table perspective from both the public and the private sector, and he doesn’t shy away from drawing conclusions based on his past. His own take on urban planning is always latent in his storytelling and analysis but becomes explicit when he discusses barriers to good planning, such as the Ontario Municipal Board, a quasijudicial tribunal that he views as an impediment to creative planning. His well-placed, thoughtful criticisms are reason enough to give the book a read.

Tyrone Burke

Ottawa-based writer and editor Tyrone Burke has a master’s degree in geography from Toronto’s York University.



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Down to earth

MEMOIR
EATING DIRT
Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe
By Charlotte Gill
Greystone
264 pp.,
$29.95
hardcover
When Charlotte Gill first heard about tree planting, she pictured “girls running barefoot through meadows tossing seeds from their aprons.” She soon learned first-hand that it takes a toughness of mind, body and spirit to make it in the tree-planting tribe. From climbing slashed mountainsides on Vancouver Island to boating toward the mainland through inlets so deep that anchors barely scrape the ocean floor, Gill spent 20 years travelling to remote corners of Canada to plant trees. In Eating Dirt, the Vancouver writer takes readers into a world of extreme beauty, devastation, adventure and boredom, exploring the pain and pleasure of a half-wild life.

Gill describes tree planting as a beating for which the body was made: battles with the elements and insects, encounters with cougars and grizzlies and days that pass not with the ticking of a clock but with a shovel sinking into the ground. It’s a world of contradictions — slow-growing plants are juxtaposed with frantically paced planting and planters get cabin fever in vast spaces. Her snapshots of characters drawn to the deep woods leave indelible impressions, but what we really get to know are the intricacies of the forest.

While rooted in the West Coast, Eating Dirt spans the globe to weave in humanity’s evolving relationship with forests, from the days of Roman shipbuilding to the devastating effects of deforestation. In her thoughtful style, Gill contemplates the different ways forests have been valued and wonders whether, in the face of climate change, their ability to store water and carbon dioxide will make them worth more if left standing.

Claudia Goodine

Claudia Goodine is a master’s of journalism student at UBC in Vancouver.


The skittish invasion

ENVIRONMENT
EMPIRE OF THE BEETLE
How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests
By Andrew Nikiforuk
Greystone
240 pp.,
$19.95
softcover
While his gut-wrenchingly astute reporting from the darkest corners of Alberta’s oil sands continues to loom large in The Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk’s fifth book demystifies the other massive scourge taking root in the Calgary-based environmental journalist’s home province. The front line of the mountain pine beetle’s epidemic attack on lodgepole pines is pressing toward Saskatchewan and into the boreal forest, having breached the Rockies and razed 16 million treed hectares of British Columbia — an area as large as the province’s entire park system. Nikiforuk investigates what hatched the invasion and the rich history of the beetle’s pivotal role in regenerating the forest, turning the image of a mountain valley blanketed by dead red trees into a mirror. Not surprisingly, the problem started with an economically misguided view of the insect as a pest devouring profit, and the dogma of modern forestry led the devastation to balloon.

Nikiforuk makes broad, incisive leaps to connect a range of ailing ecosystems. The handful of major infestations that has hit western North America in the past quarter-century (see “Unbeatable beetles” ) is vividly framed by dissident entomologists and ecologists, whose work highlights the futility of aggressive prevention and the beetle’s remarkable talents. The “prowess” and “marvels” of these “engineers of decomposition and global protein renewal” are recalled through antiquity, wherein beetles have always preserved “the common wealth of trees and other plants by safeguarding diversity,” making room for fresh growth by “gardening, dissembling, pollinating, boring, pruning, killing, recycling and refuse eating.”

Although we now have an amazing arsenal of chemical weapons at our disposal, humans have fought the same Sisyphean battle with beetles since the 1700s, when Germans started singlespecies, high-yielding tree plantations that would eventually render so many forests as vulnerable to plague as any other monoculture crop. In British Columbia, an epidemic was inevitable, especially with beetles thriving in a warming climate. By 1990, more than half the province’s forest volume was a “uniform, dense and expansive patch of aging lodgepoles,” planted about a century ago. Containment measures were exacerbated by deep government cuts to forest services and ill-fated strategies such as arsenic injections, which killed a lot of woodpeckers, a bird that preys on the beetle. Nonetheless, Nikiforuk writes that “trying to prevent a bark beetle from doing its anointed work in an aging forest is about as fruitful as trying to stop a flood or an avalanche.”

Empire of the Beetle recontextualizes the beetle as a “sentinel of climate change,” an unparalleled global custodian and communicator. Concisely and thoughtfully, Nikiforuk translates the insect’s message as a warning to heed, rather than a threat to engage.

Eric Rumble

Eric Rumble is a freelance writer and editor based in Montréal and a regular contributor to Canadian Geographic.

BRIEFLY NOTED

BACK TO THE WILD
The Photographs and Writings of Christopher McCandless

Twin Star Press
239 pp.,
$25 softcover
On April 20, 1992, a young man with the nom de plume Alexander Supertramp posed for a highwayside photograph beneath the ramparts of Castle Mountain in Alberta’s Banff National Park. Wearing bright shorts and a colourful T-shirt, smiling and waving, he looks like a goofy kid on a holiday road trip with his family. Two days later, another picture shows him sitting in the steaming waters of Liard River Hot Springs, in northern British Columbia. Again, the smile stands out. Alex, whose real name was Christopher McCandless, was on his way to Alaska, on a quest to turn his back on modern society and live as one with nature.

That’s an oversimplified description of a much more complex journey. Indeed, the story of McCandless’s adventurous life and slow death alone in the northern wilderness has fascinated, troubled and inspired millions — it’s the subject of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling non-fiction book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s Academy Awardnominated film of the same name. Now, the haunting photographs and diary entries left behind by McCandless have been released in a deeply engrossing collage of a book as a fundraiser for the foundation launched by his parents, Billie and Walt McCandless, who have honoured the memory of their son by working to help needy parents with young children and other worthy charitable causes. For more information and to order a copy of the book, go to www.backtothewildbook.org.


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