Chris Turner: Wielding the axe of hope

“Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”

Those words come from Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark, but as far as Chris Turner is concerned, they must be the starting point in every battle against global warming. And if you want a living personification of that sort of hope — find an event where Turner is speaking, and GO. Once you hear him, you’ll probably come away uplifted and inspired.

“Hopeful inspiration” isn’t what we usually feel, listening to the litany of inevitable disasters if we don’t start fighting global warming immediately (or, according to some, even if we do). It’s easy to become nihilistic, thinking our small efforts can’t make a difference. But Turner claims we have good reason to hope.

He was in Toronto on Monday, promoting his book, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World we Need, at another “This is Not a Reading Series” event at the Gladstone Hotel. And even he, beginning his visual presentation, started with some of the litany. Global warming is indisputable, and its effects are outside the ability of our current world systems to rationalize. You cannot “balance the environment against the economy” — the environment is the economy. Destroy it, and everything else goes too.

But there the similarities between Turner and many other prophets of global warming end. When his daughter was born, four or five years ago, he discovered new incentive to try to change things. And having begun with the principle of hope, he made a trip around the world to discover what was actually possible.

He found countless buildings that produced more energy than they consumed, and entire communities — even entire islands! — that did the same. Nor were all these solutions pre-planned and imposed from on high. Once a community decided which energy saving method best suited them, the ideas tended to snowball, until eventually several methods at once contributed to the community becoming clean.

The most stunning example Turner encountered was the Danish island of Samsø, the most carbon-negative place on earth. The island first set up wind turbines to produce most of its energy. People didn’t even need to be environmentalists; most turbines were, and still are, privately owned, by individuals or groups of investors. They discovered that once their own energy needs were met, they could feed the remaining power into the larger Danish grid. Now they pay off their loans and make a profit while saving the planet.

But it didn’t stop there. At the moment, Samsø’s solutions include solar as well as wind, and a power plant that burns straw. Now they’re working on vehicles that use something other than petroleum.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Turner visited the Ecovillage at Findhorn. Not only were they experts in ecological buildings and solar and wind power, but they’ve designed a sewage treatment plant consisting of vats with natural mini-ecosystems that gradually purify raw sewage into clean water.

On the continent, Germany drastically changed its energy structure, aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2020. Turner showed one slide demonstrating how the rows of solar panels along the edges of German farms were protected from long grasses growing up to block the panels: sheep grazed freely among the panels and kept the area clean. Not every energy solution needs to be high tech, obviously. Additionally, Germany appeared on the brink of financial collapse before the project began, but with the generation of jobs and the saving of energy costs, their economy has skyrocketed.

As we saw examples of large and small changes from Manchester, England, to Indonesia, it dawned on us, that evening, that we weren’t merely watching someone with an optimistic personality. There are reasons why Chris Turner is so hopeful. The examples are real. It’s been done. And all the tools we need to fix global warming already exist. We don’t even have to wait for someone to invent them.

At the end of the presentation, Turner wryly mentioned the dire predictions others have made, about the transition from a petroleum-based to a green lifestyle inevitably producing violence and disruptions in society. He promised to show us real-life pictures of these horrific disruptions — and then produced photos of a quiet, peaceful street in Samsø.

Yeah, that transition is going to be tough, all right.

Do I want to read this book? I not only yearn to read this book, but I suspect it should be required reading for everyone on the planet.

A visit to Samsø

Findhorn’s Ecovillage

The Geography of Hope

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