Book Review: The Leap

Chris Turner’s latest book an optimistic look at how the world could, and should, look like

By Duncan Kinney

The title of Chris Turner’s latest book doesn’t make very much sense on it own. So many self help authors have asked their devotees to take a leap that it’s so generic as to be meaningless. It’s the slug that really sets up the content: “How to survive and thrive in the sustainable economy.”

This is not a doom and gloom tract on the latest upcoming ecological apocalypse. The Leap is an energetic, hopeful and darn right optimistic take on what our society could, and should, look like. To be sure Turner succinctly and effectively lays out the challenges that face us but Turner is a practical Albertan, He cares little about chest thumping and ideology and more about rolling up his sleeves and finding how we’re going to figure out the problem.

Turner makes the case that our unsustainable, fossil fueled economy is a train on a track that’s not only rapidly shaking itself apart but also heading off a cliff. Yet, just parallel to this track, is a train that’s not only veering away from oncoming doom but to a better, more inviting place. This is the leap and according to Turner it’s not some far-fetched eco-technic utopia. Turner uses real examples, real places and real people to make his case.

His explores the world’s green industrial revolution with matter-of-fact, straight ahead prose. These are the good new stories you will rarely find told in your daily newspaper. Stories like how a simple bit of German energy policy created the conditions for a total makeover of the economy, the effect of high-speed rail on economically depressed mid-size cities in Spain or the positive waterfall of knock-on effects that happen with well planned bicycle infrastructure.

The real value in Turner’s writing isn’t in the whiz-bang technology that he writes about it’s in the historical examples he uses to set up his conclusions. The Black Ball line was the first regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic cargo trip. Before the Black Ball Line ships didn’t leave a port until they were full. Simply having a regular schedule for a trans-Atlantic cargo voyage totally revolutionized the shipping industry. It became faster, better and more competitive not through an advancement in naval technology but the change in thinking throughout the supply chain enabled by having regularly scheduled service.

The Erie Canal is another effective historical example. There was nothing new about canals as a piece of technology in 1817 but when it was first proposed the business and political elite in New York laughed it off. Yet the governor stubbornly stuck with the idea and the Erie Canal turned New York and Chicago into the major cities they were today. The experts looked at the cost of the canal and simply couldn’t visualize the transformative possibilities of that particular piece of infrastructure, they could only see the costs. Keep that in mind the next time you hear that high speed rail isn’t worth it.

That insight, the fact that you can’t see where you’re going to go from where you are, is part of Turner’s slightly hokily named four laws of Leaponomics.

This focus on technique over technology is especially intriguing when it comes to talking about cities.  The work of Jan Gehl and the case study of Copenhagen is an inspiring example, especially for cities in chilly Canada. The vibrant public spaces, the reclamation of streets from the car, the assiduous measurement and encouragement of both pedestrians and cyclists, it’s a model of what a city should be. The Copenhagen part of the book is also home to one of the most robust defences of the public sphere that I’ve ever read, courtesy of historian Tony Judt.

“If public goods – public services, public spaces, public facilities – are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences industrial advantage. And once we cease to value the public over the private, sure we shall come in tome to have difficulty seeing just why we should value law (the public good par excellence) over force… In an age when young people are encouraged to maximize self-interest and self-advancement, the grounds for altruism or even good behavior become obscured. Short of reverting to religious authority – itself on occasion corrosive of secular institutions – what can furnish a younger generation with a sense of purpose beyond its own short term advantage?

… If we don’t respect public goods; if we permit or encourage the privatization of public space, resources and services; if we enthusiastically support the propensity of a younger generation to look exclusively to their own needs: then we should not be surprised to find a stead falling-away from civic engagement in public decision-making.”

With that said, when Turner turns to some of the more fanciful ideas out there, specifically the storage of massive amounts of  renewable energy in the batteries of electric cars, he loses his way. With so much effort spent on convincing us that it’s about technique over technology he spends the last chapter trying to convince us that this particular technology is the savior.

Still, the book comes highly recommended and it’s at its strongest when its discussing real solutions to problems that been put in place by cities, states and national governments across the globe. It’s worth a read for the solid spadework done in that field alone. You combine it with the solid historical examples and this book should be on the nightstands of anyone who fancies himself or herself a friend of the earth. While you’re at it, you might want to drop a couple copies off for the nightstands of one or two if your favourite policymakers.

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