A Case for Eco-Optimism

Chris Turner, The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (Random House Canada, 2007)

The coming presidential election may be the first in a long time to motivate Americans not with fear, but with hope. Evidently, Chris Turner’s environmental tome The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need has thus arrived at an auspicious time. Aimed at “Rachel Carson’s children” (a reference to the pioneering Silent Spring author), Geography is Turner’s response to the green movement’s pessimistic old guard. The Calgary-based journalist’s focus is not on scare tactics but sustainability, “a revolutionary concept as powerfully, progressively disruptive as democracy once was.”

In prose that is part speechwriter platitude and part skateboarder slang, Turner catalogues the technologies that could make sustainability a reality. “Moving down a clear path toward that sustainable city on a hill,” he writes, “what could be better, more worthwhile, more flat-out balls-to-the-wall exhilarating...?” The result is an unintentionally funny manual for environmentalism’s second wave, as likely to quote from E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful as Tom Wolfe.

It is no surprise that Turner’s introduction to environmentalism came not from science or academia but from a college stint at Greenpeace. Dissatisfied with what he sees as the group’s model (using fear to solicit donations to orchestrate stunts), Turner instead finds inspiration in LEED-certified buildings, American ad execs, an emissions-neutral Danish island and The Big Lebowski. His strategy—to include former environmental pariahs from big business and to make his case via pop culture—has potential. Yet Turner’s optimism has blinded him to many of the difficult realities standing in the way of environmental activism.

Many of Turner’s conclusions verge on simplistic. He lauds oil giant BP’s financial contribution to solar power, stating “it was about $1.8 billion more than any oil company spent on renewable energy in 1997.” But BP’s effort was a drop in an increasingly large ocean. Turner also ignores issues that undermine his cheery outlook, such as the high price tags on mixed-use condos that make the units economically infeasible for most of the middle-class. And some of his solutions, such as the Toyota Prius, are not particularly newfangled and come with numerous drawbacks. These inadequacies and complexities play too minor a role in Geography, and Turner’s arguments often rest on optimism as doctrinaire as the first wave’s doom-saying.

His confidence, as he writes, is “wish fulfillment, or fantasy, or maybe just the right kind of lens.” Which is not a bad thing. Dreams have spurred change in the past, and Turner is nothing if not genuine. But those nitty-gritty specifics? They’re equally as important as hope.

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