Building a Green Economy after the Great Leap Sideways

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Cover Courtesy University of New Hampshire Press
“The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy” details what author Chris Turner believes to be the coming green industrial revolution—a major paradigm shift in the developed world. Turner draws on recent breakthroughs in state-of-the-art renewable energy, clean tech, and urban design to paint a picture of viable, sustainable economies that are already up and running, from Europe's "green belt" to America's "rust belt."

The crises in our economic system, our energy supply and our climate are converging. Solving these crises requires a fundamental change in our frame of reference—a decisive shift not so much in technology as in technique. In The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012), award-winning journalist Chris Turner presents a field guide to making the jump from our current system of energy supply and consumption to a sustainable model that succeeds across the socioeconomic spectrum. It is an integrated approach, one that he calls a “great leap sideways,” because the goal of building a green economy is a lateral leap that anyone can make. In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Turner explains the meaning of “The Leap” and how it can be maintained. 

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The norms of twentieth century prosperity have become the instruments of twenty-first century collapse. The track that brought us to this place, functional and stable as it might seem from certain vantage points, cannot lead us any further. Moreover, the engine of our success to date—that great, roaring internal combustion engine that powered the Industrial Revolution—is fast becoming obsolete. The best evidence from energy analysts, economists and climate scientists alike all indicates the necessity of a wholesale transformation, a complete redesign and rebuilding of the socioeconomic foundations of our societies.

There are any number of pronouncements on the urgent need for this shift. Maybe the most succinct and unequivocal one appeared in a recent International Energy Agency report.

“Current global trends in energy supply and consumption,” it read, “are patently unsustainable environmentally, economically, socially.”

Here’s the American sustainability pioneer Paul Hawken, speaking to the graduating class of the University of Portland in 2009: “Civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

“The choice we face”—this is how US president Barack Obama put it—“is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”

Such is the scale of the challenge and the urgency of change.

This is not a situation calling for gradual, incremental tweaks. We need a decisive jump from one structural foundation to another inside a single generation. This is a broad lateral shift, a change not in final destination but in the path we use to get there. I call it The Leap—in this case, the Great Leap Sideways.

What do I mean by a great leap? And why sideways? To explain, let’s take a brief survey of The Leap’s metaphorical landscape.

First, imagine our hypermodern, speed-of-light digital society as a train on a long, transcontinental track, bound—so goes the eternal promise—for some brighter future. The engine, fed for 150 years by energy-dense fossil fuels, is staggering in its speed and power. (It devours more than eighty million barrels of oil every single day.) The amenities on board are impossibly lavish and sophisticated—instant worldwide communication with virtually anyone anywhere; the contents of seemingly all the world’s libraries available at the tap of a keyboard or the touch of a handheld screen; the entertainment omnipresent and widely varied and provided, often as not, by actors on 3D stages more lush and vibrant than real life. There are machines to do all the heavy lifting, medicines to treat nearly every disease that afflicts humankind. The food is elaborately prepared, drawn effortlessly from every corner of the globe and available on an instantaneous whim any time of year, and so plentiful the very idea of scarcity-induced hunger has been all but eradicated. The level of comfort in nearly every class of compartment is at least a few rungs up from that enjoyed only by royalty in the dark centuries prior to the industrial age.

There is, on the surface, no reason at all to seek out other means of transport. But as you lean back into your contoured seat, you gaze out the window to your side and notice some sort of depression on the horizon. The train, you realize, is veering slowly but steadily in that direction. For the first time you can remember, you notice bumps and jiggles in the ride. The tracks have evidently begun to deteriorate beneath you, rails warping and ties splitting. The threat of a derailment, which seemed impossible when you boarded, now seems terrifyingly imminent each time the train makes a particularly intense shudder across another hump in the track.

Back out the window, the depression is now close enough to the side of the train to reveal the chasm’s full measure: it is broad and impossibly deep, stretching far below you. It’s difficult to tell exactly how steep and long the drop is, but there’s no way the train would survive the plunge, and you certainly wouldn’t, either.

At this speed, in such comfortable environs, it’s difficult to tell for certain how quickly the tracks are closing the ground between them and the lip of the chasm—the train sometimes seems to pull away from the precipice for stretches of time—but as you pay closer attention it becomes harder and harder to convince yourself you’re headed anywhere but over a cliff.

Let’s imagine that a sort of preternatural clarity pervades the scene at this moment, and a wide horizon comes into view under improbably clear skies. Let’s imagine you can see the faint spectre of another train zipping along on the far side of the chasm.

This other vehicle, you notice, is headed in the same direction. It’s pointed at the same station, bound for roughly the same place you were already going—a place with the same goals, if you will, similar values and institutions and standards of living. What’s more—here a fellow passenger who’s had a chance to ride on this new conveyance pipes up—the train in the distance boasts the same amenities, similar levels of comfort and service and sophistication, a quality of life that’s fundamentally better in many ways than the one you’ve always known. The track beneath its wheels is gleamingly new, and it’s veering away from the chasm even more sharply than your track is headed toward it. There’s no stopping that other train—in fact, it appears to be picking up speed even as your fellow passenger starts to explain how it works. And to hop aboard, he insists, would not be a total change in direction or a jump ahead into some unrecognizable future. It would be a sideward move to a parallel track. A better way to get where we’re already going.

He can’t help himself, this guy, he’s out of his seat now, ranting. We’ve got to jump, he says. We’ve got to go now, while there’s still enough momentum left in this vehicle to launch us over the chasm. Some of the passengers are aghast, a few others begin to nod and whoop in agreement; a couple, their jaws firmly set, insist it’s pure madness. Someone tries to shout the guy down, while another passenger hands him a megaphone.

He’s seen it done, he insists. There’s less to it than you think. We could simply change trains.

I’m that guy, that ranting passenger. And the jump over that chasm is The Leap—our vital Great Leap Sideways.

So what is this Great Leap Sideways?

Around the world and in our backyards, communities and businesses, cities and industries, energy regimes and economies, even entire nations have made this Leap to arrive at a place of reinvigorated community, renewed industrial might and greater economic health and social well-being. I’ll also explain how to make these Leaps—the common tactics and techniques, the best engines and preferred fuels, as well as the greatest hurdles.

Change of the magnitude required for a Great Leap Sideways, however, can be a difficult thing to apprehend fully in the present tense. Our vantage point is too close to the enormous apparatus of the status quo. Our attachments to the fine details of the coaches we’re riding in and our habituation to even the sharpest of lurches along the failing track are too strong. We find it hard to see the full depth of the chasm, harder still to recognize the sturdier track on the far side as the better path to our destination.

The Leap is first and foremost a cognitive jump, a shift in perspective and priorities. There is new technology and infrastructure involved—some of it fresh from the lab, some ancient in design—but it is not fundamentally about the tools. Whereas technological revolutions like the one that has reshaped telecommunications in the last twenty years are driven by new kinds of tools—“disruptive technologies,” in the preferred lingo of the digital world—The Leap is propelled by disruptive techniques. New kinds of policy, new metrics, new design parameters for vehicles and homes and whole cities, new ways of solving problems and thinking through challenges. It is not about material wealth or technical know-how but about creating the social and political will to commit to making the jump.

And finally—critically—The Leap is not just about escaping from but also moving toward, not motivated solely by the avoidance of disaster but also, even principally, by the desire to pursue our brightest possible future. The track on the other side leads not just somewhere safer but somewhere better.

The reason I can state this so baldly is because, as I said, I’ve been there. And what follows is, in one sense, a travel guide to the places where we arrive upon landing. I’ve seen first hand the exhilaration the Great Leap Sideways inspires, and I can see no good reason why anyone wouldn’t want to be where this Leap lands us. These are not allegorical scenarios like the train ride I described but real communities, cities, businesses, even whole nations—places that are already thriving in the sustainable twenty-first-century world order, all of them as real as Jeremiah Thompson’s New York and the yellowed pages of an 1818 shipping list. The Leap does not take us to a place of hardship or deprivation. It’s not about sacrifice, not a world predicated on going without or getting by. Quite the opposite: it’s a leap from a failing system to one that works, from decline and imminent peril to a new kind of prosperity with a healthy future stretching far out in front of it.

The Leap brings us to communities of ultra-efficient homes that produce substantially more energy than they consume over the course of a year, houses that function as power plants and make tidy profits for their owners. The Leap places businesses and their hometowns at the front ranks of the second industrial revolution. The Leap can involve nothing more daunting than a casual bike ride through an elegant city with the best cycling infrastructure on the planet. And it can provide a more effective template for entrepreneurship on a small-town scale as well as a new model for suburban development. On the far side of a Leap, the electricity grid, powered primarily and reliably by the wind and sun, feeds fuel to the electric car you drive to work, which then offsets the cost of the power by selling it back to the grid while it’s parked.

Excerpt from THE LEAP: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy by Chris Turner published by University of New Hampshire Press. Used with permission.

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