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Sink or Swim

Sink or Swim

Two authors offer starkly different approaches to the coming environmental disaster. Will we face climate change with hope or resignation?

Illustration by Leif Parsons.

For those still skeptical about climate change, consider last year your wake-up call. Arctic ice is melting twice as fast as predicted. The North Pole’s delicate balance seems to be unravelling, rerouting jet streams, as well as disrupting weather patterns and temperatures. Nineteen countries, covering a fifth of the planet, set new heat records in 2010. The oceans are hastily acidifying. The Amazon River basin—which holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and generates the same portion of oxygen—had its second abysmal drought in five years. Catastrophic wildfires engulfed Russia. Thousands were killed and tens of millions of people were displaced by massive floods on four continents.

The sheer heft of this upheaval should incite revolution. But for all the noise we make about climate change, what’s remarkable is how ineptly we’ve dealt with it. News coverage of the issue is rarely helpful, running the gamut from incisive to slanted to shrill—often serving up two sides with no meat. Take the 2009 Copenhagen summit, a truly crucial moment that was hijacked by the “Climategate” non-scandal. Instead of focusing on diplomatic roadblocks in the way of progressive policy, or new climate science and its irrefutable consensus, major news outlets obsessed over email exchanges between researchers that, as some falsely claimed, proved global warming was a fabrication.

If we continue to dither over details instead of actually grappling with the threat of climate change, the fallout will only be more colossal. Blame it on ingrained cultural apathy, bureaucratic ineptitude, whatever you want. The reality is that we’re ankle deep in our own shit, facing a familiar choice: fight or flight.

Two journalists have become the voices of reason for both camps. On one side is Alberta-based Chris Turner, author of the upcoming book The Great Leap Sideways and a staunch supporter of gearing up for battle. On the other is Giles Slade, whose Broke Down Palace is also forthcoming this fall, but who takes a rather more cataclysmic view of the looming emergency. At root, the opposing choices they explore beg perhaps the most pressing question of this century: how will our definitive response to climate change take shape?

Turner’s 2007 book The Geography of Hope began as a self-imposed dare to write positively about the state of the environment. Rather than focus on emerging environmental technology, Turner scoured the globe for examples of innovative or revived techniques that regular folks had already deployed to reduce their carbon footprints, save money and, ultimately, live better lives. He draws a trail-blazing map of the post-industrial age, from the burgeoning renewable energy sectors in Germany and Denmark, to a suburban mall’s thoughtful rejuvenation in Colorado, to a humble but pioneering hydroelectric project in remote northwestern Thailand.

While Climategate reminded us that popular culture thrives on low-hanging fruit, Turner argues that it’s our salvation that’s ripe for the picking. “Environmentalism,” he writes in The Geography of Hope, “has become a sort of mythology of death—passionate, lyrical, righteous and hopeless—with a seemingly inexhaustible store of awful endings and not nearly enough to say about new beginnings.”

It’s certainly deflating to think about how long we’ve been yammering about preserving the planet. Scientists have suspected that atmospheric gas affects the Earth’s temperature since the late nineteenth century, and by the 1950s, journalists were investigating the evidence of human activity warming up the Arctic. Led by the horrors of Bhopal, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez, our blight on the biosphere has been in sharp focus for the last quarter century.

In a paradigm-nudging 2009 article for the Walrus called “The Age of Breathing Underwater,” Turner offered a sweeping perspective on our bleak oceanic future and its would-be saviours, and criticized the “nostalgic, downbeat, defeatist” nature of conventional environmental messages. We need to recognize that we’ve entered the Anthropocene era, he argued, in which the biosphere is already irrevocably changed by human impact. More importantly, we need to tell the adventure stories of those who are already tackling—and adapting to—climate change. We need their tales of perseverance and passion to create an inspiring “new myth of the frontier.”

Giles Slade, on the other hand, sees us as future evacuees rather than pioneers. Convinced that we’ve already failed to heed the urgency of anthropogenic climate change, Slade’s Broke Down Palace predicts that as many as half of all North Americans will soon be environmental refugees.

Slade isn’t part of the old guard that Turner decries, but he also doesn’t heed the latter’s call to arms. For starters, Broke Down Palace is intended as a selected North American history of human migration and ecological calamity, a dark chronicle of how our past has moulded a horrendous future. Slade delves into the unwieldy handling and resultant carnage of past environmental crises, examining how homegrown refugees have been mistreated, whether fleeing Hurricane Katrina or the 1930s Dust Bowl. Against this backdrop of debacles, he calculates the coming century’s prospective spike in floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves and overlapping natural disasters—all of which, he says, could drive us northward to the Yukon and Mackenzie river basins.

Part of his aim is to contextualize the changes he’s observed from his sea-level home in British Columbia: the later, milder winters, the migrating birds that don’t. Slade is trying to be practical about our quagmire, without pulling punches. “Global warming,” he writes, “teaches that, for all our cleverness, we are still dirty, greedy, little monkeys.”

Turner champions human ingenuity, overcoming adversity with community. Slade is defibrillating an old dilemma: is human nature capable of evolving beyond survival of the fittest?

Whether reading Turner or Slade, one thing is abundantly clear: the choice between fight or flight—or, more likely, myriad hybrid scenarios—will be made within most of our lifetimes. Without shying away from the unfolding peril, the thirty-seven-year-old Turner believes we can still adapt because he’s seen us do it. He wants to light a fire under our asses. Slade, born a generation earlier, is already thinking about what we’ll be forced to deal with after we inevitably squander more time—something he’s been watching us do for most of his life.

To many readers, the despondence and alienation that drives Slade’s vision may seem more apt than Turner’s thoughtful, deliberate enthusiasm. But this is likely because so many of us have yet to embrace Turner’s fundamental message: we need to discover our own geographies of hope, now.

That individuals must each choose to live deliberately is sustainability’s most immovable obstacle. Confronting climate change means accepting all of the attendant sacrifices and unknowns, regardless of what anybody else might or might not do. Some individuals, organizations and nations have already chosen well. But the stalemate over emissions targets between the West and developing countries—where economics remain more pressing than ecology—is nothing if not evidence of humankind’s endless capacity for procrastination.

Recognizing that we need direction, Turner’s next book is a search for answers about how we can overcome ourselves. The Great Leap Sideways digs into the social mechanics of sparking collaborative change. “What we’re up against is not people’s minds, it’s their behaviour,” Turner says. “What do they actually do, as opposed to what they say they want to do? Why do they do what they do? How do you change that behaviour in effective ways that last?”

One telling answer comes from a study by American software firm OPOWER and Dr. Robert Cialdini, a sage in marketing and behavioural psychology circles. Past experiments in suburban neighbourhoods had found that homeowners were unlikely to use less energy when environmental ad campaigns cited ethical or financial reasons for doing so. A 2007 study by OPOWER showed what did work: effective peer pressure, in the form of pointing out how much more or less their neighbours were consuming. All energy consumers needed was a well-placed smiley face on their power bill to indicate they were wasting less energy than the family next door.

What forces us to confront climate change might be the same impulse that makes us want to cultivate a greener lawn, own a brawnier SUV or infill a bigger pool. And if the best motivator for action is our innate desire not to be left behind, then perhaps Turner’s aspirational narrative and Slade’s apocalyptic one aren’t so disparate after all. “Very soon a lot of new people will be clamouring to share our lifeboat,” Slade writes of Canada’s particular challenge. “Who we are and what we will become will be determined in large part by how we respond to the demands of our neighbours in their time of need.”

See the rest of Issue 39 (Spring 2011).

Related on

—The Green Gospel
—Waste Not
—The Happiness Project

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