Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Chris Turner's The Leap


The thought of jumping from one speeding train onto another is not something on my bucket list.  Yet, this is the central metaphor that Chris Turner is using in his new book The Leap.  This is hardly something easy to encourage everyone to do, but that’s what Turner is hoping – that we all will make a leap.  Perhaps, it’s overly dramatic, but he does make his case that the direction our current society is going is questionable; and for many, it looks like we are headed for a cliff.  So what is this other train we are to jump onto?  It’s the sustainability train. 


Turner starts this book with a critical analysis of what he feels are the three biggest issues facing humanity now: economic collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  While the book contains the usual apocalyptic visions if we don’t change how we deal with these three issues, that’s not definitive of what this book is about.  Fundamentally this is a book about sustainability in its truest sense – a situation that can maintain itself indefinitely.  I’m a big fan of the ideas shared in this book, and have read about many of them previously.  To be honest, I’m a cheerleader for sustainability.  What I think is original about The Leap is that Turner is making an economic case for sustainability.  In many senses the message of this book is this: sustainability is far better than anything we have now regardless of the environmental benefits that would come as a consequence.  Moreover, he does a good job when he isn’t in environmental evangelism mode.  Thankfully this language is limited in The Leap.  It’s the use of this evangelistic language that I worry which could be a barrier for those who need to hear about these ideas.


Turner spends a considerable amount of time talking about energy, the policy surrounding it, the way we generate it, and the way we use it.  Rightfully so, as it is what drives the modern economy.  In many senses, it’s the track underneath the train.  Turner does a good analysis of why certain policies that are in use in Canada and the US are limiting the growth of renewable energy generation, and why in Germany and Denmark they are succeeding to a point that they have become integral to the growth of these economies. Turner makes a great case for the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) model, and how it’s been central to the growth of the renewable energy industry in Germany.  Case-in-point, the FIT effectively is a user pays model, such that the average user pays an extra 50€ per year, but Germany now produces 20% of its energy from renewables and is on track to generate 35% of its energy needs by 2020.  The jobs that have been created from this industry have made whole-scale change in the unemployment situation in the Former East Germany, generating 300,000 jobs in this sector alone.  The solar industry in Germany generated revenues of more than $13 billion dollars in 2009.  Germany is not a particularly sunny country, but the Feed-in-Tariff has transformed the nation. It’s not just this piece of legislation, but the fact that the whole country has had a mind-set change to see a new model for power generation. 


This book is about success stories, and I appreciate that.  They are good stories, and hopeful ones.  But as I was reading, I was thinking about some failures in the sustainability game.  Not too long ago, I read about some of the policies that Brazil is trying to implement.  Most notably, Brazil has implemented a “car-free day” policy that requires people who own cars to not use them one day a week.  The side-effect of this policy is that it has just encouraged people to go out a buy a second car so they can continue to drive[i].  In The Leap, Turner makes the point that for the world to make the leap to a sustainable engine, it’s not about technology or legislation, but it’s about a change in mind-set.  To use his language, it’s not about a disruptive technology, but a disruptive technique.  Here, Turner is describing “a fundamental shift in point of view” that allows everyone to see what is trying to be accomplished, so that everyone buys in and don’t just think that they are losing out.   


The Leap contains plenty of anecdotes (some historical) to show how a “leap” of this scale is made, and many that are in progress now: showing how businesses like Wal-Mart get it, countries like Denmark and Germany get it, and even some communities in the US get it.  I like that The Leap is not a prescription.  While there are some things that work, Turner isn’t trying to suggest that every city try to become Copenhagen or Melbourne.  There are elements of these cities that everyone should emulate, but they aren’t specifically the cycling infrastructure, or the laneways. Speaking of Copenhagen, Turner states: “Copenhagen is not perfection, not some tidily packaged finished product of flawless city living, because sustainability is a process of change and adaptation, not a destination.”   I like this approach to sustainability because it can be a conversation about what we are trying to accomplish, not a fixed way of doing things.  For every example in The Leap, Turner makes an effort to look at the underlying reasoning so that the reader can take away the good and apply it to their own situation. 


I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not without its flaws.  Turner is no Annie Dillard, and the language in it is forced at times (I understand his use of “FAIL”, but it really made that section feel more like a blog post than a book).  However, these ideas shared in the book are still great.  It’s the kind of book I wish could be required reading for everyone in politics, and the public service, because more people need to see alternative options to current policy.  In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, The New York Times had a great post that I think connects well to The Leap.  In the article, Jobs is quoted to have said “it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want”[ii].  The same can be said of cities, and economic policies – people know at a high level what they want, but don’t expect the most voters to understand the intricacies of the carbon pricing, or energy policy.  “Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer; he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand a specific solution just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk.  This is what’s commonly known as leading.”[iii]  After reading The Leap, it will guide those in the position to make decisions to understand what technology and new thinking can do to solve the problems we are facing in modern society.  Then it will just be up to them to lead as we take the Leap.



[iii] ibid.