The 2009 Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Niagara Falls ended on a remarkable note. A talented speaker and unforeseen circumstance converged brilliantly to demonstrate both the nature of the crises we are facing, but also the resilience we will need to address them.
Chris Turner, author of the Geography of Hope and a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail on sustainability issues, was the featured speaker. His talk was replete with the lucidity, humour and ideas that have made him a leading voice on sustainabiliity discourse.
He began by pointing out that, among Time Magazine's current profile of "environmental heroes," is a German town called Vauban, which some years ago decided to all but banish automobiles. Why is Time calling them heroes, he asked? They are not sacrificing in the face of adversity; they are simply living according to a template that has shown its durability and adaptability over centuries. Their buildings are between 3-6 storeys tall and the population moderately dense, with a mix of uses, a fantastic public realm with inviting gathering spaces and high quality of life.
This classic template for urbanism, according to Turner, is the most successful model for sustainable human societies, and as such is nothing less the "operating system" we desperately need for the 21st century. With such densities and human-scaled infrastructure, public transit, walking and cycling become not just more feasible, but desirable. Energy consumption rates drop, as do rates of CO2 production.
The imperative for such reductions, he warns, is becoming alarmingly apparent. The warming and acidification of the Earth's oceans is rapidly killing off coral reefs; within decades they will surely all be dead.
In fact, Turner said, so extensive and grievous are the impacts of human activities that scientists have determined that we have now entered a new geological epoch determined by human activities, known as the Anthropocene. Because of this we have no real basis for knowing what environmental conditions will be decades from now.
All this destruction has been the unintended consequences of an economic system built on the proposition that there will always be more money, which ultimately means more oil. Instead of building a society premised on permanence, we have, he declared, rushed to do exactly the opposite, pretending all the while that it would last forever.
But it can't, of course. Our oil reserves will be exhausted in decades, our coal in little more than a century and half. The only way we can halt our rush to energy impoverishment and climate catastrophe, according to Turner, is to change our society's "operating system" – that is, to return to the form of classic, moderate-density urbanism we abandoned over the past one hundred years but is still to be found in extant historic cities around the world.
Turner's talk was, like his writing, truly inspiring, and fit in perfectly with the conference theme of Building a Better World.
But what made his talk all the more powerful and memorable was that it took place almost entirely in the dark. A half hour prior to Turner's talk, the hotel suffered a total power failure. The hall where the talk was to take place is internal and therefore without natural light.
We looked out the hotel windows to see that that the whole block was affected; soon police arrived to direct traffic. I wondered if Turner's talk, which I'd been particularly looking forward to, would need to be cancelled if the power didn't come back on.
With no end to the blackout in sight, hotel staff brought in candles for our tables and for Turner's podium. We could barely see each other, but the glow from the emergency lights and the candles lent Turner's face a ghostly appearance as he began his talk, without benefit of microphone and speakers in a large hall.
But we adapted. We clustered to the front of the hall, filling every table. Nobody spoke to their neighbour. All sounds of clinking spoons and coffee cups ceased. Our conference of 900 people had become unexpectedly intimate, as if we were back in time, gathered in a medieval town hall or church for a sermon warning of apocalypse.
Turner's message of energy poor future was, indeed, dramatically multiplied by the absence of electricity. It was starkly apparent that we need to be making our societies more resilient – unlike, he noted, the darkened, technologically dependent room we were sitting in.
After nearly an hour, there was a loud clunk. The emergency lights went out. The amp and speakers clicked to life, and then the lights. Everyone applauded, and Turner suggested that we take a quick break and resume in a few minutes with his powerpoint presentation.
When we returned, he showed us terrific images of high-speed rail in Spain, of densely-built European redevelopment and highly attractive urbanism. The slides were great, but people once again spread out to other tables the intimacy was gone.
Afterwards, the buzz in the foyer was that Chris Turner's candlelight talk was set to be the most memorable and discussed presentation of the conference. It was as if we had been given a brief window on our future, one in which we (or our children) will be increasingly unable to rely on our present energy-gobbling technologies, and instead for many purposes will need to turn to older forms and techniques -- such as gathering together near candles and relying on the power of our own, unaugmented voices.
Next year, the CIP members will gather in Montreal for an international congress entirely devoted to climate change. I suggest that this event would be greatly enhanced if the conditions of Turner's talk were imitated. There should be at least one session without electric power.
In fact, I would propose that this ought to be a new tradition at all planning conferences: If we are serious about planning for a low-carbon future, a good place to start would be our conferences – which through all the air travel involved are significant sources of GHG production.
Holding one session in the dark would not be self-denial. It would not be heroic. And it wouldn't save a significant amount of energy. But it would be a sensory cue to remind us of what is at stake, and something of a ritual to show our commitment to resolving it.