I don’t have to go very far to find a certain kind of reassurance that I live in a golden age. Out my back door and down the back alley to a steep-sloped residential street, and then it’s just a two-minute upward scramble to the crest of a ridge known as Scotsman’s Hill, which affords one of the city’s best views. Here is Calgary, Alberta–Canada’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing metropolis. Here is a panorama Fritz Lang could only dream of, a marvel of engineering genius and financial might that even today equates in the minds of most of the world’s people with progress, prosperity, hope and ambition, the future: a glittering skyline.
In the middle distance, the downtown core stabs at the wide prairie sky with a hundred sleek fingers. At one end are the twin knife-blade towers of the Petro-Canada Centre, on the other a pair of older, squatter office blocks topped with the sled-dog logo of Husky Energy, and in between are anonymous skyscrapers housing the local offices of Chevron and Shell and Halliburton and dozens more companies with less famous names, all of them dedicated to the lucrative business of extracting fossil fuels from the earth. The whole scene is punctuated by the exclamation point of the Calgary Tower, a torch-shaped needle that belches a natural-gas flame from its crown on special occasions. Farther south is the white dome roof of the cavernous fitness centre where my wife and I sometimes go to swim and play badminton–the Talisman Centre, named for the last Canadian company to divest itself of oil investments in Sudan. The foreground is dominated by the city’s temple of hockey, the Pengrowth Saddledome, its last name referring to its whimsically bow-shaped roof and its first name to a lucrative fossil fuel investment trust.
This is the vista that’s sometimes used to illustrate the copious news stories that have appeared in recent years to document Calgary’s increasing prominence in the life of the nation and the energy economy of the world. These stories, too, offer a kind of reassurance. The headlines yelp excitedly about the “unprecedented boom,” about an “economic juggernaut,” about “streets paved with black gold” as “the good times roll.” The reports underneath detail the runaway growth of a city lucky to be situated in the middle of a wide prairie pocketed with vast pools of natural gas and blessed to be christened the corporate hub of a colossal mining operation far to the north. This, they say, is a city coming into its own, making its mark. A city entering its golden age.
Maybe those stories make passing mention of the catalyst for that mining boom–the skyrocketing price of a dwindling resource in relentlessly increasing demand, a global thirst for oil so inexhaustible that even the marginal, low-quality fossil fuel deposits buried in the “tar sands” of remote northern Alberta must be put to use, even if the operation required to mine and refine the stuff requires feats of engineering on a scale that would’ve given pause to a Kremlin apparatchik. Maybe this is mentioned; rarely is it suggested that it could be anything other than admirable and beneficial and essential; certainly it’s never even hinted that it might be a symptom of a particularly advanced strain of mass insanity.
And who could be so impertinent, so misguided–so deluded–that they saw such things from this perspective? Look again from atop Scotsman’s Hill, peer beyond the office towers to the great blooming city stretching off in all directions. See the wide avenues, the meandering suburban boulevards, the eight-lane freeways as broad as the Champs-Elysées. Look at the big houses–mansions, really, in any other age but this–stuffed full of the latest in digital gadgetry; the elegant shops and cavernous warehouse stores overflowing with anything else the heart might desire. Look to the horizon, to the jagged line of peaks–the Rocky Mountains, where championship golf courses and world-class ski resorts await anyone who wants to top up the hundred-litre tank in the ole Cadillac Escalade and rev up that growling 6.2-litre V8 and roar right on out into Paradise.
Look further still, use the mind’s eye, extend your vision to Houston and Caracas and Dubai, to cities where the fossil fuel wealth is perhaps less overt but no less ubiquitous, to New York and London and Tokyo and even–especially–delirious Shanghai. Isn’t all this as impressive a facsimile of perfection as humanity has yet devised? It can be hard to argue otherwise: the fossil-fuelled, hyper-consumerist capitalism that has spread around the globe since the Second World War is quite possibly the most successful social experiment the world has ever seen, and it has birthed by far the wealthiest and healthiest societies in human history. A chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway. The Good Life: democratized, trademarked, mass-produced, shipped worldwide.
What a time to be alive, what good fortune, and what a joy it must be to be a Calgarian right about now. To live in one of those blessed cities on a hill at the end of history. “Put your hands on the wheel / Let the golden age begin.” That’s a Beck lyric, sung in a thin whisper over a country waltz as cold and cutting as a winter prairie wind, as sharp and precise as a glass office tower. A biting breeze of a tune, the vocal almost blown away completely, as if to suggest what the breathless news stories never do: that golden ages aren’t often found where they claim to be.
At night, the farmers’ fields north of Calgary look like a candlelight vigil on an Olympian scale: vast, empty prairie dotted at wide intervals with narrow multistorey scaffolds, blazing fires atop each one. These are the flares that arise from burning off the “sour gas”–hydrogen sulphide–in the natural-gas wells. Ranchers have long suspected the flares to be the cause of stillbirths and other health problems in downwind livestock; the sour gas itself is potentially fatal to humans at concentrations of more than 500 parts per million. That’s 500 ppm–in a curious coincidence, a figure that’s also the most liberal estimate of the maximum permissible level of carbon dioxide concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere before a process often called “catastrophic climate change” (sometimes known, in more anxious circles, simply as apocalypse) will likely become inevitable. Prior to the onset of the fossil-fuelled industrial age, the concentration was 280 ppm; right now, it’s about 380 ppm. If the status quo that’s propelling Calgary’s giddy boom continues unchecked, it’s a scientific certainty that 560 ppm–sufficient, by most estimates, to trigger catastrophic climate change–will be reached by mid-century.
You can’t see those sour-gas flares from Scotsman’s Hill, not even on the clearest night. You can see only the sparkling city, a gilt cubist sculpture of triumph against a blackening sky. This is the blaze of colour on one horizon, and maybe it’s up to the beholder whether that brilliant light portends dusk or dawn. I can see only sunset myself.
My daughter–two months old as I stand on Scotsman’s Hill on a warm spring day in May 2005, wondering at the darkening horizon–will be fifty-one years old in 2056, at which point our current trajectory would reach 560 ppm with a bullet. And who knows whether by then she’ll have a house worth keeping here, a life worth living, a world here or anywhere else sturdy enough to sustain her? I can’t say for certain, and it makes me positively ache in places I didn’t know I had until she was born that I can’t make her any promises.
And so I don’t take her to Scotsman’s Hill to see the Petro-Canada towers or the Talisman Centre’s rippled roof or the Calgary Tower’s natural-gas blowtorch. Instead, on a holiday Monday later that May–Victoria Day, Canada’s vestigial tribute to the world’s first fossil fuel empire, the one built on coal that led to my country’s founding–my wife and I take her on a field trip south to another ridge, another horizon, a place that to me represents the dawn of a new hope.
Traffic on Highway 2 is thin on this holiday Monday, and before too long, Calgary’s lolling southern suburbs give grudging way to empty prairie, and we are on our way. To our right, the jagged peaks of the eastern wall of the Rockies are our constant companions, ancient and certain and still dappled with last winter’s snow. We zoom south through rolling ranchland, past barns clad in chipped red paint, through quiet towns where the local tack shop is the main merchant. We stop at a gas station where a handmade poster outside the bathroom advertises a year-old gelding for sale, “keep the coyotes out of your correl”–and, whaddaya know, there’s a coyote loping casually along in the roadside ditch a few kilometres further on.
Fifteen klicks north of Fort Macleod, an unforgiving crosswind sets our small car to weaving, and a bit beyond that there appears on the horizon a long, low ridge crowned with a row of thin sticks, like a faint pencil sketch of some grandiose reimagining of Stonehenge. This is our destination: the McBride Lake Wind Farm, at this moment the largest single wind-power generating facility in Canada.
As we draw closer, turning onto a narrow secondary highway pointed straight at the ridge, the gyrating blades of the turbines become visible, chasing each other in not-quite-perfect lockstep, a race of giant prehistoric storks marching across the ridgeline. We crest the ridge and are soon surrounded by dozens of enormous wind turbines–a forest of 50-metre towers, each crowned in a three-bladed pinwheel with arms 23 metres long. There are 114 turbines in all, arrayed in tidy rows that stretch to the horizon, the white machines gleaming against the dun and straw hues of the farmers’ fields they stand in, their oscillations looking from one vantage like geese in flight, then like palm fronds in a stiff breeze, a moment later like a kaleidoscopic screensaver on the largest lcd screen in all Creation.
We turn off the highway onto a gravel access road, driving slowly now, the turbines just a couple dozen metres away on either side of us. We stop at a little observation nook the wind farm’s owners have built, and still there is no sense of being in the presence of industrial-scale power. The noise of the spinning blades–what little can be heard amid the constant howl of the wind across this bald ridge–sounds a bit like a sheet-metal utility shed being rattled in a gale. There is no roar of engines, no black smoke, no mammoth cooling tower, no warning signs save the one asking visitors to respect the privacy of the local residents and stop only at the designated observation area.
I take my daughter out of her car seat so she can feel the driving wind against her cheeks, and then we return to the car to wait while my wife takes pictures. It is evening, and the shadows thrown by the great blades have grown long against the field. The shadows spin like the hands of clocks moving forward at varying speeds. It’s an odd effect, hypnotic, and my daughter watches it with the observant contentment of one who has only recently awakened to the shape of the world. This is new for her, and delightful, but so is everything else. As far as she knows, the unique oscillating effect created by the spinning blades of an industrial wind turbine at sunset is as commonplace as the sound of spring rain against a car’s windshield and the rich aroma of a gas station. Soon–too soon–she’ll learn otherwise.
The 114 Vestas V47 wind turbines that make up the McBride Lake Wind Farm each have a generating capacity of 660 kilowatts; the farm as a whole has a capacity of a little more than 75 megawatts. The Sundance coal plant in northern Alberta–western Canada’s largest coal-fired power plant–has a capacity of 2,020 megawatts all by itself. Wind power accounts for less than 1 percent of total energy production in the province of Alberta, and even if every wind turbine in Canada were operating at maximum capacity twenty-four hours a day, wind would still produce less than 1 percent of the nation’s total energy. And just the projected increase in global energy demand far outstrips the world’s current or near-future wind-power production capacity. But this is the wrong way to count. This is like showing up at Thomas Edison’s workshop with ledgers detailing whale-oil sales or lamplighter employment figures, or like stopping by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1974 and asking why you can’t watch live video on this fancy new computer network.
There are much better ways to quantify what’s happening on this windswept ridge in southern Alberta. Canada’s wind-power production grew by more than 30 percent every year from 1998 to 2002, and McBride Lake added another 19 percent all by itself when it came online in 2003, and wind power remains Canada’s fastest-growing energy source today (In 2006, installed capacity grew by 113 percent). If the 75 megawatts of energy being generated at McBride Lake was produced instead by burning coal, 195,000 more tonnes of carbon dioxide would be released into the earth’s atmosphere; the 8,000 megawatts of wind power added to global capacity in 2004 means 20.8 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emitted. The power from McBride Lake’s turbines enters the larger electrical grid operated by TransAlta for its customers across western Canada, so there’s no way to separate it from the juice coming from Sundance’s coal furnace, but nevertheless that 75 megawatts represents about 32,500 homes powered by nothing more noxious than a stiff spring breeze. And even if these are tiny drops in a mammoth bucket, the game being played is one of absolutes, and so they irreducibly count. We have but one earth, blessed with finite amounts of coal and light sweet crude, nurtured by a closed loop of a climate with only one external input: the energy of the sun.
So I sit with my daughter, watching their blades spin, and I begin to understand what sustainability truly means. Removed from the spin cycle of corporate public relations, a flat buzzword reinflated to its full weight, sustainability again becomes epochal, a wellspring of social change, a revolutionary concept as powerfully, progressively disruptive as democracy once was.
The idea of sustainability began as the central concept in the landmark report Our Common Future–the 1987 document that defined “sustainable development” and precipitated the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. What sustainability describes, at its core, is this: My daughter and I can sit here, in the shadow of these blades, as long as we’d like, and no matter how long they turn, no matter how many megawatts of power they generate, they’ll do us no harm. This is what fundamentally distinguishes these turbines from coal plants and natural gas wells, from Alberta’s bitumen sands and the reservoirs of crude oil beneath the desert of Arabia and the Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico: there will be no toxic emissions, no hidden bills that come due two or three generations from now, no invasions necessary to procure further supply. As long as there’s a sun in the sky to heat this world unevenly, there will be breezes to spin these turbines. Sit still underneath one for long enough, and the simplicity of it becomes
quietly, transcendently awesome.