2022 SU General Election Full Supplement

Local journalist and author Chris Turner talks climate change and Calgary politics

By Chris Adams, October 23 2014 —

Local author Chris Turner moved to Calgary at a “pivot point” in 2003 when a booming economy contrasted a burgeoning progressive political movement. Turner made Calgary his home and he’s watched the city outgrow — or at least start to — its root-tootin’, stampedin’ persona.

His new book, How to Breathe Underwater, is a collection of features written over his 15-year career. He’s covered the changing face of Calgary politics, debauched Las Vegas hacker conferences and climate change.

The Gauntlet: You started your career covering tech for a publication out of Toronto called Shift. But you started to cover climate change in the early 2000s. Why the change?

Chris Turner: All along I’d been very interested in writing about environmental issues and climate change particularly. It’s always been a thing I knew I wanted to try and work in. Basically, it was a matter of me getting to a point where I had enough of a track record that people were willing to take chances.

There tends to be this unwarranted fear of doing too many environmental stories, talking too much about climate change. It seems silly to me. It’s like saying we shouldn’t talk too much about war and disaster. These things are vital human conflicts that need to be discussed.

Why weren’t we talking about the existential threat of climate change?

Well, we still don’t all that often. I think because it’s so much different from conventional  news stories. It’s not discreet. It doesn’t unfold the same way.

To use the analogy of covering a war, you know where the war is, you know where it’s happening. You can reasonably expect if you send a correspondent there, there’s going to be something daily to cover. There’s an immediate, visceral kind of urgency to the story because it’s happening and people are dying.

It’s like covering politics. Even if there’s not anything extraordinarily important happening that particular day on Parliament Hill, you still pay attention to it because it’s inherently consequential.

I’m wondering how you think we should protest or attempt to put a stop to climate change?

In the case of Clayoquot Sound, the clear-cutting of old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, you could physically — as they did with those protests in 1993 — get a few hundred people to block the road that the trucks are coming in on and stop the devastation. It was that discreet and that containable.

Now we’re dealing with this planetary-scale problem that is certainly going to take the rest of my lifetime to fully sort out, if not longer. Things we’re doing right now will continue to have consequences way after I’m dead.

You can’t get there by blocking any particular industrial project. It’s just that the distance between where you need to go and how far that gets you is just really great.

How have you seen Calgary develop since moving here in 2003?

If you look at Calgary’s values and how the city grew and what sort of people built it, it’s a much more interesting place and much more diverse and much less out of step with the rest of the country than sometimes portrayed in the caricature.

Part of the problem is that the caricature is so powerful — more so than most other big cities in Canada. This character of the brash, fast-talking cowboy who is really in it to make a buck and have some fun and screw the rest of the country. All of that has fed a stereotype and a single image of the city that I don’t think has ever been accurate, and certainly isn’t accurate today.

In the book, you talk about Calgary’s “pivot point.” What do you mean by that?

I think what I was describing there was happening for a long time. There’s always been a progressive political tradition in Calgary, but its never found as clear an expression as I think it did coming into the last 10 years. Obviously the signature political event was Naheed Nenshi’s first victory in the mayoral race in 2010. The old joke about Calgary having no culture and that sort of thing just wasn’t holding true anymore.

Where do you think progressive politics in Calgary are at right now?

I think what you’re seeing now isn’t the start of a conversation, it’s more the maturation of conversation. That began before Nenshi and has expanded under him became a permanent part of the city’s political landscape.

I think we’re at the point now where even if there continues to be even a little bit of head-turning when a progressive politician does well on the national stage out of Calgary, more and more people are recognizing that this is not an aberration, this is a permanent part of the city’s landscape as much as the rodeo and everything else.

You reference a saying about George W. Bush in the book that says, “he was born on third and reckoned he hit a triple.” Do you think Calgarians are becoming aware of some sort of internalized disenfranchisement?

Insofar as you can generalize what a city is, it’s a lot about the stories it tells about itself. Calgary had told a very simple story about itself. People kind of bought into it. If you moved here during the last boom, the 80s boom, you kind of bought it even if you’d thought about it as a sort of role-playing. You put on a white hat, you kind of accepted the idea that Stampede was the centre of the social calendar.

I think now you see people moving into downtown urban neighbourhoods, living in condos and apartments, not seeking out the suburban homes as soon as they possibly can and not buying two cars as soon as they can. The priorities are more amenities, more culture and more transit. It’s a totally different conversation from 30 or 40 years ago when all everyone wanted was that kind of suburban nest and a highway to drive on.

Interview edited and condensed for print publication.

Hiring | Staff | Advertising | Contact | PDF version | Archive | Volunteer | SU

The Gauntlet