UPDATED: Readers of this blog may not all be familiar with a controversy that has swept my community in recent months. A plan is on the table to build a new artificial-turf sports field on the grounds of our community school. The proposal has sharply divided Bowen Island. For background, see the Bowen Island Municipality web site , and also the Vancouver magazine feature [.PDF File, 1MB] that I wrote about the project. Recently, someone asked on a public forum why someone who has so publicly identified himself as “green” is supporting the project. I wrote this post in response.
Many say they oppose the proposed artificial-turf field because of its perceived health risks, or its cost, or its relatively limited life expectancy, or its proposed location in a schoolyard where trees now stand, or the ecological burdens associated with plastic, its primary constituent material.
A side of me wonders, though, if these concerns are in fact mere supporting bullet points on a larger slide. To many of these opponents, I suspect the field represents something bigger than all of these complaints put together: It is a high-profile symbolic attack on the community’s treasured ruralism. It is a nuclear bomb in freefall with “urbanism” painted on the nose cone.
I haven’t been here long—only a few years—but it’s been long enough to come to love this place and everything that makes it what it is: The “dog of the year” float in the Bowfest parade each August. The used clothing, toy, and sports-gear fundraisers that roll a year’s worth of craigslist haggling into single day or weekend event. The volunteers at our wonderful library who rubber-stamp ink butterflies onto my kids’ hands. The rhubarb Pat sells from a wheelbarrow in front of the building center. The metalworker who spot-welded my stainless-steel lunchbox set back together, for $5 (thanks again, Peter). The self-serve fresh eggs in the fridge at Shady Acres Farm. The annual salmon release at the hatchery. The apple festival. And on and on. These are people and experiences and relationships and transactions that you won’t likely find in any of our region’s tract-home and strip-mall hinterlands, where the nights echo with car alarms instead of owls. These experiences emerge from the mutual trust, respect, and accountability that you find in a smaller, more intimate community. They are what urban planners are working desperately to replicate in other places.
Bowen Island is a respite from the world across the channel that seems increasingly ruled by liability, populated with sterile franchises and canned experiences, and suffused with the kind of soul-draining manufactured authenticity that you order from a Restoration Hardware website. Our little touches—our commitment to self-sufficiency, volunteerism, and our admiration for small-town quirk—remind us what is real, and what matters. These things constitute the very core of our identity. They are why all of us call this place home.
But these qualities do not in my mind excuse us from our responsibility to do what we can to help avert the single greatest challenge that has ever faced humanity. Our rurality does not give us a “hall pass” to opt out of responding to a global emergency that I promise you will touch each one of our lives in the coming years.
I’m sorry if it seems like I keep sounding an alarm, but that’s what you’re supposed to do in an emergency. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike,” writes Gwynne Dyer in the introduction to his new book, “there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations.” It’s so far a mostly-invisible threat, but it’s right here in plain sight. Climate change is going to hit us in ways we can’t even yet imagine right here on our island—it’s going to force us into moral dilemmas for which there are no winners, only wrenching compromises.
As a community, we famously band together in times of crisis. We open our wallets wide when one of the school custodians is battling cancer, or when the seniors’ housing complex needs a new plumbing system, or when one of our family’s children suffers severe burns and needs special care. Many of us volunteer for the fire department, and drop the fork mid-bite when the pager sounds. We’re pretty good at responding like this, at taking care of our own. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.
But I fear we are ignoring a crisis of staggering proportions that will eventually, inevitably reach our shores. We are ignoring it today because we believe that it’s someone else’s fault, or we feel that someone else is working on the problem. We are ignoring it because it doesn’t yet have a familiar face, like our smiling custodian. And perhaps also because we gather that some of the things we could be doing to help fix it don’t neatly jibe with the leafy milieu that we defend so passionately.
As much as I love our rurality and character, to me it is a decidedly mixed blessing. We space ourselves quite far apart in this Eden. In a perfectly honest effort to connect more closely with nature, we tuck our homes deep into the woods. It’s private and peaceful out here. Yet—while some of us do work from home—it also means the vast majority of us remain utterly dependent on often-heavy vehicles, and an even heavier ferry, to travel great distances to shop, work, learn, and play. Those vehicles will realistically not be electrified for many years to come. And so, when you look at the data, and compare it with similar communities, our contribution to the problem—by very dint of our rurality—is enormous. Though I haven’t seen an analysis, I suspect our forestlands do not come close to soaking up all the heat-trapping gases coming out of our tailpipes.
I feel in my heart that we need to own this one. I believe we need to take some responsibility that some of the aspects of our place that we hold dear are, in fact, fanning the flames. We are not “greener” than mainlanders just because we look that color to those peering our way from across the channel. When it comes to the challenge that looms largest overhead, the hue is a tragic illusion. Because in reality, we’re browner.
Let me say here that I’m just as complicit as anyone else here. I like privacy as much as the next person—my forested property is almost an acre. And yes, I drive. But I’ve since arrived at a place in my head where I am ready to take some responsibility for my choices. Most of my friends think I’m a Chicken Little. They’re just not there yet. They tolerate me—they admire my energy and enthusiasm—but they’re interested in other things. That’s fine, I have other passions, too. I love to eat, for one thing. I love to kayak, to read with the kids, to hang out with my tolerant pals on games night with a bottle of wine, or three.
Some opponents have characterized the turf project as a failure of our collective imagination. If we work at it enough, they argue, we can come up with an alternate solution that is more in keeping with how we do things around here. One of the protest signs that went up last year near the proposed project site seemed to articulate this with the single word “hope.”
So let’s set aside the thousands hundreds of hours of work put in by volunteers and local professionals exploring the options, volunteers and professionals who love this community passionately. And permit me to do some hoping of my own for a moment. My dream for our island is that the more we grow—and the fact of the matter is that we will grow —that we also grow even more “local” and self-reliant along the way. That even with more people, we retain the connectedness that defines us.
I also dream that we will become increasingly resilient to the dramatic changes to our lifestyles that lie ahead. I think we can redefine what “rural” means, by owning the idea as much through the strength of our relationships as our rambling country lanes and 10-acre lots each dotted with a single-family home. The new information we now have about the mess we are all in compels us to revisit many of the patterns and entitlements that we hold sacred, things that we see as our “right.”
It also compels us to prepare and adapt, and we are already starting this by building a desperately-needed new fire station. This is critical infrastructure, as important as setting aside spaces to grow much of our own food, and putting in place systems to harvest potable rainwater from our rooftops. Given the sheer scale of this global crisis, and the speed at which it approaches us, we need to think more broadly about infrastructure to include a broad range of community amenities here on the island.
It’s understandable that many of us would feel affronted and offended by a turf field. Yes, you might find one in the city, or in a suburb. But it urbanization? No. God help us if we someday grow big enough to attract a fast-food outlet. New amenities represent change, and they are an admission that we are growing, and that perhaps new people are coming who want to do different things, and who don’t wish to travel to the mainland on manic errand-filled days because they’re stressful and hard on families. But in my mind these facilities—like the proposed field—and the people that will use them are not the thin edge of the wedge, they are not the beginning of the end. Rather, they are individual pieces that together will create a genuine new kind of complete community , one that sends less carbon into the atmosphere because we will have almost everything we need right here and wont need to turn a key in an ignition to reach.
We need to become more than a woodsy outpost in Howe Sound, where we get to enjoy the deer and herons, but still take regular spacewalks to the jobs and activities on the mainland. It is not only possible, it is inevitable. Not only is it “the right thing to do,” but as our car-and-ferry habit gets more and more expensive, as our food gets more and more expensive, it will also be the only thing to do.
We fancy ourselves as rugged and self-reliant because we have woodstoves, chainsaws, winches, and generators. But we’re kidding ourselves. True self-sufficiency means that we have a complete community, that we have a genuinely broad range of services on the island to support our diverse and growing population. It means we have more opportunities to stay, play, learn, shop, and age “in place.” It means affordable housing. It means low-energy buildings. It means investments in infrastructure that allow us to thrive.
I will probably never play on the artificial turf field; I’m not a team sports kind of guy, and my kids haven’t shown much interest either, despite my best efforts. And for what it’s worth, I have a very complicated relationship with plastic, something I’ve written about . But I also acknowledge that our lives are surrounded by the stuff. I work out on a petroleum-based surface twice a week at our island’s Tae Kwon Do studio. I am touching it to write this story. I know all about the seabirds with bellies full of Bic lighters .
But when I think about the investments that I feel we need to start putting in place to serve our community into the coming years, to create an atmosphere of responsible self-reliance, the benefits of the proposed illuminated turf field in my mind far outweigh its aesthetic, financial, and ecological costs.
Let’s continue to build on our strengths: our couples, our singles, our seniors, our families, our youth, our volunteers. And let’s stop excusing ourselves from a growing moral obligation because we’re a “different” place blessed with an unique character. We have the same obligation to get off our asses and do something about this crisis as anyone else. The more pieces we put in place today—the richer the variety of offerings and opportunities we make available to our citizens—even if they aren’t perfect, even if some of them don’t align with our ideas of what we’re supposed to be “all about,” the stronger and more resilient we will be as we enter the coming storms.
Feb 9 Update: On January 26, Bowen Island Municipal Council voted four to three to proceed with the turf project as proposed, including roughed-in wiring and conduit for future lighting. The resolution comes with subjects concerning cost, but given the economic climate–contractors are, all of a sudden, desperate for projects–it seems likely that the turf field will actually be built. In the wake of the decision, a number of the project’s opponents have formed a fledgling grassroots organization called Rural Green. Its members “seek to live responsibly in a way that retains [their] community spirit and the natural rural lifestyle [they] cherish. “