Pie in the Skye | Environment | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Pie in the Skye

The 48-storey Skye Halifax proposal is a classic progress trap. Are we smart enough to avoid it?

A Brief History of Progress, historian Ronald Wright examines "progress traps," innovations that help some humans, then kick our asses, causing problems we can't or won't solve because we're afraid to lose face and status.

It starts with a "seductive trail of successes" and ends in catastrophe. As a rule, civilizations lack the foresight to see the downside of their innovations. We enjoy rapid increases in wealth until resources are depleted beyond use. Then our progress is unveiled as a myth.

In a recent talk with Halifax journalist Silver Donald Cameron on The Green Interview, Wright gives historical examples: Neolithic hunters learn to burn grasslands, creating grazing areas for big game, where they slaughter or chase them over cliffs, creating a wealth of meat, population growth and the eventual scarcity of game. Sumerians invent irrigation and enjoy centuries of agricultural surpluses until land salinization cuts production 75 percent, leaving a desert and collapsed civilization.

Work animals are replaced by the steam engine, which is replaced by the internal combustion engine. More than a century later we face global climate catastrophe. Steel weapons are replaced by bronze, which are replaced by gunpowder, which are eventually replaced by nukes that can't be used without a "mass suicide pact."

Easter Island, a small barren South Pacific island thousands of miles from any other land, is a notorious example. Thousands of years ago it was a tropical jungle with the world's largest palm trees. The Polynesians started building large statues commemorating ancestors, cutting trees to transport them. "They cut down the last tree to drag the last statue from the quarry," Wright says.

The soil was degraded. They couldn't build a canoe to escape. Perfect progress trap, resulting in societal breakdown---war, cannibalism and the toppling of the status symbols they killed themselves for.

Reminds me of Skye Towers---the proposed 48-floor residential buildings on Granville Street. People oppose this project---even the Downtown Halifax Business Commission---for the usual reasons: view-plane obstruction, violation of HRM By Design, out of character with the city.

Looking deeper: what would possess us to enter such an obvious progress trap? To paraphrase Shrek's Donkey: What are we compensating for?

Wright observes that civilization itself is a pyramid scheme. It works as long as you bring in new rubes to filter money upward. No actual wealth is created, and when the base can no longer expand, environmental problems become social upheaval. Easter Island writ global. We've seen it happen in impoverished countries with blatantly corrupt governments. The Occupy movement showed tricklings of discontent in the land of milk and honey.

Given that the masses are already perturbed, what purpose does a 48-storey protrusion---a symbol of opulence---serve? It's as useless a status symbol as a giant stone statue of great-grandpa, a pyramid or a bomb. It wastes the resources that could be spent on improved healthcare, sustainable food, physical activity, education and art.

The way it's been pushed over the city's planning policy shows who it does and doesn't serve. Councillor Streatch summed it up for Metro: "Documents are guides only. And members of council are entitled and, indeed, should be encouraged to vote their conscience." The lowly 5,000 citizens consulted during the HRM By Design process be damned; this project doubles HRMBD's height limits, and is more than 20 storeys above its neighbours.

Densification is no justification. In a city with a low skyline and a million square feet of vacant lots, there is ample opportunity for densification without twin towers north.

We're not Easter Island or Sumeria. Climate change and globalization have changed things irrevocably. Halifax won't collapse because of its clever lack of wisdom. The decisions of faraway elites may be what sinks us.

But that doesn't absolve Halifax of its moral obligation to take advantage of the abundant, premium historical and scientific knowledge available, and do the right and wise thing: surrender our colossal status symbols in lieu of something useful.

Chris Benjamin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Drive-by Saviours, and the award-winning Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada.

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