By Dr. Carole Christopher, SPEC President & Elder
Image: Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain Expansion construction. From Burnaby Now.
SPEC opposes the local pipeline expansion on the basis of environmental risk. But we also believe that the deeply polarized public discourse around this and similar projects is a major factor stalling efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We view sustainability as not just a set of positive ecological actions but also positive social actions, including reaching across the chasm of differences to promote respectful dialogue and de-escalate toxic discourse. We believe it is possible to forge understandings of different viewpoints and win respect on all sides, irrespective of the outcome and that this is a crucially important historical moment in which to develop our capacity to handle difficult conversations with a spirit of human solidarity.
Last month I heard an interview on CBC Sunday Edition with three Indigenous entrepreneurs who spoke about the increasing prosperity of First Nations through greater control of resource development on reserves. Listening, I nodded in agreement. After a long and brutal history of eviction, exploitation and genocide, I support the right of indigenous nations to control and prosper from resources in their jurisdictions. Then the issue of pipelines came into the discussion. The three guests were among the 40+ First Nations that have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan along the inland route of the pipeline expansion.
It was asserted in the interview that the opposition to the pipeline in BC was led by “self-interested activists.” I was disappointed in this characterization on two counts First, the opposition has been led by coastal First Nations who have brought law suits against the project and have maintained an ongoing vigil at the site of Kinder Morgan operations on Burnaby Mountain. For some reason, their leadership is often ignored by levels of government, the local media and certainly by advocates of the pipeline. It is a clear disservice to leave this information out of the discussion and to ignore that indigenous people in BC are also asserting their right to control development in their territory. What seems a reasonable assumption is that both inland and coastal First Nations have weighed the risks and benefits of the project and arrived at different perspectives and we come to more measured and less bitter outcomes when we credit all perspectives as expressing values that are important to the different players.
A second disappointment was the choice to characterize non-indigenous opponents as “self-interested activists.” This frame was developed by PR firms working for the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the motives of opponents. It is now being heavily deployed in the service of the fossil fuels industry. Implying that activists are “self-interested” while those pursuing economic gain are not is a line of reasoning that should collapse under the scrutiny of a single careful thought. Yet, the persistent labeling of activists has undermined public trust in a category of people who are very often speaking on behalf of a public good and sacrificing their own time, energy and money and sometimes facing stiff legal implications to do so. That is not to say that business is not a public good or that activists don’t also label opponents but there is a huge discrepancy in their relative capacities to launch expensive PR campaigns to undermine public trust in the other.
It is possible to take exception to a point of view without labeling the person unfairly and falsely. I was at a housing town hall recently where a person behind me shouted “liar” at another participant who asserted that everyone he spoke to held his view. Clearly the shouter felt his view was not represented in the sample but did that entitle him to accuse the speaker of lying? The speaker probably associates mostly with people who think as he does, resulting in a biased sample. But equally likely the shouter also associates with people who agree with his views. The more contentious the issues the more likely we only read, listen, and discuss our views with those who think like us. Confirmation bias is an extremely common human tendency leading us to only see or even seek out what we already believe and ignore other views.
When PR firms set about to build a public consensus that activists are “self-interested” and untrustworthy, they do so in a cynical manner. Most of the time when we label and attack another person, we do so because we’ve not learned good dialogue tools and we resort to poorer, less effective tools including toxic and weaponized language against one another. And we do that primarily because we experience some level of fear.
When fear arises, some run away, some freeze and some become more aggressive. Knowing that might help explain what happens in public debate such as I’ve described and why it’s creating a polarized and toxic public square and driving us apart when we need to come together and collaborate on some pretty crucial concerns. The path to a sustainable future must include social as well as ecological solidarity. In order to develop a global response to the growing climate crisis, we need to build a capacity to express clear and sharp differences without engendering deep and entrenched divisions.
I saw an inspiring example of this when I went up to Burnaby Mountain in late April. I was impressed by the clear and distinct point of view expressed without name calling and with respect and good will towards all. The eldership and youthful leadership of the Tsleil Waututh was impressive and set a tone that was followed by all the players. Concern for the “commons” was the hallmark of the day and I left buoyed by the experience of human solidarity. It reflected a deep commitment to a better way. Can this way withstand the challenges of the wins and losses we will inevitably confront? Time will tell if we can pull ourselves together and pull this off, but I believe it’s a worthy place to focus our energies in this historical moment.