In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Paradigm Blindness

Posted 12/1/2011 by Grant Mitchell


I remember many years ago being approached by a former Edmonton Eskimofootball player (interesting as I wrote this on Grey Cup day) who wasselling a personal development program of some kind. I do not rememberwhat the program was but I do remember the technique he used to get myinterest.

He gave me a card with a paragraph written on it. He asked me to read itand count the number of "f"s in it. I did so, gave him a number and hesaid I had missed 3 or 4 "f"s. Would I try it again? I did and stillcould not find the 3 or 4 "f"s I had missed. He then showed me why.These were "f"s in the word "of" that appeared 3 or 4 times in the text.It is spelt "o" "f", but it sounds "o" "v", "ov". For some reason, themajority of people given this test, miss these "f"s all the time. Theysee "f", but lose that in hearing "v".

The point it made in that context was that we are often so limited bywhat are our preconceived or "grooved" perceptions of the world, and theway we process them, that we can miss the obvious.

It has struck me recently that this observation may help explain some ofthe incomprehensible misconceptions that surround the climate changeissue and prohibit action to fix it in spite of the risks and lostopportunities of not doing so:

1. Those opposed to action say it will kill those jobs that come fromthe fossil fuel industries. But how will investing in alternative energykill jobs in the fossil fuel industry? How? If the projected demand forenergy for India and China, just for starters, is even close toreality, we are going to need pretty much all the sources we can findand certainly Canada will be able to sell all the oil we can produce.Why would we not want to take advantage of new and emerging markets todiversify our economy. Would we somehow not want to produce Blackberrysbecause they are not of the conventional oil industry? Do we have agovernment that simply cannot imagine doing things in addition to thetraditional oil industry?

2. One pervasive  conventional wisdom (or should we start saying"politically correct" statement) seems to be that government should notbe investing in alternative fuels as this will cause taxes to rise, orgovernment intervention is unacceptable,  and/or these fuels are notcommercially viable.

Yet, the oil sands were kick-started in the 1970's with directgovernment involvement through an equity stake in Syncrude and later inthe 1990's by government action to give them special tax advantages.They have been supported by massive government funding of technologydevelopment.

Moreover, I can remember visiting the oil sands in around 1990 and beingtold that it was costing about $25 per to produce a barrel of oil sandsoil and the selling price at the time was $10 per barrel. They wereprepared to lose $15 per barrel because someone had the vision thattechnology improvements, economies of scale and price rises would meanthat the oil sands wouold become the future engine of our economy.

Why is it that alternative fuels development and serious conservationintiatives do not warrant the same patience, government involvement andleadership and vision?

3. The jobs argument is invoked as an endless mantra in defence of allthings big oil. But what about all the jobs that will be lost due toclimate change and are already being lost? Why can we not work toprotect both energy jobs and other jobs hurt by climate change, likeforestry, agricultural and fisheries jobs?

4. Economist Jeffrey Rubin made the case that the real catalyst for the2008 meltdown was the rapid rise of oil prices to $150 per barrel. Itmakes sense in the context of peak oil analysis. How can an economy,world and other wise, sustain energy costs at that level? It is a giventhat we have to keep costs down in our economy to remain competitive.Yet, this government cannot see that alternative fuels and conservationintitiatives would provide competition and reduce demad for fossilfuels, keeping prices lower. When do we start to realize that thecurrent strucutre of energy in the world may be unsustainable from aninput cost  point of view.

5, The government put almost none of its stimulus money into green,climate change fighting projects. Why is building a brigde seen to bestimulative but develpoing liquid natural gas fuel stationinfrastrucutre is not?

6. The Conservatives make the implict argument (sometimes explicitly)that with the emerging economies of China and India, there is reallylittle point inCanada trying to fix cliamte change and we would never beable to influence change in their behaviour that would lessen or fixthe probelm.  This is just such defeatism. Canada has so often "punchedabove its weight" in world affairs. From developing peace keeping in the1950's to winning at Vimy, to creating the G20, etc, we have lead theworld. Why not with climate change. Are we not simply saying to futuregenerations "that we did not fix the problem becasue it looked too hardto do?" Since when woould we ever say to our children, it is OK to giveup before you even try? What kind of value is that?

It is hard to answer these questions, but there are probably many reasons why what is clear but not obvious cannot be seen:
1. Change is a threat to what appears to be comfortable and in thiscase, it is taken as a threat by some of the most powerful economicinterests in our economy and society.

2. Change means new risk to business.

3. Perhaps, the Conservative mentality really does not have theimagination to see the possibilites, the new opportunities for thefuture. Wold this Conservative government ever have taken the leadershiprole that the Liberal governments did in developing the oil sands?

I wish I had the answer to the question of why inthe face of all kindsof evidence to the contrary, this government simply cannot break out ofits tired, old and terribly dangerous paradigms and lead Canada to a newand exciting future with untold opportunities, jobs and health andother benefits.

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