We live in a world where everything tends to be classified, labeled or catalogued.
Scientists have named every known fungus, insect, mammal and plant on Earth – and are still finding new ones. Marketers segment customers into manageable groups to better understand their wants, needs and preferences. And employers classify staff by education, experience and performance to determine how much to pay them.
While classification has served us well in many pursuits, it can be detrimental in others, such as in Canada’s wild and wooly energy debate, for example.
Labeling people, perspectives
The current energy conversation is a complex one and thus ripe for classification, as participants and observers alike grapple to make sense of it all. Classification in itself isn’t the problem, but rather the emotional stereotypical and often colorful labels people use to bolster their supporters and discredit and delegitimize their opponents.
Just about all players in the energy debate have been guilty at some point of hanging labels. Some environmentalists habitually call anyone who questions the economics or policy decisions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 'climate deniers'. Some politicians dub environmental groups who are against energy infrastructure projects 'radicals', as if opposition to proposed facilities is one step towards complete anarchy.
Even some media pundits and their followers are inclined to brand any organization critical of oil sands development as 'anti oil sands'.
Hanging labels is counterproductive. It antagonizes and over-simplifies. Hanging labels is symptomatic of a mindset which fails to listen to other people’s arguments and does not give due weight to all the evidence, including the possibility that one’s initial judgments about others might be wrong.
Labeling multi-national energy companies as 'Big Oil,' for example, misses the fact that many of them believe strongly in renewables as viable energy sources worthy of capital investment. Labeling groups (and Suncor partners) such as the Pembina Institute and Ceres as 'anti oil sands' dismisses these organizations’ willingness to work with fossil fuel developers in pursuit of long-term energy solutions.
Our shared energy future
As Suncor’s CEO Steve Williams noted in the 2013 Report on Sustainability, Canada’s energy conversation is a critical one which requires meaningful engagement and collaboration. Simplistic labels which divide rather than unite only distract us from getting to solutions.
Echoing this sentiment is Tides Canada, a long-standing critic of oil sands development, which launched its 'Strange Bedfellows' campaign to remind us that “Canada works better when Canada works together.”
Labeling can be useful in a complex world, but not when it’s applied to manipulate our perceptions of people and their perspectives.
Besides, most people labels are woefully inaccurate anyway because we all have a lot more in common than we might think.
As the different stereotypes in classic 1985 movie The Breakfast Club found out after spending an afternoon in detention together … “each one of us is a brain … and an athlete … and a basket case … a princess … and a criminal.” And we all have something to contribute when it comes to a discussion or solving a common problem.
The Walrus Talks Energy
Tune in to the OSQAR blog on Tuesday, October 1 at 4 p.m. MT/ 6 p.m. ET to watch our online broadcast of The Walrus Talks Energy speaker series.