Staking out the moral high ground in the energy debate

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Bill WhitelawUnderstanding “othering,” a theoretical notion studied in the social sciences, could help the petroleum sector connect with Canadians.

Othering is about declaring something or someone to be the ‘other’ and, in so doing, reduce that other’s ability to enjoy the same virtues to which you have laid claim.

“Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this other,” writes British sociology professor Yiannis Gabriel.

Othering can be used to understand so much of what passes for energy discourse in Canada – particularly in terms of tension and polarization – in a sector where the natural sciences sensibilities ought to prevail.

Green energy and clean tech are good examples. Green energy proponents claim exclusivity over the notion of greenness and by default create the other – a sector (petroleum) that doesn’t share the moral characteristics and attributes of being green.

Othering at its core is about identity creation – development of identity ideals often more utopian than real.

It goes further than simply creating the perfect identity; otherers, as Gabriel argues, reinforce the notion of their virtues by casting aspersions on those they oppose. Thus, by definition, the oil and gas sector’s identity is evil, dirty and malevolent – the opposite of the ideal renewably clean and green persona.

If all this sounds hokey and abstract, think how Canadians talk about energy. Think about how green constituencies are built on the backs of oil and gas, and pipeline sectors through denigration and vilification.

Many politicians and activists other the petroleum sector, as do the more extremist environmentalists.

When Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson pushes his city council to endorse getting the city off natural gas, he is othering – having laid claim to a moral high ground that is his alone. His implicit contention is that everyone who opposes having the city weaned from natural gas is somehow an environmental pillager.

Othering is well understood by sociologists and anthropologists, but not by reservoir engineers and geologists. The former study people, and the ways they think and behave; the latter studies rocks and molecules, and the ways they react and respond.

That makes a world of difference. Technical folks tend toward algebraic communication; social folks opt for emotive tactics. Ordinary Canadians worry less about how balanced equations do environmental good than proclamations with no factual backing.

Perhaps this is why the petroleum sector’s cleanness and greenness mostly fails to gain traction beyond the sector, even though industry and government are pouring millions into the sector’s evolution.

In terms of energy choices, we’re in times of profound change. And the sector’s failure to coalesce around a unified message will contribute to its erosion.

The energy sector speaks with too many voices and mixes its messages. Even when the underlying messages are similar, it’s difficult for ordinary folks to understand what petroleum people are trying to say. The sector has its own forms of shrillness and extremism that many find off-putting. And the lack of a unified voice is particularly frustrating for companies and innovators whose own efforts show how far the sector has advanced toward cleaner and greener horizons.

At stake is trust. The otherers are adept at claiming trust, thereby denying it to the other.

The petroleum sector must figure out who the diehard otherers are and who they’re trying to win over – that’s the real audience.

There is no hard and fast boundary between clean energy and petroleum-derived energy. These systems connect between people, products and processes. Here the stories of the petroleum sector’s advances can be found, as well as how energy systems evolve.

Why the sector is not better at elevating those stories and creating trust is a puzzler. Meanwhile, the otherers maintain the upper hand and the petroleum sector is mired in its own storytelling inertia.

Perhaps a sociologist could help figure it out.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

Bill is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Bill Whitelaw

Bill Whitelaw is a director and advisor to many industry boards, including the Canadian Society for Evolving Energy, which he chairs. He speaks and comments frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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