Lowering Barriers to Change in Canada's Tar Sands and Why Suzuki Got Slapped

An example of ineffective communication for social change. Long after stigmatization has been achieved, this message does nothing to reduce barriers to change and eventually turns off audiences who want resolution to the pressure created by earlier campaign efforts.

In their 2007 book, "Creating Climate for Change," Moser and Dilling, two of the world's leading researchers on climate change communication make a central contention that, "Communication can more effectively facilitate social change the more it elevates and maintains the motivation to change a practice or policy, while lowering the barriers to that change." [emphasis mine]

Applying this rule to Canada's tar sands, I'd argue that the North American environmental community is doing a decent job of providing motivation for change by putting pressure on governments and companies through good science (Schindler's recent work on heavy metal water pollution), good visuals (the mutated fish, vivid documentation of tailings ponds visible from space) and market-based campaigns and shareholder advocacy efforts that are beginning to bear fruit (e.g. The GAP and Walgreen's recent boycott of tar sands derived-fuel, or the ). This pressure needs to remain constant and can even escalate, but for real change to take place, according to folks like Moser & Dilling, the barriers to change also need to be lowered.

You need to give government and industry (and the general public who are watching and concerned) a place to go.

Perceived pressure with no clear release quickly becomes intolerable. As things stand, a competing ENGO vision for a more sustainable tar sands future has not been articulated with a strong, clear, unified voice, and that's frustrating - not just for government and industry, but also for Canadians in general. In the meantime the status quo reigns.

The failure of the North American environmental community to articulate a competing vision for the tar sands was recently highlighted symbolically and damagingly when Marcel Coutu, the CEO of Canadian Oil Sands and Chairman of the Board of Syncrude Canada, approached David Suzuki to, in Suzuki's words, "...broker a truce between energy companies and environmentalists." Unfortunately (and not without the understandable excuse of being frustrated by decades of industry inaction in the tar sands), Suzuki says he laughed at the CEO. Editors pounced on this line.

Even though Suzuki commended the CEO for wanting to reach out, and said he'd be happy to do something if the industry stopped its aggressive and misleading PR program of greenwashing the tar sands, all of that was lost in the simple and powerful image of two symbolic figures meeting and one of them laughing at the other. Coutu was positioned as a symbol of industry attempting to achieve some kind of change (dubious, I'd agree), and Suzuki as a figurehead of the Canadian environmental community, appeared to reject that overture.

The media treatment glossed over the grey in this exchange (they're never good at doing grey) but non-violent communication

would also have come in handy as well.

The resulting headlines included, "Suzuki's good will sought," "Oilsands boss reaches out to green foes," and "Suzuki scoffs at Syncrude offer," and was summarized by an Edmonton Journal editorial titled, "Suzuki loses a round."

Here are some excerpts from the editorial:

"Considering how good a communicator David Suzuki is, and how bad at the game our oilsands industry giants have been in recent years, most people wouldn't have wagered a cup of toxic tailings that the environmentalist would ever lose a round to the likes of Syncrude chairman Marcel Coutu. But lose he has, by rejecting an olive-branch offer to 'broker a truce between energy companies and environmentalists.'
"...when you refuse to even try, you look intransigent and you make your adversary look open and flexible -- a truth Ed Stelmach grasped instantly when deciding to meet James Cameron."

While I have no doubt the media has misconstrued Dr. Suzuki's intention and spirit in his interaction with Mr. Coutu (even a full read of the original article beyond the headlines offers a more well-rounded treatment of the exchange), the interaction served as a symbolic lighting rod for the frustration the media (and I would argue, the general public) is beginning to feel with respect to the ENGO community's positioning on the tar sands.

Again, to quote Moser & Dilling, "Communication can more effectively facilitate social change the more it elevates and maintains the motivation to change a practice or policy, while lowering the barriers to that change."

The ENGO community needs to do a better job of lowering the barriers to change in Canada's tar sands, and in the mean time they also need to be seen to be open and constructive in helping to lower those barriers. Failure to do so will undermine public standing and influence with decision makers and will reduce the chances for real change.