The voice on the other end of the phone is frustrated. “I just can’t figure it out – whose side are you on?” I get that a lot lately as I descend into the depths of complex climate policy in Alberta – a region which is currently economically dependent on oil exports, but for the first time in 44 years has had a change of government and now has a progressive majority committed to acting on climate change. My frustrated caller could just as easily have been an oil executive or an environmentalist because both “camps” have created boundaries or positions that define whose side one is on. Even our language in Canada these days defines which camp we belong to – use the term “tarsands” and you are immediately identified as an enemy of industry and Alberta. Use the term “oilsands” and environmentalists will charge that you have become “co-opted,” while government and industry will consider you “more reasonable.”

We see an increasingly tribal version of the world, constantly reinforcing our own beliefs, limiting our knowledge and simplifying complex debates."

As we reflect in this issue of Alternatives on lifelong learning, I have been thinking about this polarization and how difficult it is to create the complex, detailed conversations that are necessary to chart a course forward. On the one hand, many of us feel like we are racing against the clock – every day we are hammered by statistics that tell us the pace of climate change is increasing, as is the rate of acidification of our oceans, and the frequency of violent storms and droughts. This urgency leads us to point fingers and to write off many of the solutions or policies proposed as incrementalism. On the other hand, as America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, can we really afford to have these simplistic, tribal debates that descend into a “my camp is bigger than yours” political shoving match?

If we are truly going to remake industrial society, decarbonize in this century and achieve the level of ambition our country committed to in Paris (ensuring we restrict global warming to 1.5°C), then we need to be having complex conversations that include all Canadians – now. We need to be charting a course for a just transition with labor leaders, we need all those engineers and boiler makers in the oilsands/tarsands to be working on creating tomorrow’s energy infrastructure. We need all those energy incumbents, big oil, gas and coal executives turning their formidable minds to driving investment capital in Canada to low carbon infrastructure. We need the country’s Indigenous leaders working with politicians and bureaucrats to understand how to change the system so that “consultation” stops being a box that needs to be checked and starts reflecting true respect and engagement called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How do we do that if we have stopped listening to each other, let alone learning from one another? How do we do that if before a conversation has even started, we have chosen sides?

Can we learn from those we disagree with? How do we go about that?  I worry that the deteriorating state of our planet and the increasing polarization of politics is leading to a deterioration of the conversation, a constant sifting of information not to learn but to simply reinforce pre-existing beliefs. It is said that the majority of Canadians now get their news from Facebook and other social media. This means that we see what our friends are happy or outraged about. We see an increasingly tribal version of the world, constantly reinforcing our own beliefs, limiting our knowledge and simplifying complex debates. When we open a newspaper or watch the evening news, we see things we are interested in and some things we aren’t. We read commentary that we agree with and lots that we don’t. It widens our world and makes it harder to stay in our lane with blinders on.

Are we learning or reinforcing?

If we as individuals and institutions are truly committed to building a new Canada – one that respects the rights of Indigenous people, is committed to being a climate leader and protects that which sustains us – biodiversity, water and forests – then we need to start listening. We need to stop choosing sides and start choosing progress. We need to dedicate ourselves to learning. And learning requires listening. That doesn’t mean we can’t stand up and speak out against projects or decisions that take us in the wrong direction. We can and we must, but we also need to recommit to learning and to recognizing that there are good people everywhere – good people who sometimes make bad decisions. In order to make good decisions, we need all hands on deck and a willingness to listen.

Tzeporah Berman has been designing and running environmental campaigns in Canada and beyond for over 20 years.