Canadians won’t accept Leap because it breaks these two rules

If you wanted to derail environmentalism in Canada, you couldn’t dream up a better scheme than the Leap Manifesto. If your intent was to wound a New Democratic Party already in peril, the Leap Manifesto would be a great weapon of choice.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Canada’s not that complicated.

The large majority of us, to boil our stereotypes down, are cautious, prudent people with progressive ideals. Because we worry that our economy is always vulnerable to events outside our borders, we never take our economic well-being for granted.

When we choose politicians we never lose sight of the fact that we can’t take prosperity for granted. That’s not the same as saying it’s always and only ever about the economy. But it does mean that we look to solve our other problems in ways that don’t raise the risk of economic failure.

Most Canadians became uneasy about the environment about 30 years ago. The maturation of concern about climate change issue has been more recent, and is still a bit tentative. Today, a majority, but not an overwhelming majority, believe the climate is changing, human activity is a cause, and that we should do more than we have been doing to reverse things.

Building sustained momentum on environmental improvements seems, on the surface of it, to be the life’s work of Canada’s environmental group leaders. But once Joe Oliver – a Conservative cabinet minister for finance and natural resources – was dispatched from Canadian politics, an existential crisis developed.

In Alberta and Ottawa, voters had elected governments with strengthened commitments to environmental protection. Absent Joe Oliver and Stephen Harper, who would be the objective enemy of the environmental advocates, the force they had to decry?

Many are now engaged in something other than a search for a new enemy. They are working with people in other walks of life, including the business community, to see if they can use creativity and good faith to good advantage.

But some seem destined to become their own worst enemy – none more clumsily than the authors of the Leap Manifesto.

There’s good debate about how to motivate people to take action on environmental issues, but it’s pretty clear how not to do it.

I’ve polled on this subject for two decades, and I see two unbreakable rules.

Canadians want “pro-growth environmentalism.” They want to tap entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, science, capital and yes, capitalism, to help create ideas that marry our desire to put food on the table, money away for our kids’ education, and some sense of security about how we’re going to live in retirement.

Across Canada there are people who think the best environmental policy would be to put the brakes on economic development. But there’s less than 15 per cent of them.

So to paraphrase the Leap Manifesto, the first “iron rule” of environmental advocacy should be to accept that people have legitimate economic fears and aspirations, and be credible in describing how your ideas will achieve their environmental and their economic goals.

This idea has become the new normal in the debate in Canada, and of all the conversations going on about how to meet this challenge, the Leap Manifesto stands apart, and behind, all the rest.

It’s easy to reduce emissions if you don’t care about the economic consequences. The hard work, the meaningful work, the necessary work, is to get past slogans, and posturing and finger-pointing, and to find and settle on some pro-growth policy approaches that move the environmental yardsticks. It may not make for splashy book titles and tours, but it is the only approach that will produce sustained environmental progress in Canada.

This is a country that has never elected a federal NDP government, and only once has given a majority of seats to a small-c conservatively styled government (at least in the modern era). That’s telling us something pretty powerful about ourselves.

We are Modest Shift people. Thoughtful Shift people.

Not Leap People. Or Big Shift People.

The second iron rule is: No finger-wagging.

People in Canada are generally open-minded, and willing to listen to the case for change.

But save the moral judgments.

Between the lines of the Leap Manifesto is a feeling that “city cousin” wishes “country cousin” could think less about themselves and their economic well-being and more about the planet. Even as city cousin clogs highways and streets with vehicles, consumes more energy and products made from Canadian commodities, and, in many cases, enjoys a broader range of employment options.

Good talk.

The vast majority of Canadians, regardless of what region they live in, what sector they work in, want to do what’s right by the planet and for the well-being of their families. They will respond well to constructive ideas, offered in a spirit of mutual respect. They’ll change, maybe slower than some might like, but trying to shame them won’t speed things up, that’s for sure.

Watching Joe Oliver work this terrain was like watching a bad movie, that ended predictably. Watching the Leap Manifesto is like watching an equally poor sequel, with, again, no doubt how it will end.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 19th, 2016