Jeffrey Simpson: The Greens Are Right

In a column in today’s Globe and Mail entitled The Greens are right: Use economic clubs to battle climate change, Jeffry Simpson is largely positive about our recently released climate plan. He doesn’t agree with everything we proposed, but he likes the plan enough to write:

Good for Canada’s Green Party. Last week, the Greens issued a policy to combat climate change that was the most arresting and innovative in Canada

At the heart of the Greens’ climate-change policy is something as obvious as it is politically toxic: Economic tools are the best way to change behaviour. Subsidies and exhortation won’t cut it. Price changes and markets might, or will. So the Greens propose a carbon tax, at levels that would raise the cost of a litre of gasoline (and other carbon-emitting products) by 12 to 24 cents.

The Harper government, predictably, screamed “the mother of all tax increases,” forgetting the Greens also had suggested that the money raised from the carbon tax be offset by reductions in income and other taxes. The net tax effect would be neutral…

This is bold stuff, and better than anything on offer from the other political parties.

It’s heartening to get this kind of endorsement. Yet, just six months ago almost to the day, Simpson was referring to Green Party leaders as “eco-nuts.” I’m not sure where he meant for that comment to sit on the spectrum between disrespectful and playful. Regardless, his seeming change-of-heart surrounding our credibility reminds me of a story.

A few years ago I had the great fortune of spending several summers directing an outdoor skills leadership program for 15-year-olds. On the surface, we were teaching them what we called “hard skills,” like fire building, canoeing, navigation and cartography, first aid, etc. In reality, however, this was in many ways a pretense for teaching more broadly applicable life skills.

One of my favourite sessions we did with these campers went like this. We brought the group of 12 teens to a spot where one of our leaders, Bill, had laid out a long rope on the ground. In the middle, the rope loosely twisted and turned around on itself in all sorts of ways. Bill asked our campers a simple question: if we pull on either end of the rope, do you think it will form a knot in the middle, or will all of the twists and turns just slip over each other, leaving a straight rope with no knots?

Everyone was given a minute to examine the rope, without touching it, before making up their minds. Then, Bill asked us to spit into two groups. “If you think the rope will form a knot when we pull on both ends, stand on this side. If you don’t think it will form a knot, stand over here.” The group split in half almost perfectly.

“Ok,” explained Bill, “if you are absolutely sure that the rope will make a knot, I want you to go stand way over near this end of the rope. If you think it will probably make a knot but you’re less sure, stay on the same side, but don’t go as far. Same goes for the folks who are betting on there not being a knot.” Everyone was different degrees of “sure,” so they spread out in a line, parallel to the rope, so that the person who was most sure on the knot side was furthest from the person who was most sure on the not-knot side, with those who were less sure standing closer towards the middle.

“Now, Chris and I are going to start pulling on both ends of the rope. We’re going to do it slowly, until it either does or doesn’t form a knot. As we pull on the rope, I want you to move as your opinion changes. If you become more sure if your position, move further away from the middle. If you become less sure, move closer to the middle. If you change your mind completely, move to the other side.”

We started to pull the rope, and people started to move. This process lasted about fifteen seconds, and there was lots of back and forth. Eventually, all of the twists of the rope resolved themselves, no knot was formed, and Bill and I were left holding a straight rope between us. You’d think, then, at this point, that everyone would have ended up standing on the “no knot” side, since in the last few seconds it became very clear that a knot was not going to materialize. But that’s not what happened.

Why? Because the people who had decided they were 100% sure a knot was going to form had too far to walk. They couldn’t get to the other side in time. Some didn’t even try; they just stood at the other end of the room in disbelieve that they’d been proven wrong.

The moral of the exercise wasn’t, I don’t think, that we shouldn’t be sure about things, or take strong positions. But it’s important to recognize that, the more sure you are, the further you have to travel to get to the other side, and the harder it is to even see their perspective.

Again, I’m not sure how far along the other side of the “are the Greens credible?” rope Simpson was six months ago, but good on him for being open to movement. Maybe I should call up Bill and see if he’d be willing to do his rope activity for our Members of Parliament and other lifetime partisans. Couldn’t hurt.

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