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Are Neil Young's Oilsands Comments Productive or Polarizing?

01/15/2014 05:24 EST | Updated 03/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Neil Young's "Honour the Treaties" tour kicked off with a bang on Sunday when the ex-pat Canadian rocker ripped into the Conservative government's management of the oilsands.

Calling the oilsands a "disaster" and a "devastating environmental catastrophe" at a press conference at Massey Hall in Toronto, Young stood by his earlier statement that the oilsands region resembles Hiroshima.

It wasn't long before a war of words with the Prime Minister's Office broke out. Young's comments provoked a particularly fierce reaction in Calgary, the corporate headquarters of Canada's oilpatch.

By Tuesday, the Globe and Mail had posted a cartoon depicting the House of Commons divided into two camps: "pro Neil Young" and "anti Neil Young."

Talk about turning a complex issue into black and white. The more important question here is whether celebrity awareness-raising efforts like this one serve a valuable role in generating discussion or whether Young's inflammatory language further divides the country into two opposite camps -- moving Canadians further away from the solutions we so desperately need on the energy and climate file.

In an editorial on Wednesday, the Hamilton Spectator wrote:

"If there's a downside to Young's comments... it's that the kerfuffle around Young might detract from the substance of his remarks. Some -- including comparing the area to Hiroshima -- are over-the-top silly. But about the pace of oilsands development and lack of environmental oversight, he's not wrong."

Agreed. You might not know it from reading the news headlines, but the vast majority of Canadians (87 per cent) believe the country needs an integrated approach to climate change and energy, according to the results of a Harris-Decima poll released by Clean Energy Canada in July.

So why, when there's so much common ground in the middle, does the Canadian energy debate continue to rage around the edges?

Well, that's where the conflict happens and we all know the media loves a good ole' dust-up. It's tempting for players on all sides to make polarizing statements because they chalk up media hits and social media shares.

However, in doing so, they're playing a dangerous game. Andy Hoffman, a professor of

sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, describes scenarios in which two opposing sides talk past each other, impeding meaningful dialogue, as a "logic schism."

"In a logic schism, a contest emerges in which opposing sides are debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents' arguments," Hoffman told the University of Michigan Record. "Each side views the other with suspicion, even demonizing the other, leading to a strong resistance to any form of engagement, much less negotiation and concession."

Which brings us to the state of debate in Canada today. When Young says the Canadian government is "trading integrity for money," Harper's spokesman says: "Canada's natural resources sector is and has always been a fundamental part of our country's economy."

Logic schism, anyone? The fact is rapid oilsands development comes with tradeoffs. Now, people are free to make different value judgments on those tradeoffs, but to deny they exist is to deny Canadians a sensible conversation on natural resource issues.

Proceeds from ticket sales for the concerts are going to support the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in their legal challenges of oilsands projects. Unfortunately, as of right now, most of the conversation spurned by Young's tour doesn't appear to be of a substantive nature about the issues the First Nation faces.

Reading the PMO's statement, you'd think there is nothing controversial going on up there. "Projects are approved only when they are deemed safe for Canadians and [the] environment," MacDonald said.

That seems a strange thing to say given the federal government recently approved Shell Canada's Jackpine mine expansion even though Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said it is "likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects." (That's what's called a tradeoff, folks.)

And so it is that almost every environmental issue in our country plays out as a he said-she said in the media, and then goes on to one of two fates -- stagnation or escalation, wherein both sides of the debate end up viewing the other as untrustworthy.

Roger Conner, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School who also runs a consulting practice specializing in consensus building and conflict resolution on contentious public policy issues, coined the term "the advocacy trap" for this point in the debate where both sides have a profound distrust of the other.

The only way out of this trap, Conner says, is for advocates to police their attitudes so they can learn to push sometimes, pull sometimes, collaborate sometimes and remain limber enough to sway back and forth as the situation demands, like a light-footed boxer. To use the entire range of strategic options, a public advocate must be able to avoid thinking of others as foes, he stresses.

"Resentment is like a drug. It feels good to go home and say: 'Those assholes! Those jerks! Those liberals. Those conservatives ... I'm right, they're wrong,' " Conner says. "The truth is we all have some degree of uncertainty and we go to this self-righteous place to protect ourselves from that uncertainty."

So, if you're using the Neil Young kerfuffle as a moment to dig your trench a little deeper, remember: if we're going to make progress on energy issues in this country, we're all going to have to stick our heads up, stop seeing the people on the other side of the debate as enemies and find some common ground in the middle.

By Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada

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