November 20, 2017 Nick Harrison

The Role of Perspective and Empathy in the Fight for the Environment

I have decided to write this blog as more of a personal reflection, one that can hopefully provide some food for thought. This narrative will very much represent my own perspective and a reflection on some of the experiences that have shaped my mindset around environmentalism. As such I’d ask that you take it all with a grain of salt, as I’m only 21 years old and have still much to learn. 

Last year at CEEC, we had an employee from Royal Dutch Shell, the oil and gas mega-corporation, sit on a panel for sustainable innovations and development. This was a contentious decision for some members of the executive and even a deal-breaker for a potential speaker. Why would an environmental conference such as CEEC provide a platform for this multinational giant –one of the 5 largest oil and gas companies in the world – to justify themselves through tactical comments about their “green initiatives” and then write in their shareholders report that they “participate in environmental conferences” in an attempt to lend credibility to their largely greenwashed marketing tactics? Why would CEEC support this?

These questions were running through my mind as delegates filed into the room and the speakers sipped their water, fidgeted with their pens and adjusted their chairs. The panel went smoothly, and the discussion was interesting. There were a few passive-aggressive comments that Shell’s representative handily deflected with carefully worded responses, but I was overall impressed with the integrity and honesty of the conversation. I had never listened to anyone from the oil and gas industry speak before, and it was rather eye-opening to hear the conviction with which this woman spoke about Shell’s efforts and initiatives to evolve and adapt. While I wasn’t ready to jump ship and start working for the oil giant, I certainly gained a new perspective that day. I realized that until that point I had been so focused on projecting my own environmentalist narrative that I had barely taken any time to understand those who opposed it or seemed indifferent. How could I effectively help others understand why I cared so much about this cause and why they should too, if I had no concept of their own biases and world view?

The US election was a perfect example of the polarization, extremism and lack of empathy that comes from outright rejection of opposing views combined with an insoluble conviction for one’s own devout cause. The Wall Street Journal ran a project called Blue Feed, Red Feed, through which it allowed readers to choose topics such as immigration and gun control, and then see what a liberal versus conservative’s Facebook news feed might look like. The issue of social media filtration and bias deserves its own blog post, but the reason I bring this project to light is because it perfectly demonstrates the complexity of deep-rooted lack of understanding and empathy that was such a driving force in the election.

Last year while on exchange in France, after a class debate surrounding growing concerns of ski resorts with respect to the recent year’s devastatingly short seasons, late snow and warm winters, I chatted with an exchange student from Mississippi about climate change. As our conversation went from the class discussion, to broader environmental issues and then to the election, I could not believe how different our understandings of the world were. As frustrated as I was in leaving the conversation, it blew my mind that the two of us could both be so firmly self-assured about our assumptions and positions. While it made me feel like throwing something at a wall, this conversation was also the trigger that resulted in a promise to myself that the next manifestation of my environmentalism would be in forcing myself into positions, classes and conversations where I would be uncomfortably exposed to entirely new perspectives.

Throughout my time in the Commerce program I have taken a number of classes on marketing, investing, traditional economic theory and the global business landscape. I have also taken classes in the school of environmental sciences offering alternative or critical perspectives on all of the latter topics. I have walked from a class in which I had to present the benefits of Milton Friedman’s free market theories, into a class where it was argued that economic growth of any kind is bad. While these specific examples are generalizations and don’t accurately portray either program, my point is that in taking classes that offer differing points of view, we can start to formulate informed opinions on topics instead of taking at face value what one person or another tells us. While the conflicting lessons can lead to confusion and frustration, it is my belief that there is no better time than now to become informed about as many different opinions and theories as possible. Why not take advantage of the professors at Queen’s who have spent their lives researching, teaching and understanding a subject, and then pit their teachings against each other in your mind to help drive your own thesis about why things are the way they are, and how things might need to change. If students don’t take time now to become informed and diversify their perspectives, then single-mindedness will continue to manifest itself throughout our careers and the disconnect that is seen so often in the world today – be it between environmental NGO’s and big businesses, or between a democrat and a republican – will be perpetuated further.

Putting all this talk into practice and feeling the need to take a step beyond a diverse class schedule, I decided to step out of my comfort zone last summer. Instead of going back to my previous jobs as a tree planter or at Parks Canada, I worked in the heart of Toronto at an Advertising agency. I worked for a range of clients, and while at times I felt unsettled about some of the work I was doing with regards to my own personal values, I came to know and appreciate the way this industry worked. I realized that there is much, much more at play in many of the decisions that are made in the business world than what is apparent to the critical onlooker. Throughout my time at the agency, I worked with individuals who are using their influence through advertising to affect positive change across age-old stubborn industries. My relationships with these people lead to a much deeper sense of understanding, and ultimately allowed me to change my prose in approaching conversations about the environment and other causes. I focused on using inclusive language, being more inquisitive and less judgemental. Because I was working on projects in the same industry, I could relate to their struggles, understand their hesitations and speak their language. I immediately felt that the way in which I was approaching these conversations elicited more openness and participation from people who would have previously rejected or ignored my extreme approaches. Through forcing myself to be uncomfortable, to be surrounded by people with different perspectives, I had learned how to advocate more effectively for what I believe in.

Surrounding yourself with likeminded individuals can lead to groupthink and positive reinforcement, which are easy ways to feel self-assured and supported, but they won’t help you learn how to defend your position or gain support from those who aren’t already on board. Controversy, discomfort and frustration, on the other hand, will help you become unbreakable, strategic, and influential in your advocacy. We must be wary not to spend all of our efforts in convincing people of something they already understand and support, or as the old saying puts it, “preaching to the choir”. I would love to see more people outside of their comfort zones, broadening their perspectives, because until we can understand and empathize with those who disagree with us, we cannot effectively guide them to understanding our own perspective or engage in conversations that lead to real progress.