I was listening to a Big Ideas debate on social change and how to achieve it between Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Kingwell, and Malcolm Gladwell made a really interesting point.
He was addressing the issue of culture change projects that focus on “awareness”, which means they often get away from the “mechanics of doing”.
As an example, he described a Harvard study of the impacts on the chemical industry of a series of environmental regulations passed in the 1970’s. At the time the laws were being debated, businesses complained bitterly that the regulations would cost them too much. Environmentalists argued that the costs were worth it, and the debate ended up being framed in a “corporate interests versus environmental interests”. You probably remember at some point, someone objecting to Kyoto or some other environmental initiative with the refrain, “it will cost too much and people will lose their jobs”.
The review of the actual impacts found that in the course of complying with the legislation, the chemical industry improved processes and efficiency enormously, and very quickly were profiting far in excess of the costs that they had incurred.
He makes the point that because the environmental lobby focused on awareness instead of process and analysis, that the entire framing of the debate was ultimately counter productive to both sides – that framing it in an economic viability versus environmental benefits model turned out to be a false dichotomy. Had there been less campaigning for the moral high ground, and more review of the actual impacts, a more constructive debate would have been the result.
I liked this because I think the Ontario Government and governments in other regions are starting to understand this in the context of renewable energy and green jobs. There seem to be fewer and fewer people locked into the old mind frame of “environmental benefit versus economic prosperity”, which is excellent news for everyone. It’s good to see that not only are people leaving that old debate behind, but to have a concrete example that it was a false dichotomy to begin with. Good news for the environment, and good news for Green Jobs.
If you haven’t heard of it, Big Ideas, is an outstanding TV show that is (in their words) “devoted to the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life”. The format is like a more academic version of TED, and TVO podcasts the entire episodes. The full Gladwell-Kingwell debate is available as a podcast in iTunes, is archived in their RSS feed, and links to the audio and video for this specific lecture are on the Big Ideas page. The study Gladwell references was done by Michael Porter, although I’m not sure if it’s available for free online.