It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and people are playing baseball. It’s a perfectly normal game, except that one fellow in the stands is getting increasingly upset. Eventually he turns to the spectators around him and declares: 'What idiots! This is the worst game of cricket I’ve ever seen. They have no idea what they’re doing!'
This little story illustrates an important concept well known to social scientists. If it seems like a large group of people aren’t behaving in the rational way your theory predicts, there’s a good chance something’s wrong with your theory.
In short: if it seems like you’re surrounded by idiots, be very careful; the idiot may be you.
The “idiots” in the resource debate
Which brings us to the so-called “anti-everything” movement. If you’re not familiar with the term, the “anti-everything” crowd is understood to be against any and all forms of economic development. They don’t want tankers, pipelines, logging, trucks, windmills, ports, bridges or just about anything more disruptive than a wheelbarrow.
The lunacy of this attitude, of course, is that if everyone thought this way, civilization as we know it would collapse. They are obviously complete idiots.
See that? If we remember the irate cricket fan at the baseball game, here’s where we should start being careful. Here’s where we have to ask ourselves: Are we looking at this from the right perspective? What if, despite appearances, the “anti-everything” movement does not actually exist?
The illusion of the “anti-everything” movement
“But how can that be?” you might ask. “You hear these loonies every time a new project starts!”
And it’s true. Whenever a new major project begins in BC, it seems inevitable that someone loudly opposes it. Isn’t that evidence of an anti-everything movement?
No, in fact, it isn't.
Consider this: Just because there is someone opposed to any one thing, that does not mean that anyone is opposed to everything.
Each major project in BC has its specific issues. They’re all different. And, I’ll argue, in any major project there will be elements that will seem unacceptable to at least someone in a large enough community.
But the person who is opposed to one project may not be opposed to every other project. So even if there is opposition to every major project in BC, that does not mean everyone who opposes something is opposed to everything. And yet that is what the idea of an "anti-everything" movement suggests.
What's more likely is that BC has a large number of individuals who have specific, legitimate concerns about only one project. If that’s true, it would be a big mistake to assume that they are a co-ordinated group of wackos who are against every project. It would be like confusing good baseball players for worthless cricket players.
(That’s not to say that there aren’t a few people who are actually opposed to all development and really do want to go back to a subsistence agrarian existence. But I think we can agree it’s a slim, slim fringe with no hope of affecting actual public decisions -- certainly not a “movement” we need to be overly concerned with.)
But isn't the effect the same?
I’ve heard people argue that even if there aren’t a lot of individuals in BC who are “anti-everything,” the overall effect is the same. The idea being that a lot of individuals opposed to single projects is just as bad as a group that opposes every project. I strongly disagree, and here's why:
An "anti-everything" belief is, I argue, fundamentally stupid. It ignores the reality of how humans live. And so, saying that public opposition to economic development is due to an "anti-everything" movement is the same as labelling that opposition as stupid. It suggests that public opposition to resource development is not legitimate and should not be taken seriously. It dismisses the fact that some of the people opposed to major projects might have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.
What I’m afraid of is that people are using the myth of an “anti-everything” movement to dismiss the legitimate perspectives of concerned citizens, and they’re treating sensible people as though they’re idiots. Imagine what that would look like. What kind of damage would that attitude do to the resource debate in BC?
Wait, let me rephrase: What kind of damage is that attitude doing to the resource debate in BC?
It’s about respect
Here’s the pattern I’ve noticed. People in the resource sector who are regularly confronted by the publicity tactics of organized environmental groups often tend to believe that the “anti-everything” movement is real. People who spend time interacting with real British Columbians about their concerns around resource development know that it isn’t (aside from a very small fringe with extreme beliefs).
So let’s put aside exaggerated fears of an “anti-everything” movement and deal with the legitimate concerns of engaged citizens. Anything less risks disrespecting the intelligence of British Columbians, and that’s not the way to advance public dialogue on resource development.
Peter Severinson is the research director for Resource Works. Follow on Twitter: @pseverinson