Dear Jim; An Open Letter to Alberta’s Premier

Dear Jim,

I like you. I really do. I think that your first couple of months in office, after officially winning a seat in the legislature, have seen some movements in the right direction (#Bill10 notwithstanding). Of course, all you’ve really done is reverse or deal with a lot of the bad decisions made by your predecessors. From selling off the air fleet to reversing the decision on the Michener Center, you’ve had your hands full of messes to clean up.

Of course, along with cleaning up The Party’s act, there have been some political feathers in your cap. Winning the four by-elections and assisting Danielle Smith with the neutering of her own official opposition are certainly a testament to your growing political capital and obvious prowess.

I like you, so here’s some (obviously) unsolicited advice, in the form of a Top 5 Top 6 List.

Number 1: Stop calling me (and every other Albertan) a taxpayer. We’re not cows to be milked. I’m a taxpayer once every two weeks when my paycheque gets cut. Every other moment I’m a father, husband, employee, boss, son, neighbour, volunteer…and most importantly, a concerned citizen of this province. Concerned that every damn conversation boils down to what the “taxpayers” are going to think. Try asking me as a father instead sometime.

Number 2: Don’t just slaughter some sacred cows, fire up the grill. Progressive income tax, revenue neutral carbon taxes, provincial sales tax, oil & gas royalties…you name it, we better be moving on it. Alberta could, and Alberta should.

Number 3: Stick to the laws your own government enacted, particularly the one about the next election being held sometime in the spring of 2016. I (and many fellow Albertans) are pretty much done with your party playing political games and running this place like it’s a little #PCCA fiefdom. It’s not like there’s a shortage of work to be done in the next year.

Number 4: The Environment. You know, that big ol’ place that provides food, water, air, etcetera…it’s suffering. In a big way. For far too long we’ve sacrificed our relationship with our natural spaces in the name of frenetic and unsustainable economic growth. From fracking to clear-cutting, rampant off-highway vehicle use in our headwaters to the oil sands, turning the corner on environmental issues and bringing some reverence back into our relationship with the earth should be a top priority.

Number 5: Last, but definitely not least, get out a little bit more. And I don’t mean down to the Superbowl to stump for the Keystone XL pipeline. Get out of your party’s vested interest in the status quo. Get out of the mindset that Albertan’s won’t tolerate some needed change around here. Get out and talk to people who haven’t spent their entire careers amplifying the issues that we now face.

Number 6: Finally, if you’re hell-bent on balancing the budget through spending cuts, which you seem to be (as opposed to the very good advice in Number 2), don’t do it on the backs of vulnerable people and children. Our educational system is already maxed out. I visited a local elementary school earlier this year and there were classrooms in the hallways. Classrooms in the staff room. Classrooms in the gym. I’ve got a 3 1/2 year old son and I’m more than a little anxious about the quality of his education in the coming years. As for the vulnerable, if there’s one thing that Albertan’s will tolerate less than a tax-system overhaul, it’s the further dismantling and degrading of an already fragmented and incomplete support system for vulnerable people. Albertan’s, as you know, are the kind of people that do what it takes to make sure their neighbours are cared for…look no further than the overwhelming response to the floods of 2013. Speaking of the floods, if you’re looking for something to cut, let’s start with golf courses.

I like you, Jim. I really do. I think you’ve got what it takes to help create a true Alberta Advantage…not one that’s been built on years of over-spending, under-saving and pillaging our natural resources.

I like you…but I’m probably not going to vote for you.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me for 40 years?

The deluded environmentalist

I’m not an environmentalist.

“Wait, don’t you drive a truck on vegetable oilAnd aren’t you always going off about sustainability? And don’t you have a Master’s degree in Environment & Management?”

Yes to all three, and more. I co-chair a sustainability minded non-profit in Cochrane, bought a bunch of veggies at the farmer’s market this morning, and generally try and live a conscientious lifestyle.

I’ll tell you why I’m not an environmentalist (anymore). It’s because I live in North America, specifically in Alberta, near the capital of oil country (Calgary). I can’t be an environmentalist. The impact of even my most conscientious lifestyle on the planet still greatly exceeds that of probably 80-90% of the world’s population (I’m making up that stat, because it doesn’t really matter). How can I claim to be an environmentalist? What does that even look like in today’s 100mph consumer culture? A new prius? Curbside recycling? Driving a veggie oil truck like it’s my personal carbon offset so that I feel less guilty about taking a holiday to Hawaii?

It’s this very act of rationalizing our actions, offsetting the bad with the image of the good, that feeds our delusional picture of environmentalism. Like the cartoon above so aptly illustrates, our collective conscience is all to easily soothed by the placards of modern environmentalism. 3R’s? Yes please (except for the first two, they’re pretty inconvenient). Ban plastic bags? You betcha! (Except when I forget the cloth ones…)

Stop buying cheap consumer goods transported halfway around the world, used once and then tossed into a landfill? Uhh…hang on a sec.

Stop draining wetlands for those suburbs? Not so fast big guy…I have to put my starter castle somewhere!

Stop bottom trawling the ocean to get every last fish? But I really don’t want to pay more for my canned tuna…

I’ve got nothing against (most) environmentalists. Hell, I used to be one. But if we think that the planetary crisis’ of our time is going to be solved by token acts of conscientiousness, we’re seriously deluded.

And delusion’s a problem, because it maintains for us a belief that the world is the way we want it to be, instead of the way that it is.  It allows us to feel great about recycling our pop cans, while allowing us to turn a blind eye to our SUV’s and iPads. Add a little rationalization (my truck’s not as big as THAT GUY’s) and you’ve got a pretty dangerous combination.

I’m picking on environmentalists in this post, but the same could be said for philanthropy, religion, governance, education, finance…the list of societal systems afflicted by the threat of rational delusion is long.

And a little delusion goes a long way, so we’ll hang on tight.



Good to the last drop.

I had the privilege of attending a “Water Conversation” last night here in Cochrane. It brought together a range of interested folks (from normal citizens to town employees and businessman) to chat about 4 key areas related to water, and was facilitated by folks from WaterSmart. There was also representation from Alberta Energy and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)…not surprising given that one of the areas under discussion was hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I’m not going to be able to encapsulate the whole discussion, but a few interesting things popped out for me.

Water usage: Did you know the average Canadian uses 329 liters of water a day? (The average Albertan uses 350L). Compare this to places like France (150L/day) and Sweden (200L). Same, or better, standard of living…half the water consumption.

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Water cost: How much do those 350L cost you? The answer…not nearly enough.

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So what does this look like for Cochrane? Well, if you’ve been reading the Cochrane Sustainability Plan Progress Reports (which I know you have), you would have noticed that the 2011 average for Cochrane was 203L/person/day! This is thanks in large part to an innovative pricing scheme, where residents and businesses pay a tiered rate for water consumption, along with good educational programs.

For the first 25 cubic meters (25000L!), you pay 1.13/meter ($0.00113/L). For 26-60 cubic meters, you pay $1.51/1000L. Anything over 60,000L/month and you pay $2.25 per 1000L.  This tiered rate is in and of itself pretty innovative, but I argue that it’s still too cheap.

If the goal is to continue to reduce TOTAL water consumption (not just per/capita), then we’re going to have to take things to the next level. The flow of the Bow River doesn’t change, and Cochrane’s population is growing rapidly. This scenario will result in water scarcity issues, regardless of how efficiently we’re currently using water.

A couple of ideas:

  1. Make the first 40L/person/day FREE. Totally free. Water should be a right, just like the air we breathe. 40L should provide for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation. After 40L….charge the hell out of it. Triple or quadruple the current pricing scheme. Make me think about how much water I’m using, and give me an economic incentive to use less. At 1/10th of a cent per liter…I don’t even blink when I flush the toilet. And I drive a truck on vegetable oil.
  2. Create bylaws around grey water recycling. All the water that goes down the sink or the bathtub could be reused to flush toilets, or recycled and used for watering the garden. Using expensive, treated water for EVERYTHING is unsustainable.
  3. Develop a full-cost accounting structure for water, from intake to discharge. Include that price in the consumption of the commodity. Change the tiered structure so that the thresholds are much lower.

There were some interesting conversations around “private management” of water resources here in the province. A lot of us at the table were pretty leery of that idea, although business certainly has a track record of improving efficiency and getting products to markets in the leanest way possible. What about a social business or non profit? Someone tasked with managing the resource, but not standing to make a killing from it?

I highly recommend you get acquainted with what’s going on with water resources in this province, because it’s changing quickly. Check out the water conversation here (you have until FRIDAY APRIL 12th to contribute to the online survey).

Transit and Windmills and NIMBY’s (oh my!)

It’s been awhile since I weighed in on Cochrane’s controversial topics (currently transit and windmills). Let’s start with windmills.

Recently, there’s been a lot of chatter in the local papers about plans for a 5kW wind turbine that’s proposed for the Cochrane High School. For those that aren’t familiar with this school, they’ve been on the leading edge of sustainable development since 2000. A group of their students beat me out of an Alberta Emerald Award a few years ago (much deserved!). I’m not going to dive into the details of this ongoing drama, preferring instead to comment on a couple of things that come to mind.

First, there was a recent motion (by the mayor) at Town Council to develop an alternative energy framework for projects such as this. I think this is a splendid idea…so long as it’s sole focus isn’t on some minority groups definition of “unsightly”. There’s also talk of asking the high school to put their windmill project on hold until this framework is completed. I think that’s a terrible idea….unless we’re halting all development projects until the appropriate “framework” is in place. Trying to establish this framework at this time is going to encourage the NIMBY’s No Turbine’s in Town Coalition (NTTC) to direct their pent-up rage towards a document that is going to be around for a long time. The project should go in front of the Alberta Utilities Board for consideration, as the next step in due process for these students.

Diversifying our aging electricity grid with sustainable local energy production is critical.

Next up: Transit. Oh god. The issue that seemingly won’t go away, prompted in large part by one of the local papers. On page 2 of the Cochrane Eagle this week was a column with no fewer than 17 questions, disguised loosely as an editorial.

Is it a convenience for the few paid for by the many? Does it make sense for taxpayers to subsidize a bus service taking shoppers to another city?

I have a feeling those questions aren’t being asked out of curiosity.

Having followed the transit discussion for some time, it’s intriguing to me that the town is catching such flack over the issue (then again, I’m regularly intrigued by what get’s published sometimes…). Sure, they jumped out of the gate pretty hard off the bat, but since then they’ve taken feedback, slowed down the process, listened to people’s concerns and come back to the table with 3 very reasonable and affordable approaches to phasing in transit (an identified community need). What seems to be the issue at hand comes back to some very vocal people who disagree with the finding’s of a variety of robust Ipsos Reid polls and surveys, which concluded that there is general support of transit in the community.

Disagreeing with something doesn’t make it any less true….whether it’s a windmill or a bus.

The problem that isn’t.

At a recent teacher’s conference in Edmonton I asked some workshop attendees if addiction is a problem. Everyone in the room nodded and raised their hands.

If I asked you “is climate change a problem?” or “is deforestation, overfishing, water pollution and habitat loss a problem?”, I’m betting that there would be a collective raising of hands and nodding.

Unfortunately, we’re all wrong. Addiction is not a problem, and neither is climate change. Both of those phenomena are symptoms of a solution to other problems.

Take climate change. Scientific consensus points to the burning of carbon based fuels as the primary driver of the greenhouse affect, which induces global climate change. Why do we burn fuels? To transport ourselves and goods, heat our homes and our water, create electricity, etc. When I have the problem of needing to get somewhere, I start the truck and drive there. Problem solved. When the house is chilly and the furnace kicks on, problem solved. When I feel the need to blog about something, on goes the computer. Problem solved.

As long as we’re looking at symptoms as if they’re problems in their own right, we’re limiting both the discussion on how to solve them, and the tools at our disposal. So long as there’s no real incentive for me to upgrade my 32 year old furnace, it’s likely going to keep chugging away, keeping my house pleasantly warm through the depths of winter. Of course, if my problem suddenly became very expensive natural gas…you can bet that I’ll do something about it. We’re hardwired to solve our individual problems, not so inclined to make sacrifices for the broader good. Which isn’t to say that we’re not capable of doing so, just that we don’t often.

If I’ve learned anything from my work with addicts over the years, it’s that change IS possible. It’s just really hard. And if we don’t address the underlying issue driving the addiction (or climate change, et al), we don’t really have a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it.

The first step in an addict’s journey to recovery? Figuring out what the real problem is.

I’ve been getting some requests to run a webinar on change, addiction and system’s thinking. Interested? Follow the link and let me know what day/time works best. If I get enough interest we’ll make something happen. 

The Resilient System: Feedback

Last week I wrote about Diversity vs. Efficiency, and how often in our systems we’re sacrificing the former for the latter. This week I’m going to get into Feedback a little bit.

Not the dreaded “sit down with the boss every year and chat about your annual review” kind of feedback. The kind of feedback that drives systems, both little and huge.

First though, two kinds of Feedback:

Positive Feedback: Encourages the system to “do it again”. From rave reviews at the concert hall that sparks a 2nd run of the same play, to diner’s consistently ordering the same dish at the local restaurant, positive feedback is what propels systems forward (usually quite rapidly). Positive feedback often encourages the system to use up resources (think of shareholders getting high returns from companies that cut down rainforests… the positive feedback encourages more investment, which results in more logging, which results in higher profits, which results in more investment…).

Negative Feedback: Places limits on the system, and is essential for long term system stability. It’s the wolf or coyote that keeps the rabbit population in check. It’s the group of book publishers that only buys recycled paper, instead of virgin wood. It’s the ability of the planet to absorb the carbon we emit.

Typically, positive feedback loops are much faster than negative feedback loops. Often, these positive loops will lead to runaway growth within a system, until the negative feedback loops of the system catch up (or the system uses up all the resources and crashes…also a form of negative feedback. A recent financial crisis come to mind…lot’s of little positive feedback loops at work there, creating a runaway system.)

The most important thing about feedback is that it exists, and we need to listen to it. First we need to figure out what the heck we’re measuring, and whether that’s the right “thing” that measures the stability and sustainability of the system. Thinking back to the cod fishery example from the previous post, it becomes pretty apparent that the positive feedback that was being measured didn’t indicate the resiliency of the system.

How do you know what’s going on in your system (business, classroom, community, etc.)? What do you measure? Why do you measure it? Is it positive feedback or negative?

The Resilient System: Diversity

As part of my focus on helping create a more resilient world, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts on what I think are components of resilient systems.

The first topic is Diversity. For a system to be resilient, it needs to have resources distributed in such a way that they can be re-allocated to solving new problems as they appear, or dealing with challenges in multiple ways.  One of the main opponents of system diversity is efficiency.  There might be a conflict of interest here.

Since perhaps the dawn of mankind (but certainly the industrial revolution), we’ve been on a shared quest to increase the efficiency of our systems. From food production to education, manufacturing and transportation, we’ve been on a mission to do “more with less”. And that’s been great, and it’s led to all kinds of innovation and savings in energy, time and money. Heck, the very fact that you’re reading this on the internet (and not in a book 6-months from now) is the result of increases in communication efficiency. But the dark side to all of this efficiency is rigidity.

Called the “Rigidity Trap”, systems that are highly efficient are also highly prone to failure when confronted with crisis. One look at the cod fishery collapse in Atlantic Canada shows a system that evolved from being very diverse (lot’s of little fishing boats and owner/operators pre 1950s, using traditional fishing methods) to being highly efficient (giant trawlers with enormous haul nets and onboard cleaning and freezing facilities). The annual catch went up from 250,000 tons in the 1950s to 800,000 tons in 1968. This increase in efficiency led the system into a rigidity trap, where fisherman HAD to keep pursuing larger and larger catches, to justify the mortgages on very expensive and efficient boats. The federal government didn’t step in until 1992, at which point 42,000 people were put out of work when the fishery was closed. For over 400 years the northern Atlantic cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world, and in a few short decades of ever-increasing efficiency, was decimated.

Of course, we can look at diversity at a broad range of scales. How diverse is your personal thinking? Do you visit the same websites, read the same newspaper columnists, listen to the same radio talk shows? Do you only read things at seetheconnection.com?

The next blog post will be on Feedback, as it’s the critical element that informs the system on what’s working and what’s not. From the examples above, if we only get feedback from sources that support our worldview, I think we’re in danger of developing our own “rigidity traps”.

A few things to ponder in your own systems (at whatever scale you have influence on).

  1. Are we sacrificing diversity for efficiency? And what are the consequences if our efficient system becomes so rigid that it can’t handle change, and collapses? Will 42,000 people be put out of work and an ecosystem destroyed?
  2. Do we have redundancy built into the system? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to ensure the system can survive crisis? (An example from my own life is heating my house. I have a traditional furnace and a wood stove. Redundant systems that perform the same task, a little less efficient, but more resilient. Same idea with the truck that runs on diesel and vegetable oil.)