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The oil and gas sector must stop obsessing over changing others’ narratives and work on their own

Bill-WhitelawIf I had a dollar for every time someone in Canada’s oil and gas industry laments “we need to change the narrative,” you wouldn’t be reading this.

Because I wouldn’t have written it.

I would be down in Margaritaville, channelling Jimmy Buffet and searching for my long-lost shaker of salt.

I would be a rich man – a very rich man because I hear that lament almost daily, in dozens of different contexts.

But I have written this it’s an uncomfortable truth that needs airing as we move ever further into increasingly complex and contested energy times.

Story-narratives oil and gas
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It’s about how we “speak energy” – and how our sector needs to think about Energy as a Second Language.

So much of what we do gets lost in translation, because we don’t understand what narratives are and how they’re created and sustained.

And that’s a problem because paradoxically, instead of world events coalescing civil society on all matters of energy, we’ve moving ever further to the poles – to the point that even our poles are polarizing.

Here’s the thing: the above-noted “narrative-change” complaint, while understandable in terms of sentiment, is off the mark. It’s one of those sweeping statements that captures a broad range of sectoral emotions, anxieties, and aspirations. It represents decades worth of consternation, concern and complaining. It brings to mind the old childhood ditty, with a contemporary twist: “Nobody likes me …everybody hates me … I think I’ll go eat some worms, er, change a narrative.”

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the lament is about a desire to change someone else’s narrative(s). We’re so preoccupied with those anti-oil-and-gas narratives that we (tend to) forget we have our own sectoral narratives, which we should be focusing on changing because they’re not working for us.

The hubris which often underpins this desired change (to someone else’s narrative) compounds our own narrative identity problem. It fails to account for the fact we in oil and gas already have plenty of, perhaps less apparent (to us), narratives. We just don’t understand them for what they are – and how they show up, especially outside the sector. It’s those industry-owned narratives that get us in social and political hot water.

The industry’s own neurosis about this stuff borders on comical. It has built over time and verges on the edge of paranoia for some constituencies within oil and gas. We now largely exist in a belief system in which politicians (of the left), the public (similarly disposed), and media (aren’t they all lefties?) are seen as having as their life mission the condemnation and, ultimately, elimination, of the upstream oil and gas sector.

Something must be done, dictates our internal industry logic, to change the way people think. And we must change the unfair, biased, and inaccurate narratives to which society is exposed.

And thus, it distills down to a sense that it’s a simple “narrative fix.”

Uh Uh.

Here’s another thing. Even if changing an opposing narrative was possible (it’s not, at least in the way lamenters imagine), the whole notion of change belies a profound misunderstanding of how the world of energy talk actually works.

Narratives are what they are: solid and imperturbable monoliths; they’re not malleable constructs changeable by willpower or desire alone – particularly when you don’t “own” them. Narratives are also funny things; they are notions that defy easy definition and delineation. Ask 10 university English profs to define “narrative,” and you will get 10 answers different enough to leave you bewildered. And all 10 answers would be fair and accurate – if understood within the context in which the definition was sought.

But what incenses many oil and gas folks – some to the point of apoplexy – is they believe they must change the anti-oil and gas narratives out there.

However, the only narratives we can change are our own … and we need plenty of introspection on that front. Narratives are inviolate in that way. Their very essence underpins their identity and thus enhances their invulnerability to change. An anti-oil narrative is just that: anti-oil. No amount of energy industry desire (or political posturing) can change that.

In fact, what we’re experiencing is a narrative clash of the titans: “ours” versus “theirs.”

So, why do we keep spinning those tiresome “change their narrative” wheels?

The sector needs to start its own brand-spanking new counter-narratives. They need to be innovative and carefully thought out. And they need to be cast in terms of a new way of thinking through the language of energy – a vernacular built on less inflammatory, de-politicized, and more conciliatory and collaborative linguistics.

Here’s why. Our common prevailing narratives are built on the following themes:

  • We’re the best in the world … the best, dammit! You need to know that!
  • We contribute so much to the Canadian economy it isn’t funny. Why, we heat and cool homes! If it weren’t for us, you would freeze in the winter and melt in the summer!
  • We produce ethical products – just look at those other horrible places where no one gives a crap about anything! You should be grateful!
  • If not for Canadian oil and gas, we would all be living in grass huts, peddling bicycles and burning dung!

You get the drift.

At one level, these are legitimate realities. They define some existential truths. But they’re not shared realities or values with the vast majority of Canadians for a variety of reasons, not least of which is some of us in the sector tend to belligerently shout these narratives. That kind of chest-puffing, back-slapping and pedantic hectoring doesn’t wash with a lot of people.

For years, our sector has existed within its own echo chamber bubble. We talk a lot. To ourselves. We keep repeating the things listed above enough to become self-affirming truths.

That may be a tough pill for some in the sector, but it underlies another framing macro mythology: why people in the east “hate” people in the “west.” They don’t hate; they just don’t understand. And they don’t understand because the ways in which we “talk energy” are falling deafly on the very ears we want to be more active listeners.

Our existing narratives are built on a series of hubristic and self-reinforcing assumptions. And it’s working against us big time because it allows those other anti-energy narratives to gain traction and attention with the very audiences we’re trying to reach and, ironically, making them stronger in the process.

We’re also very, very fragmented in our sector: our one giant echo chamber is, in reality, a multitude of mini echo chambers – all with their own agendas and ideas about what constitutes effective communication. Industry associations don’t communicate effectively with each other to ensure overall co-ordination or narrative synchronization, by way of a key example. We’re like the world’s worst-sounding out-of-tune philharmonic orchestra because we haven’t figured out the conductor thing.

Our narrative, or multitudinous narratives, then, are trapped within the invisible boundaries of that echo self-talk system.

So, back to basics: We must first understand the social construction techniques that make a narrative what it is. Narratives are what literary folks call “discursive structures.” That means they’re built by connected and interlinked discourses. Discourses, simply put, are the way we talk about things. Sports. Politics. Culture. Fashion.

Oh, and energy.

We have discourses aplenty in oil and gas – very positive discourses, in fact. Think about our cleantech and sustainability discourses.

But they’re like being in a challenging reservoir: good porosity (the discourses) but crap permeability (the flow mechanism). In other words, we are not very good at connecting our discourses in a way that allows them to be the scaffolding mechanism from which better-competing narratives are constructed. As a result, those positive discourses have had insufficient momentum or support to achieve escape velocity beyond the more negative and prevailing elements of our existing narratives.

The answer is in the language of energy and rethinking our energy talk.

It’s pretty apparent we need some remedial language training.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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