Wikipedia says: “Civics is the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government.”
That would ring true for those Canadians who take more than a passing interest in the affairs of government and politics, and what it means to their lives. They take it as their civic duty.
Two words stand out: rights and duties.
But too many Canadians are prone to squawk loudly about the first and remain curiously silent about the second.
Yet rights and duties are inextricably bound together. In many respects, one requires the other to function.
Take this puzzling energy paradox as an example: Canadians will argue that they have a right to clean, abundant and low-cost energy. But rarely will they be curious about the duties required to support that right. Put bluntly, Canadians tend to be energy entitled. They often have no clue about the real costs – social, political, economic and even moral – of a sustainable energy economy.
It’s downright confounding.
And it’s landed Canada in what is a decidedly uncivil energy discourse.
In a civil society, citizens are bound together – and function together – based on common interests.
Energy should be one of those collective interests. But it’s not.
Canadians generally don’t understand they have a duty to be informed about energy dynamics. Politicians, media, industry, non-government organizations – all the actors in our energy drama – have failed abysmally in making Canadians more energy literate and therefore more legitimately involved in the process.
The consequence of that ignorance? A polarization in important discussions that should bind Canadians together but in fact are tearing the nation apart.
Take the carbon dynamic. If there ever was a conversation Canadians should have based on knowledge and rational thought, it is about how best to work through the challenges (and opportunities) of creating a sustainable low-carbon economic model.
Canadians clearly think we have a right to a healthy environment. But turn to talk about the duties required to make that happen and things become a little murkier. The dynamics of duty are complex, to be sure, and there is no one-size-fits-all model for Canadians.
But there is one common foundational plank. At its most basic level, the baseline duty is to be informed, certainly above what most Canadians could now legitimately claim to be in regard to energy.
But here we are, embroiled in carbon conflicts, and a great portion of the population appears functionally illiterate on the topic. The result is political polarization and an under-informed populace whose views ought to be shaping the discussions.
So politicians move forward on assumptions of what voters ought to want, rather than knowing. Activists do the same thing, based on what they think folks ought to want.
It all flows from a general failure of Canadians to do their duty: to be informed and participate in civil society. That failure creates a civics vacuum. And we all know politicians and activists abhor such vacuums.
At the same time, the energy industry rarely recognizes such vacuums proactively. It typically shows up late to the party. The result is an industry proclivity to lecture Canadians on how a robust energy sector facilitates and enables high-quality standards of living.
And that hardly constitutes the kind of thoughtful dialogue on energy civics that is so badly needed in this country.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.