One gets a tusk. The next the trunk. A third the tail. The fourth an ear. And so on.
Each is challenged to describe the elephant’s apparent properties based on their perceptions (and pre-existing perspectives) as a result of that single sensory experience.
It’s a tale of multiple “truths” and “realities” that devolve rapidly into conflict and disagreement as each man makes his case.
You can imagine the dialogue based on each person’s experience with the elephant, given the disparate nature of those touch points. The story focuses on the power of individualized viewpoints without mediating mechanisms.
A contemporary Canadian version could be Six Blind Men and a Carbon Atom. The “blind men” in question: environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), media, bureaucrats, industry, politicians and the public. All are actors in the carbon drama being played out on our national stage. And all suffer some form of cognitive impairment when it comes to things carbon.
Each has a touch point on the proverbial carbon atom – with a view rooted deeply in a belief system. However, each is mostly at a loss about how best to describe that view to their counterparts constructively. There is no mediating mechanism that complements or corroborates views of what the atom actually represents. So there is no way to arrive at a view that the carbon atom is both a challenge and an opportunity best tackled collectively.
In some versions of the elephant fable, the debate over the “true nature” of the elephant and its meaning gets heated and adversarial. Each man is committed to his version of reality. There’s no room for anyone else’s reality.
In other versions, rationality prevails. Through respectful dialogue, the six reconcile their views.
In yet other versions, all parties remain far from consensus – the moral being that discord results from a failure to account for other points of view.
You can say pretty much the same of our carbon conversations in Canada. The debates are mostly acrimonious and adversarial, more defined by polarization than collaboration. And they typically fail to account for alternative realities and truths.
Provinces are embarking on different carbon strategies via their climate leadership initiatives – and each initiative has become politicized. Ottawa will impose a carbon price structure on provinces that don’t jump to their own carbon pump. So much for federal-provincial harmony.
Many ENGOs have vilified carbon as symbolic of the evil empire: the fossil fuel industry.
That industry is starting to respond but hasn’t presented a reasonably unified front.
Mainstream media has generally made a mess of its opportunity to mediate on behalf of its diverse constituencies.
Meanwhile, a largely-complacent public waits to figure out which carbon parade to follow.
As a country, we’re making a hash of a critically important socio-economic and environmental debate that ought to be building the nation instead of dividing it.
We’re all in the same carbon boat; our hands all touching the same atom. We all want the most pristine environment possible, but we also want a thriving economy. The two are not mutually exclusive.
But blindness in our Canadian context is just a frustrating form of carbon myopia: each hand on the atom understands it differently and expects different outcomes as part of their respective end games.
The elephant parable invites us to contemplate the consequences of not seeing truths and meanings outside our own belief systems. Failure will preclude meaningful progress toward a common set of truths.
Who knew an elephant and an atom had so much in common?
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.