Blog Post: Can We Play in the (Oil) Sand Box Together?

By Chad Park
The theme of The Natural Step’s upcoming Accelerate conference is “Collaborating for Sustainability.” Over the past two years, we at The Natural Step have dedicated ourselves to better understanding what it takes to collaborate more effectively across organizations to bring about the kind of breakthrough results that can shift systems toward sustainability. Accelerate will be another chance to learn together on this topic.

One thing we’ve learned is that systems change is unlikely to happen if we only collaborate with our natural allies. Instead, transformative change really does require understanding and working with those whose interests and perspectives are different than our own.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the hyper-polarized debates about Canada’s energy system and response to climate change, arguably our most important sustainability challenge. My observation has been that while many people tend to lament the polarization, we also tend to go back to mostly working in the realms in which we are most comfortable, mostly engaging with people who share our views. What do we miss when we follow these patterns?

Among other things, we might miss opportunities for innovation. Billions of dollars are being invested in technology to reduce emissions in the fossil fuel industry and in new clean energy technologies. While a big part of the solution to our challenge surely lies in the realm of engineering and technology, we also need to invest in social innovation. Social processes have a huge role to play in evolving the cultural narratives, relationships of trust, and policy frameworks that help accelerate new solutions. The tricky part is that some of this investment will surely need to come from sources very rooted in the “current reality” of the system. 

Recently, I was asked how The Natural Step Canada could accept sponsorship from Suncor Energy for the Accelerate conference. Indeed, some will suggest that, being an organization with a mission to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society, The Natural Step should not accept sponsorship from a company whose primary business is the development of fossil fuels.

It’s a fair and important question – one doubtless raised in the hallways by others, including by some of our closest friends. We’d like to put the question squarely on the agenda for discussion, as we think it relates to the conference theme.

Our response begins with a clear statement that the present operation of the oil sands violates the science-based sustainability principles that The Natural Step espouses. From our perspective, that’s not debatable at all. We might debate whether this inherently must be the case, but that would be a theoretical discussion that probably isn’t very useful.

We need to move to an energy system that is fully aligned with those science-based sustainability principles – i.e. an energy system that provides the necessary energy to meet our various societal needs and that does so without resulting in the accumulation of mined materials or persistent substances in natural systems, without eroding the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate, and without eroding social systems by inhibiting any people from meeting their needs. This is perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge, and it’s not something at which we can afford to fail. No doubt here that our current path is taking us in the wrong direction and that we need to change course quickly.

The question, then, comes down to strategy. How are we going to get there? 

It is a very complex issue, and there are many strategic paths we must attempt and pursue to enable the transition. My own view is that the issue is not nearly as straightforward as the public debate might suggest and that we need to re-frame the conversation to be less about “good guys and bad guys” and more about the working together collaboratively to change the system. We think that this requires positioning our current energy system as a platform from which we can move toward the energy system the future requires of us. I outlined that viewpoint in the article Good guys & bad guys: They're all part of the same unsustainable system I wrote almost two years ago. I also wrote on this topic in an Op Ed published last week in the Edmonton Journal.

Whether you agree with the sentiment of these articles or not, I believe we each must play to our own strengths in trying to enable the required transition to a sustainable future.

There is clearly a need for strong voices raising the alarm bells about the problems with our current energy system and our current path. Thankfully those voices exist. At The Natural Step, we believe that the best role we can play is to create opportunities for powerful experiences that help people to see these issues differently, and especially so for people in positions of influence. This means that our strategy is to engage – and we have a long track record of doing so with a wide range of organizations. 

In this case, our experience has been that the people we deal with at Suncor have indeed been willing to engage. Not only are they willing, but they do not shy away from the tough issues and are keen to engage and to learn – and to help bring a more systemic view of energy issues to others.

We are conscious of the fact that this alone cannot be equated with sustainable practices or business models. Nor are we naïve to the fact that we are a small player in the grand scheme of the energy system and even of Suncor’s corporate strategy. We have our eyes wide open in this regard. That said, we’ll certainly have even less influence if we choose not to engage at all.

The question of accepting financial support from Suncor is one that has been carefully considered by our organization, as the company has supported a number of our programs over the past four years. Our policy is that we are comfortable accepting funding to help our organization do our important work from a company, so long as a) the company is fully aware of our organization’s mission, values, approach, and intentions, and b) the company does not in any way attempt to leverage their financial support of our work to alter our program aims and approach, and/or to inhibit/affect our communications on these issues. Ideally, our funders approach our work together as a multi-faceted partnership and take opportunities beyond their financial contributions to support our organization in achieving its mission. In these respects, the Suncor Energy Foundation has over the years been a good partner.

We find that this is a much easier line to draw than one that says, for example, “we won’t accept funding from a company that is in X or Y business.” Unfortunately, most if not all of the companies we engage with rely on unsustainable practices and business models – by virtue of the fact that they exist within an unsustainable system. Even Interface, a long-term partner of The Natural Step and shining light in the corporate sustainability world, is a company whose carpet tile product is still primarily made from petrochemical materials - though Interface is making great strides in evolving its business model away from this dependence.

In any case, these kinds of dialogues are exactly what the Accelerate conference is all about – learning together about new ways of collaborating to affect systems change. It’s quite clear that past efforts have not worked as well as we need them to and that our trajectory is dangerous – so that’s why we’re keen to explore other ways of tackling these issues, even with (or especially with) those that we might deem unlikely partners in this endeavour.

I hope you’ll join us at the conference as we explore this question and others in more detail in authentic and open dialogue.