OPINION | Ed Whittingham: Let's make it less lonely in the 'radical middle'

Ed Whittingham says that being a rational and pragmatic environmentalist means that on a good day he is getting sniped at equally by the hard left and the hard right.

It might be the most Canadian place to be, but for an environmentalist, the middle has its challenges

'Let us be cowed no more,' says environmentalist Ed Whittingham, who has supported Ottawa's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. 'Together we can proudly raise our rational, pragmatic voices to make our beloved middle safe again.' (CBC)

People often refer to me as a "rational" and "pragmatic" environmentalist.

I have a mixed relationship with those two adjectives. After all, they lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

If someone asks, "How's your marriage?" and you reply, "Rational and pragmatic," it doesn't quite denote steamy romance.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental phenom Greta Thunberg, currently sailing her way to New York to participate in a UN climate conference, would not have inspired tens of thousands of high schoolers to take to the streets were her brand hallmarks reason and pragmatism.

But I come by them honestly. I'm the son of an Englishman raised at boarding schools — if you've ever listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall, you're familiar with the type — so cold reason and logic course through my veins from rearing.

I also ran the Pembina Institute for seven years, a think tank known for its pragmatic, solutions-oriented approach to climate and energy challenges. I fit right in.

Sniping from both sides

Being a rational and pragmatic environmentalist means that on a good day one is getting sniped at equally by the hard left and the hard right.

The hard left never likes the fact that I proactively work with Fortune 500 companies, including those in resource extraction, on market-based solutions to environmental challenges. The hard right doesn't like the fact that I've also sued some of those very same Fortune 500 companies.

As long as the sniping is roughly equal in volley, then I figure I'm probably in the right place.

That place? The middle, where typically the majority of Canadians reside. After all, why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the rational, pragmatic middle. The safe space.

Or supposedly safe.

The middle doesn't feel so safe anymore in our ever-increasing "you're either with us or against us," hyper-polarized, hyper-partisan, social media-driven world.

In fact, inhabiting it can be downright lonely these days.

Ample loneliness is what I thought I had in store when in June I came out in support of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

I argued for the pipeline on financial (intuitive) and climate (counterintuitive) grounds. It was akin to walking around with a button that said, "I [heart] the Carbon Tax + TMX." TM, all rights reserved. (Next up: Door decals for your hybrid SUV!)

Publicly supporting TMX was a quick and effective way of alienating my friends and colleagues in Canada's environmental movement.

Public Kennemy #1

Those familiar with the highly publicized trials and tribulations over my role with the Alberta Energy Regulator, when I became Public Kennemy #1 to some Albertans following my immortalization on page 97 of the Spring 2019 UCP election platform, would be forgiven for thinking that I shouldn't go around alienating more people.

Twitter and Facebook are littered with comments about me best not repeated here. Among others I was accused of treason and threatened with deportation from Alberta, presumably to B.C., where my kind is welcomed with open arms and quinoa muffins.

A prominent Calgarian tweeted that I am an "eco-teorrist," proving he is both an extreme polemicist and a lazy speller.

(My favourite, however, was when a detractor mused in an open letter to then-Premier Notley that she can "understand what drives some people to the point of making a death threat" and that my AER board appointment "could very well be one of those instances that pushes someone to the brink." Which, unless I'm mistaken, is itself a death threat, even if a pathetically passive-aggressive one.)

Sure enough, I was not spared from criticism from the other side of the Great Pipeline Divide following my pro-TMX comments.

I was accused of being an "unwavering industry collaborator," which I took to be a compliment until I realized the commenter meant in a Vichy France kind of way.

That slight I could take, but then the same person claimed that my "'pragmatic' environmentalism defies the science."

There it was, my brand hacked for all to see! The indignity.

Encouraging surprises

Eventually, however, a couple of surprising developments left me wondering if, perhaps, the middle is a little less lonely than it appears.

The first surprise was the overwhelmingly positive counter-response to my pro-TMX stand from people all over the country. Unfortunately, these are people who are more likely to send you a private congratulatory email than fire off a flaming tweet, so their voices are not often heard above the "It's a Carbon Bomb!" versus "Canada Is Out to Get Alberta!" bipolar din on social media.

Pro- and anti-pipeline protesters face off in downtown Calgary in January 2019 after 14 people were arrested in northern B.C. for opposing a gas pipeline. (CBC)

The second surprise was when I found myself in July speaking in a Red Deer College room, at a conference called "Reboot Alberta."

Organized by long-time activist Ken Chapman, Reboot felt like a support group meeting for Albertans wandering the political wilderness in search of a home for their solidly middle-of-the-road views.

The radical middle

I heard from many the strong desire to reclaim the political middle as safe space. One attendee, Maggie Hanna, coined it the "radical middle" and has written a top 10 list on how to inhabit it.

As long as social media continues to devolve into a forum for spewing road rage, safely inhabiting the radical middle will remain difficult. But it needs to happen.

The type of "radical" collaboration I was part of in 2014-2015, when environmental leaders and chief executives of Canada's largest energy companies spent a year co-creating policy solutions, would be near impossible today. And that's a shame.

I firmly believe that we need more of that cross-sector collaboration, not less, if we are to successfully navigate great disrupters to Alberta's energy sector like AI and climate change.

Now, I'm confident there's a majority that feels the same way. It's just quiet, perhaps cowed into silence by the extremes on both sides of the left-right spectrum.

Let us be cowed no more. Together we can proudly raise our rational, pragmatic voices to make our beloved middle safe again.


Ed Whittingham is the former executive director of the Pembina Institute, a national energy/environment NGO. Whittingham was named one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People in 2016, and his op-eds have been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada and internationally.