My Business in Vancouver column this week:
Leaders need to view sustainability as a policy of national defence
More than ever, politicians are confounded by the Gap. And I’m not talking jeans.
Between the outer edge of what is politically possible and the inner edge of what is necessary, that’s where you find the Expectations Gap.
Leaders, of course, have always been aware of the difference between what people say they want and what they’re prepared to do. A good illustration was the Vancouver Sun poll on how British Columbians would personally respond to the challenge of climate change. Over three-quarters said they’d be prepared “to make significant changes in lifestyle”; less than half would pay an extra hundred dollars a year in income tax.
Because taxes are the sincerest form of commitment, few politicians want to be that sincere. But not much is left, after the lightbulbs have been changed, that would make a difference. Still, damn it, nature didn’t get the memo. And now that planetary systems are becoming less predictable, the Expectations Gap could narrow too, in unpredictable ways.
Politicians, despite what you might have read, are not just concerned with the next election. Because an election is their moment of accountability, they should be concerned – but even more, they’d like to be remembered for having achieved something. To do something great, they have to assess what the public is willing to accept, and then lead them there. In other words, they have to bridge the gap.
Here’s an example, when it comes to gap bridging, that will test the most astute politicians in these parts: road pricing.
Common sense suggests that disposing of an expensive product – road space – as though it had no value invites abuse. Mobility inflation is just as bad when applied to asphalt as to currencies. We know road pricing works – as London and Stockholm most recently demonstrated – often better than predicted. You get a 20% cut in traffic, and everything moves better, including transit and trucking. Economists like it; environmentalists like it. It’s a handy way to cut carbon, and you can use the cash flow to fund the options that people are more willing to take.
However, most politicians still rush to the microphones to deny any intent to introduce road pricing for existing infrastructure or, like the province, invoke policies to prohibit it. They fear the wrath of the public will turn from gas prices to them.
Maybe that’s why the province is trying to turn TransLink over to the business community: an appointed board without fear of an electorate could bring in road charges first through privatization and then through fiat. It just might work.
Stealth strategies, however, won’t remove the political heat when people start to be priced out of their cars. Because the annual cost to own and maintain a car, as estimated by the Canadian Automobile Association, is almost 10 grand, we’re getting to the point of forced carlessness for a lot of lower income workers. And because a car says so much about one’s status in society, you know they won’t be pleased.
So what’s a leader to do?
Gordon Campbell started by laying out a vision of a greener society and some goals for greenhouse gases. By challenging us to meet the greater good, he might overcome the distaste for the policies needed to get there. If, for instance, the Gateway Project was reconfigured to be part of a transportation and land-use strategy that had a realistic chance of cutting emissions by 33%, the opposition would likely evaporate, both to the construction of new infrastructure and to the constraints that would make it work. That’s turning lose-lose into win-win.
A great leader would also make a convincing connection between oil and reality. We’re currently planning our lives and investments on the expectation that we can count on an ever-upward growth in the supply of affordable hydrocarbons, and that our disproportionate use of them will remain unperturbed. But already we’re seeing religion, ethnicity and resources getting all mixed together in an unstable brew. Emerging powers are rushing in to stake their claims in those unfriendly places where we’re bogged down in endless expensive warfare. Sustainability must be seen as a policy of national defence if it’s to be accepted with any urgency.
External threats to our well-being are what, in a flash, fills the gap. An effective leader will make a convincing case that new initiatives – tough but fair – can create a more resilient society, less vulnerable to the shocks that will shake the foundations of our way of life.
Necessity, then, becomes the mother of intervention.