It’s Alberta’s own Holy Grail. Since the Leduc No. 1 oil gusher transformed the province in 1947, economic diversification has always been just slightly out of our reach. We wish for it and dream of it, and some of us even worry about it. But strangely, few of us are compelled to act on it.
A new book by British writer George Marshall, titled Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, explains why concrete action on global warming has proven so elusive. The reason is our neurology. According to Mr. Marshall, our brains have developed over the millennia to respond to present and tangible dangers – the sabre-tooth tiger about to lunge, the enemy’s arrow pointed at our head. We’re less capable of responding to abstract threats that loom somewhere in the ill-defined future.
This explains not only our inaction on climate change but other serious issues that are the problems of future generations. Water conservation, preventative health care, controlling public debt –they could help avert catastrophes if acted on now, but they struggle to become priorities for voters.
Our natural proclivity to focus on present dangers also helps us understand the Holy Grail of economic diversity. Alberta is frightfully dependent on the hydrocarbon sector. And most Albertans would emphatically agree that the economy should be more diversified. Yet few are willing to spend much attention and effort to make that happen.
It’s understandable why businesses can’t or won’t invest much energy on diversification. Surely they’d agree that something should be done. But they need 10 welders on a work site by tomorrow or face delay charges. Their transport trucks are tied up on highways that are woefully outdated for today’s traffic volumes. And shortages of skilled professionals are slowing down their accounting and legal work. Problems are pressing on them this afternoon, not 20 years from now.
Parents of school-aged children are also concerned about economic diversity, at least notionally. But they may live in a new community of 50,000 without a school. They’ve got aging parents in overcrowded and outdated long-term care facilities. And last night they waited seven hours in emergency with a fevered child. Their concerns are immediate, too.
Hence the policy dilemma for Premier Jim Prentice and his new cabinet. While they no doubt understand the future problems of a poorly diversified economy, they’re up against an electorate with present-day concerns. It’s not the voters’ fault, though –they’re hard-wired to think this way. They need schools, workers, hospitals and roads, and they need them now. They’re uninterested in expert panels and their lofty blueprints for long-term economic prosperity.
And even if voters were marching in the streets demanding that the government act to diversify the economy, it’s still not that easy. Attempts made by various incarnations of Alberta’s governing Tories were always well-intended, but never very effective. What, precisely, can government do?
Is there a way to satisfy both the short-term, tangible needs of voters and still address the long-term, nebulous goals of economic diversity? Can the two be self-reinforcing, rather than an either-this-or-that proposition?
Probably, but it will require some compromise on the part of Albertans. Investments in schools and higher education will always be the best money spent on the diversification file. But policy attention is also desperately needed on productivity and innovation – hardly big vote grabbers.
In his book, Mr. Marshall addresses the world’s collective inaction on climate change. This is mildly ironic since it is the eventual action on carbon emissions that make Alberta’s economic diversity a more immediate problem than we think. Energy will always be Alberta’s strong suite – and the world will always need energy. However the world may not always need hydrocarbons. Economic diversity will require enlarging the “energy sector” to include more renewable sources. It will also mean developing innovative products and systems that spin out of our traditional strengths of oil, agriculture and forestry.
Our brains may be hard-wired to focus on present dangers. Yet humans are also able to intentionally override our instinctual behaviours. More schools and infrastructure are necessary today, but Albertans must also focus on the economy our kids will inherit.
This column originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on September 26, 2014.