What is Pragmatism?

By Matt Palmer

Here is a link to an article I found yesterday in the Calgary Beacon. The article by Mike Robinson is titled “Pragmatism more effective than ideology“. I felt a need to write down some of my thoughts on this because Mr Robinson brings up some interesting points, and in my mind, presents an argument that is perhaps ironic.


The first argument is that our current government is a minority/majority government. In essence, the Conservatives received roughly 40% of the popular vote (of those sixty some odd percent that voted, yet now have majority power in Parliament.) This is absolutely true, but not unprecedented. In fact, this is the way our political system has been operating for a long time. No political system is perfect, but it would nice to see a way forward that would provide representation that reflects the diverse nature of our country, population and regional interests.

The assumption made in the article is that the Conservatives are ruling to instil the principles of a conservative social order, ripe with doctrinaire thinking. Conservative ideology is dictating policy. I would not completely disagree with this, but I would suggest that it is no different from when the Liberals held the majority. There is nothing new happening, but it is troubling that it continues to happen, and that transparency in government has been eroded.

I whole heartedly agree that this government has taken the wrong approach in labelling detractors of the Northern Gateway Pipeline as radicals. The regulatory process has some serious problems, but we must not be afraid of transparently examining the risks of industrial development like oil sands, pipelines, and alternative energy. A better policy would embrace concerns, wherever they come from. If we want to be global energy players, producing a resource that has global impacts, we should be able to withstand questions that come from the global community. If the resource is being produced responsibly, then it should work out fine.

Where I get lost in the article is when Mr Robinson begins talking about climate change. Climate change is real, and man’s actions have contributed to it. However, and this is a big however, there is a flaw in the argument that states “a systematic enterprise that builds knowledge from testable explanations and predictions, science, confronts the means of “belief.” The flaw to me is that scientific predictions are still just that, predictions. Scientific modelling is not perfect and is dependent on methodologies used, and the data that is input into the model. What I am suggesting is that statements like “climate change will eventually end much of life as we know it” is a leap of faith and belief. Climate change is going to cause some unpleasant outcomes, yet people continue to disagree about this. Perhaps, we can move on to things that more people can agree on, like we need to stop polluting as best we can, and become better stewards of our resources. Hyperbolic predictions of global Armageddon do not motivate action, and instead they increase the volume of the rhetoric and polarization. These types of statements are not pragmatic nor rational.

So where is the irony in this? Mr Robinson rails against the ideology of the Conservative government.  I would propose though that Mr Robinson’s argument is a form of ideology, it just happens to be on the opposite political spectrum from the Conservative side. It is ideological because it is a collection of ideas and ideals about how the science of climate change should form the basis of a new economic model and public policy. It is political in nature. It is an argument rooted in science, but the science is not absolute.

So I agree that we are living in an increasingly ideological Canada, and that we have lost sight of rational and pragmatic thinking and action. Idealism is demonstrated in the actions that call for an end to pipelines and energy development like oil sands. An understanding of how our global energy system works, and will continue to work for decades to come, would acknowledge that despite the tradeoffs, we will continue to need oil and petrochemicals for a long time. This may not be a reality that all of us want to face, but there are no short terms solutions for how we use oil and petrochemicals. What we can do is continue to put pressure on energy producers to ensure that industrial processes are at least as good as the regulations require. What would be even better is encouraging practices that go beyond the regulations.

To me the pragmatic way to look at our energy issues is to understand that oil and alternative energy sources are not equal in terms of the commodities and services we get from them. Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, nuclear and geothermal provide electricity. We do not use oil for electricity, but rather we use it as to make various fuel sources for transportation, and as a feedstock for petrochemicals which in turn touch every signal facet of our lives, including the production of alternative energy. Try to build a wind turbine or solar panel without petrochemicals. We are going to need all energy sources in the coming decades to meet the growing demands including oil, natural gas, hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal. And, we are going to need oil and petrochemicals which are the building blocks of every aspect of our lives.

So where does this leave us? Firstly, it would be good to acknowledge that ideology drives a lot of how our society operates. Scientific study of cause and effect is critically important, and I would add an understanding of energy from a “systems” perspective – counting the full life cycle costs. Then comes the pragmatic and rational perspective to help mold a positive framework for the future. This means understanding we have to accept the good and bad of the choices we are faced with. Oil and petrochemicals have provided us with our current standard of living. They have also come with some unpleasant impacts to our global environment.

The solutions are not going to be easy, but they will be even harder if we don’t take time to stand back and be really thoughtful about the choices that lay before us. We do need pragmatic policy from our elected officials, and sometimes it can be helpful to stand back and examine our own positions, and be open to examination.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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