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Why singers, actors, artists are powerful opponents of energy sector

Humans are storytellers by nature, energy advocates must learn to better tell their stories

One of the more influential movements to arise in the 18th century was that of Romanticism, an artistic and literary reaction to a more classical approach to life and the world around us, including rules.

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Neil Young, singer-songwriter, oil sands critic, electric car advocate.

The Romantic movement, as the Victorians would later christen it, instead cherished intuition, emotion and esthetic experiences, especially as it concerned the natural world.

The German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, best encapsulated the romantic’s approach when he noted that “the artist’s feeling is his law.”

Later Romantics, whether poets or philosophers, were also partly responding to Enlightenment-era rationality, that emphasized hard measurements and empirical findings, and also the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution with its pollution, newly crowded cities and cold, grey factories.

The Romantics were properly criticized by realists as occasionally utopian. Previous farm life, for example, was hardly idyllic, with shorter lives and little opportunity for human flourishing when compared with a city. There was a limit to how much one should glorify nature or human nature in their rawest forms, which Romantics such as French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau did.

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Actress Daryl Hannah being arrested at a Keystone XL protest.

But imagine yourself a factory worker in 1820, grinding away in soot-filled London. Now ask yourself if a vision of a purer rural life and nature, even if romanticized, appeals. The Romantic movement was a reminder that a need for the sublime is deeply ingrained in human nature.

Those who work in the energy industry and are occasionally baffled by their critics should better understand such impulses because they are “genetically” imprinted in everyone, but are a focal point in today’s environmental movement.

Put differently, there are two types of opponents of energy exploration (and pipelines, to reference the recent decision by U.S. President Barack Obama on Keystone XL).

Some are science based and give oil and gas companies grief because of observed past degradation and seek to avoid the same in the future. They are amenable to persuasion and problem solving on such matters because they are empiricists.

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Actor Robert Redford.

But foes of energy extraction also include artists and filmmakers. These are usually the more intractable variety. Think Neil Young, Daryl Hannah and Robert Redford. True, they know little about the economy and even less about oil, gas and mineral extraction, or the benefits of the same for humanity.

But filmmakers are storytellers by occupation and orientation; artists spend their life creating esthetic realities that bypass our reason and appeal to our senses. Thus, once they have a “megaphone” and weave a good story or create a compelling image, engineers and economists can display all the data they desire. That won’t move a soul already possessed of a utopian vision – utterly unspoiled nature in this case. Add to that any real-world concern about oil and gas exploration and it explains why even justifiable projects get killed.

Reason and Enlightenmentera empiricism matters. Human beings progressed from primordial muck to Manhattan in part because thinking people tested, discovered, argued and figured out cause and effect. Men and women calculated load-bearing weights for buildings; invented the steam engine; they thought out how to combine black gooey stuff and steel parts so fresh fruit, vegetables and medicine could be transported to those in need of such items (all of us).

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Mark Milke.

But reasoned assertions alone hit brick walls of indifference and cynicism if enough people are already convinced energy advocates ignore a problem (real or not; fair or not) and if a storyteller already has the crowd’s sympathy and attention.

Rational arguments are useful; they are not sufficient. They must be supplemented with stories that trigger our sympathies. Those who assert, rightly, that energy can improve the life of the poorest mother in some corner of the planet now cooking with sticks from a chopped-down forest, need to tell more such stories. Man does not live by reason alone: he is also a raging romantic storyteller.

Mark Milke has authored four books on Canadian politics and policy and dozens of studies on topics such as property rights, public sector pensions, corporate welfare, competition policy, aboriginal matters and taxes.

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