Avoiding the binary decision trap in public policy development

A few days ago I was reading a screed about the evils of the forestry industry.  To the writer cutting down trees was immoral, wiping out animal habitat forever and for what?  Greed and avarice.  The symbolism was stark.  How could New Brunswick morally sanction a forest products industry?

Then, just yesterday, in my Twitter feed, I saw a story about the new use of wood to construct high rise buildings and it was called ‘green building‘.    I did a little more searching and found this story with the title How Wood High-Rises Could Save the Planet.

Which is it, folks?  Cutting trees as an immoral act equivalent to animal genocide or an important tool to move the planet towards sustainability?

It’s kind of interesting.  PEI was initially almost entirely covered with trees (as was most of eastern North America).  The trees were permanently cut down to create agricultural land and now we have a romantic image of the farming sector.  But because New Brunswick didn’t cut down all its trees to make agricultural land (there are interesting reasons for this which I have shared before but have to do with the terrain and soil) we take heat (not for being one of the most forested jurisdictions in North America and Europe) because we cut down between 1% and 2% of the trees each year.

Of course we should have vigorous debates about the amount of old growth forest to set aside.  We should debate how much Crown land to harvest each year and how.  We should have good policies related to silviculture and forest management.  And wildlife habitat is a big part of the equation.

But someone drives by a clear cut and then pens a scathing bit of prose on the evils of the forest industry?    It’s too easy, folks and intellectually lazy.

My fear here is that we are moving into a world where people want the big policy issues of our time to have binary choices.  One right answer.  One wrong answer.  You are either with us or against us.    On the left and the right.

Take the removal of carbon from our economy.   It should be a major policy goal for our society. But those that are too strident against the oil and gas industry (and heavy industry in general) are coming up against a counter-movement that is now becoming equally strident against efforts to address carbon emissions.    Instead of a negotiated, democratic process to address this issue we might end up in a binary decision trap.  We will get either a) a dramatic response to reduce emissions or b) virtually nothing.   I’ll let you decide where we might be today.

You know where binary choices are routine?  In dictatorships.  The guy at the top (and it is almost always a guy) gets to decide.  In democracies we like negotiation.  We like lively debate.  We hope good ideas win over time and bad ideas lose.

Let’s tamp down the rhetoric.  Even if you believe the world will end in 12 years, an ever shrill response is not apt to get you where you want.    My old friend Aldea Landry says in law school they told her “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law.  If neither, pound the table.”

There is a lot of pounding the table these days on a lot of issues.  Democracy works better when we pound away with facts and law.

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