The Upstanding Engagement of W. Brett Wilson

I discovered yet another fold in the broad sheet of social media. The new fold I’ve found is the modest (and highly occasional) accessibility of well-known strangers and celebrities.

Today’s discovery began when I was cleaning up my follow and followers lists on Twitter. I keep those lists quite short and tidy. I don’t follow a hundred people because those who I do follow I take a sincere interest in and care about almost everything they say. If what they say doesn’t interest me then I stop following them. Sorry if that sounds cold, but it’s reality and I think that while not everyone would state this feeling so clearly, it’s probably how we all operate.

Anyway, pouring over my list, I came to W. Brett Wilson, the flamboyant but gentle merchant banker who’s made untold millions of dollars financing energy projects in Alberta and has expanded his investments into other personal interests including sport and entrepreneurship. I do not know him at all, beyond his participation on a show I enjoy – CBC’s Dragons’ Den – and his Twitter engagement. Now let me be crystal clear. I have no issue with him. In fact I think W. Brett Wilson is a breath of fresh(er) air in Alberta – he is open-minded, charismatic, and unafraid to engage in discussion when it comes to the earth and our exploit of it. Aside from his energy interests (and despite what some might call hypocrisy), he seems concerned about the environment. He would also be a healthy role model, in my opinion, save for his oil industry accolades. He travels extensively, maintains what appears to be a proactive work/life balance and has a daughter who was raised in a similar way to me – sent on sailboat adventures and encouraged to travel.

It’s because of his open-mindedness that I give him more credit than I would most of the people in the oil industry. And it’s also why I followed him on Twitter. But in my tidying up of my follow list today, I was reminded of his tweet a few days ago following Sarah Palin‘s speaking engagement in Calgary, which he apparently attended. His tweet spoke about how he agreed with her statement that climate change science was unfounded. Such a comment drives me crazy; not because it is necessarily untrue – science is always up for debate, analysis and perspective – but because our famous oil and gas industries use the heavily spun climate change science conundrum as an excuse to march on; exploiting and destroying our environment and polluting our back yards. Keeping the science speculative and unfounded allows the industry to continue unabated. Not dissimilar, really, to the tobacco industry’s stance over cigarettes and cancer. It’s why their respective industries’ best lawyers are publicly considered scandals but also why they are so well paid – to keep decisive action stalled because inaction, stagnation and uncertainty are lucrative to the perpetrators.

Back to the social media stuff! When I read that Brett Wilson had sided (publicly, really, which is what saying anything on Twitter is, especially when you have over 2,000 followers, as he does) with Sarah Palin’s statement, I was disappointed. Frankly it didn’t surprise me that he was at her event; after all, he is in the oil industry and I think he’s open-minded and would want to experience her three-ringed circus act. But it did and does disturb me that he refutes the science that 98% of all climatologists, who don’t have an agenda for or against climate change, have agreed on. Like a Republican at a gun control conference, he hopes and prays the statistics are wrong, and will argue against them simply to save his livelihood. During today’s cull, I remembered my disappointment and decided to divest him of my allegiance and admonish him in front of my meagre 175 followers because of his stance.

I tweeted, “Sorry @WBrettWilson, you’re an interesting guy, but after saying Palin was bang on about unproven climate change science you got unfollowed.” I wrote that comment because I felt that my follower base would be interested to know that he agreed with Palin and the purported debate surrounding climate change science, and included his Twitter handle because perhaps just maybe he’d read it and know that some people are disappointed by his belief.

My tweet was mostly symbolic. The reality is that no one truly cares about what you have to say; perhaps they get a laugh, or care just enough to make a judgement or an opinion on your comment, and then life goes on. That’s how I approached it, anyway. As with the other 1,400-some tweets I’ve made, regarding everything from overcooked salmon to a government official’s cocaine charges, they are something that I’m prepared to publish but aren’t anything necessarily newsworthy.

Now, most people with status and truly something to lose by saying the wrong thing would disregard my message (if read it at all) and carry on with life. Interestingly, however, he tweeted back to me a short time later. “@c_d_u_b so much for dialogue or debate eh?  another one of those “we know everything” scientists?  oh well – you don’t follow me anyway ..

Is this the part of the conversation where I’m supposed to a) ignore it, b) take it personally, or c) feel threatened, put in my place and run and hide? Well, I’ve always been a d) sort of person, so I decided to carry on with him. I wasn’t speaking out of turn in my opinion. He had shared publicly that he thought climate change was BS, and I shared publicly that he wasn’t worth following to me because of it. Enough said.

But what was most interesting was that he responded at all. Many celebrities tweet. I don’t know how many, but I do know that most do not engage their loyal audience. Their twitter usage is generally one-way communication. They speak, we listen. For them to engage their audience could potentially be a public relations nightmare if they get caught saying the wrong thing, or have what they said taken out of context. As I’ve said before, it’s a revelation for a celebrity or politician to tweet, because we lowly public get to see behind the carefully manipulated brand image (unless the twitter account itself is controlled as part of some larger communications exercise, which happens often). For as much as it can cause concern, tweeting honestly and openly can in some cases reinforce the ethos and character of its author despite straying too far off message on occasion. Such as in this case. Not only did Wilson tweet his opinion on climate change science and Sarah Palin, but he took the time to respond and deal with my accusation head-on. I’m sure part of him was hoping I’d shy away and apologize or something, but what ended up happening was a real engagement of me – some normal, run of the mill guy who does not have millions of dollars or his face splashed all over Canadian public television. And his actions impressed me. They were out of character and entirely genuine for a person of his stature, which seems to be his MO in a lot of ways. He’d rather talk about his opinion and my issue with it than dismiss it altogether.

The back and forth went a few tweets longer over the course of the day, and I’m happy to share them with you here. I’ll mention that shortly after his retaliatory tweet, I received what I initially thought was a random tweet from a woman named Leanne Bucaro, who goes by the Twitter handle @PRChick101. She tweeted: “@c_d_u_b  Your @WBrettWilson about unfollowing re climate change.  Twitter IS being part of the conversation and opinion unfollow=uncool IMO“. Sure, I thought, I’d started a real debate here. But of course, every leaf has two sides and I figured I’d better dig up a little background on her before replying. I Googled her and found that she is a public relations professional whose clients happen to include W. Brett Wilson. Good of her to stand up for her client, I suppose. If Wilson was a little less self-assured, I’m sure she would have stepped in a little harder, advised her client to stay silent and she’d put an end to it. But no, she was merely backing him up and he was continuing on his own tack.

All in all, I think it is remarkable and gentlemanly that he would stand up for his beliefs, no matter what they are, and engage random little me in a 140-character debate. I am proud of him and respect him for it. I decided to refollow him later this afternoon. If everyone on both sides of the climate change conversation could discuss their feelings we might be a bit closer to resolving the issue. While Wilson and I never got down to the nitty gritty, I know that he is now aware of my arguments, and I his. It’s a start.

cdub: Sorry @WBrettWilson, you’re an interesting guy, but after saying Palin was bang on about unproven climate change science you got unfollowed.

WBrettWilson: @c_d_u_b so much for dialogue or debate eh? another one of those “we know everything” scientists? oh well – you don’t follow me anyway ..

cdub: @WBrettWilson I did, Brett, & find you to be an admirable and open-minded guy. but CC science? Come on man. Don’t go tobacco industry on me.

cdub: @WBrettWilson I’d love to chat w/ you about it tho. You’re obviously a good guy. IMO the oil ind. is so protective; they should be proactive

cdub: @WBrettWilson final thought: Will the oil ind. actually shift if the science ever is proven or fight it until the bitter end? What is proof?

WBrettWilson: @c_d_u_b I am open minded – which is why I encourage debate – one side says there is no debate. Reminds me of the Flat Earth Society…

WBrettWilson: @c_d_u_b Why the focus on the OIL and Gas industry when its a pin prick on the map of China’s coal interests. We need all the facts. No?

cdub: @WBrettWilson Following you again. I appreciate that you’re interested in talking about this. More broad conversation is definitely needed.

cdub: @WBrettWilson My focus is on oil & gas b/c it’s happening in my country. How do we encourage change intl’y when we don’t act as role models?

cdub: @WBrettWilson So b/c China is worse we should be off the hook? We should be assuming leadership, not wait for others. Per cap. we’re worse.

cdub: @WBrettWilson lastly – I’m seriously thrilled that you’re into talking about this. Email if you want >140 characters. -address not quoted-

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