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Mark Milke is a Calgary author

Whenever a cause gains traction, it's an enduring human temptation to drift into utopian dream territory. When reality hits – when an economist, engineer or scientist tells backers that their project's numbers don't add up – utopians then turn to governments, which can extend the fantasy much longer but at a cost to real people.

A clear example of this was evident in the previous century. Ideologically inspired command-and-control types ignored human impulses for freedom, trade, price signals and supply and demand. In power, these ideologues imposed economic decisions on behalf of millions of people, and the result was always a black market – a phenomenon still evident in countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. The lesson was that human behaviour and desires cannot be forever ignored.

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Many 21st-century policy debates are now animated by environmental concerns, including the pollution impact of Alberta's oil sands. That's a positive and a result of a richer developed world.

But attention to reality over unworkable schemes yet matters given the stakes for both prosperity and sensible environmentalism.

Example A: Earlier this week, the Alberta government reannounced its plan to slow the rise in carbon emissions.

Last November, the government's own climate leadership report pegged the cost of its initiative at about $500 a year for each electricity consumer in the near term and $1,000 a year later. Over five years and courtesy of an increased carbon tax, the province plans to subsidize 60 per cent of Alberta's consumers at a cost of $2.3-billion for power bill rebates.

It also plans to spend $6.2-billion on subsidies to renewable energy corporations.

Example B: Ontario's leaked carbon plan, which aims to spend $7-billion over four years. The latest Ontario government plan aims to kill off natural-gas-fired electricity, put an electric car in every driveway and throw another $1.2-billion of taxpayer-financed subsidies at businesses to buy newer equipment, which will ostensibly emit less carbon.

This project is in addition to the Ontario government's existing schemes, which are already on track to add $170-billion to Ontarians' power bills between 2006 and 2032.

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Provincial plans that provide subsidies to consumers, offer grants to business and ban lower-priced options are uneconomic and, by definition, anti-reality.

Therein lies a problem. In the same way that 19th- and 20th-century utopians saw a problem (poverty, mass unemployment, poor housing) but chose the wrong goal (strict economic equality for all) and the wrong method (top-down central planning that attempted to spot, interpret and mimic millions of individual decisions and desires), crashing entire economies, the Alberta and Ontario plans on carbon also smack of 20th-century utopianism and central planning.

And both will eventually run into similar brick walls: mathematical reality, human desires, wants and needs – the necessity of heating a home at something less than an exorbitant cost, as just one example.

This is unfortunate because the end goals of a greener planet or fewer carbon emissions (they are not the same thing) are not undesirable, if modest in reach and sensible in means.

But such an end cannot include calls to arrive at zero carbon emissions at any cost and regardless of existing technological constraints inherent in many proposed substitute fuels.

Context: The 20th century's green revolution was a blessing. It left the developed world with cleaner water, less land pollution and purer air. It was also accompanied by advances in energy development and efficiencies that allowed for human needs, wants and comfort.

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That's why, until recently, ordinary people could heat their homes and buy fresh food in winter and at mostly affordable prices most months. That balance worked and worked for most people.

That balance is now routinely threatened by those who would artificially end most or all carbon-based activity.

Think of the LEAP Manifesto, proposed by author Naomi Klein and filmmaker Avi Lewis, which calls for shutting down all gas and oil extraction.

Such proposals have left the realm of reason. They inhabit imagined magical villages and would reverse human lifespans to the preindustrial era, where much of humanity faced lives that philosopher Thomas Hobbes accurately characterized as "poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The utopian impulse is also harmful to the green movement. If you impose ever-higher heating bills on pensioned grandmothers and unemployment on blue-collar workers, the result will be a backlash where future, more sensible green initiatives are met unreceptively.

Better instead to take the advice of Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg: Believe that carbon emissions heat the Earth, but instead of shutting down entire industries and weakening economies, plan to adjust to a warmer world.

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That, and use the market approach in getting to the end goal. Mr. Lomborg has long noted how we managed to wean ourselves from whale oil, and literally saved the whales, because of the technological innovations that allowed for kerosene and then electricity to replace whale oil. Not unimportantly, such replacement fuels were profitable.

Which is perhaps where everything circles back to 20th-century debates.

Ends such as generalized prosperity or a cleaner planet are both desirable. So, too, is a means allowing for actual and not merely imagined improvement, and accounting for humanity.

Reality, including recognizing technological limitations but also the possibility for innovation and the need for markets and profit, is not an enemy of progress in either matters of prosperity or the environment – it is an ally.

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