AMERICAN forestry industry identity Bruce Vincent senses that society is ready for a new vision about the environment, and approaches to its management.
A third-generation logger from Montana, congressional expert and professional speaker who specialises in how industries can respond to changing consumer expectations, Mr Vincent delivered an inspiring and at times emotion-charged presentation to a Beef 2015 seminar audience recently.
“Society is tired of hearing about what’s wrong with the environment, and instead is ready to start hearing about what’s possible. What’s more, they’re tired of hearing the shouting from environmentalists, and want to hear from ‘real-people’, on the ground, who are empathising with their concerns and can educate them on what is happening in the environmental field, that they can embrace,” he said.
Mr Vincent said society’s ‘old environmental movement’, while perhaps timely and necessary at the time, had failed to mature beyond the three-word vision of ‘stop doing that.’
“But when the world is supporting nine billion souls, ‘stop doing that’ no longer cuts it. We need a new environmental vision built on hope instead of fear; science instead of emotion; education instead of litigation; resolution instead of conflict; and employing rather than destroying human resources.
“Communities want to know that there’s hope for the planet; they want to know we, as stakeholders, are working on answers that they can accept. They are starving for a new vision for the environment, and that has to be our goal,” he said.
Mr Vincent’s presentation provided valuable insights for the Australian cattle industry, based on his experience over the past 30 years in losing, and now slowly regaining community support and confidence in the US timber industry.
His family’s timber business in Montana had come under considerable pressure from environmental sector over the past 30 years.
“The same kind of crossroads that animal agriculture is currently facing started happening in our community three decades ago,” he said.
He saw parallels between the two industries in a deep sense of stewardship and conservation for the environment among stakeholders, and like beef, his industry was 97 percent dependent on family-scale operators.
Public perception rules
But something was wrong in rural resource communities.
Mr Vincent said policy was no longer dictated by reality, but by the public perception of reality.
He quoted famous American cowboy actor Will Rogers who once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that’s the problem – it’s what you know that ain’t so, that’s the problem.”
“Society as a whole knows a great deal about ‘what ain’t so’ in the rural areas in which we live, and which you grapple with on a daily basis in trying to provide them with the commodity that you produce,” he said.
Mr Vincent illustrated his point with the case of his much-loved forest areas in Montana, which the native Americans had managed for thousands of years, through the use of fire.
“Now we have a forest that the native americans have not been managing for 200 years, and it’s sick, because it is over-stocked with too many trees that should have been thinned by intermittent fire.
“It’s created a serious fuel problem. We could deal with that, by going out into the forest and selectively harvest some of those ‘tubes of carbon’ (trees), processing them into a valuable product for a consuming population, and then introduce low ground-hugging fire to the forest to kill the little trees, make grass grow, and create habitat for the species we share the eco-system with.
But that isn’t what’s happening, because the rest of society had a different vision for the forestry industry’s future. Lobbyists in the US, who supported ‘natural’ methods of forest management, mounting lawsuits that eventually stopped all forms of forest management in Montana.
“The forest is now being managed by nature, not by man, and it’s not going as well as the public though it ought to. There’s too much fuel, and instead of those low fires that should have been burning more frequently, there’s now what’s called a ‘fuel ladder’ which creates intense, out-of control fires that destroy both trees and wildlife.”
The local area now has three million acres of trees, and no sawmill, for the first time in 100 years. His business which previously employed 65 people now has no staff.
“My industry effectively lost its social license to operate. In my country, the public said, ‘No, we don’t like your practises, we don’t like what you’re doing, and they regulated our license away. We lost it.”
As a result, Mr Vincent said society was now treading a thin line between environmental sensitivity and what he called ‘environmental insanity.’
“There is something wrong in our rural areas – particularly when professional litigants have more to do with what’s going on than professional resource managers,” he said.
Public policy on an important issue like the environment was in many cases being based on views from such notable experts as ‘Dr Meryl Streep’, ‘Dr Woody Harrelson’ or ‘Dr Ted Turner.’
“These folks spew their mis-information, dis-information, half-truths and pseudo-science to an unknowing public, and the media publishes it as the truth – and that is what public policy is being based on,” he said.
Mr Vincent suggested the ‘lens’ that the public used to run this stuff through the ‘test for truth’ was “50 years of Disney movies.”
“They’ve been sold this Bambi-like utopia, where there is only harmony and balance. At the 20 minute point in every Disney movie, who shows up? Man. Man is portrayed as the bad guy, the anti-environmentalist. Nature is good, man is evil.”
“In the past ten years Disney has fine-tuned that argument. It’s now ‘capitalist’ man, who wants to make a living from such areas. Capitalism is seen as the biggest threat to our planet. Think Avatar.”
“But in reality, the leading degrader of environments across the world is not profit: it’s poverty. Poverty is driving some nations to push environmental management way into the background, behind more immediate needs of food for tomorrow night, clothing, shelter, water.
The truth was that ecology and economy are joined at the hip, he suggested.
“If we don’t have a healthy, vigorous, profit-making economy, then we don’t have the economic luxury of caring for the environment. My country has forgotten that we are having the environmental debate because we are rich enough to.”
“We want to consume – it’s just production that we don’t like. We don’t like asphalt plants – we just want a road. We want cheap energy, it’s just oil pumping that we don’t like.”
“We want our food to be abundant, pretty, cheap and safe. It’s just soil management, nutrient management and livestock management we don’t like. We want a McDonald’s burger, but we don’t want a cow killed.”
Society had effectively crossed the line between environmental sensitivity and environmental insanity, he said.
“We’re driving production into third world countries that are using production systems that we quit 30 years ago, and we’ll call it ‘green’ because we don’t have to look at the production process.”
Ignorance is the real enemy
The solution, in Mr Vincent’s opinion, is in fighting the real enemy: ignorance, both ours and the broader community’s.
“The community’s ignorance is fertile ground for those people who want to sell these mistruths,” he said. “The public by and large also remains ignorant of who we are and what we do.”
“Our own ignorance is in not recognising the importance of leading this discussion, and not just fighting it.”
So what needs to be done?
“The first thing we need to do is address what the public needs. I think that means the truth, warts and all. We need to build trust with the public, because if we are going to tell them the truth, they have to trust the messenger. And we need transparency, so they can verify what they think we are telling them.”
Secondly, resource managers like beef producers needed to learn how to lead this discussion, and not just react to it.
“Listen to the public, rather than simply rebut the critics. Hear what they are saying and what they’re concerned about.”
‘In our case, we developed a vision for the future of forestry, based on general earth summit sustainability principles, providing for needs today, without compromising the next generation’s ability to do the same. We got legislators, communities and the public to adopt it.”
The result was the Healthy Forests initiative signed by President Bush. It was regarded as the most progressive forest language document in more than 100 years in America.
“But because we fought the process for so long, rather than trying to lead the discussion, we lost our social license. Its only now that we are winning it back, a little bit at a time.”
He also levelled a warning that the global ‘conflict industry’ needed a new ‘Pinyata’ to hit.
“The forestry Pinyata is not selling as well as it used to. The next Pinyata is going to be anything that has to do with water and animals. That puts agriculture squarely in the cross-hairs.”
“What can agriculture do? Don’t repeat our mistake,” Mr Vincent said.
He offered three truths to apply when trying to lead the debate, as the industry needed to:
It’s not a spectator sport. We tend to expect our leaders to take stands for common-sense agriculture. We all need to be engaged in the democratic process, supporting policy makers who understand our realities and who have the courage to stand for us.
When people lead, leaders follow. Industry needs to engage with leaders of all types about how it’s possible to have good animal welfare and environmental outcomes, within a sustainable livestock industry.
The world is run by those who show up: We need to be attending to this discussion. That can happen at a local community level, right through to national level.
Four tips for producers in engagement
Mr Vincent used the acronym, HELP, to offer four tips for producers to use in the environmental debate.
‘H’ stood for humanise, as in the need to humanise the discussion. The ‘talking head’ of industry is not always a believable image for the public at large. This was no longer a fight that would be won on the front page of newspapers, but won in living rooms and over backyard fences, in human terms. Nobody was better equipped to deliver that than the Australian rancher. “You are best equipped to tell your story, and you’re the most believable source.”
‘E’ stood for empathising, with the public. Listening and understanding their concerns and what they understood to be the real issues, and then not laughing at them. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. They are trying to make difficult decisions on a very complex issue. Only then was it worth engaging in and transmitting the industry’s environmental, animal welfare, and food safety initiatives – make them your own and then transmit those messages to the public. They want to know that you care, and that you’re doing something. The message needed to assure the public is: “I am listening; I understand; I respect, and perhaps even share your concerns; and I am part of the answer to your concerns.” You won’t maintain your social license to operate unless you get to that last part: being seen as part of the answer the public is seeking to its concerns, Mr Vincent said.
‘L’ stood for listening, in identifying the individual questions and concerns, and communicating the answer in simple English – no research white papers. ‘L’ also stood for local, in worrying about your local area, rather than what’s happening in Sydney or Melbourne. Share your message with your family friends and colleagues first -they then become your ambassadors.
‘P’ stands for participate. “I ask all rural people to add one line-item to their business plan: that is, to find time each week for a little activism, advocacy, doing something to contribute to the process. It’s perhaps taking one hour out of your business week to engage in selling the message.”
Mr Vincent said the advantage the beef industry had over his own industry’s experience in the timber industry was the tools now at the industry’s disposal.
“Things like industry and academic leadership programs, ground-based conservation initiatives, like the Grazing BMP program, MLA’s Target 100 program. Become a functioning member of AgForce or Cattle Council. You should be owning that stuff,” he said.
Social media was another priceless tool that did not exist when the US forestry industry first came under pressure, “It possible for producers to talk with thousands of people at the push of a few bottons. Social media needs to be used by everyone to engage – it is your new backyard fence,” he said.
“The real new environmental movement needs to be about those incremental changes in our business practices, learning how to do a little bit better job each day, in taking care of the earth.
“Think about the processes you use in your production regime every day that were not even considered 30 years ago. That’s the real movement, in continuing to learn how to do just a little better job each day ion taking care of the earth, while providing consumables for the human race.”
- Bruce Vincent’s visit to Beef Australia to speak at AgForce’s seminar was supported by Meat & Livestock Australia.