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The Perception Of Industry

My colleague did not do what I would have done -go to the school, bellow at the teacher and withdraw his child. That would have been an emotionally satisfying course of action, but it would not have a...


December 1, 2008
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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My colleague did not do what I would have done -go to the school, bellow at the teacher and withdraw his child. That would have been an emotionally satisfying course of action, but it would not have addressed the root problem. The root problem is the public’s perception and how they see anything to do with heavy industry: mining, forestry or manufacturing. Most people are very happy to use manufactured items such as cars, houses and computers; they use the Internet, with all the required electronics, cables and other infrastructure; they have homes, possessions and all the things that go into our modern lives. I do not know of any people who grow all their own food, using only items that they themselves have made, living in an abode with zero environmental impact.

I am an industrial chemist. I have worked in the lumber, chemical manufacturing, mining and environmental treatment industries, and now in pulp and paper. I love working with large processes, making them work or work better -making a difference in the way some of the most basic elements necessary for our technological civilization are created or transformed. The work that I do decreases the environmental impact of some of the processes we need to run our world -making them cleaner, cheaper and more efficient. I am proud of what I do!

However, as recently as 50 years ago, there were people who thought the oceans were infinite and could accept an unending stream of any pollutant, or that there would always be sufficient resources. Now, effluent treatment systems in most industries in Canada are among the best in the world; areas mined or logged are reclaimed or replanted. There are limits to where and how resources of any type can be utilized and detailed assessments must be performed on any project. The problems that need to be corrected require technical expertise, good planning and usually lots of money. Shouting or rhetoric -on either side -will not fix these problems. Unfortunately, it is those with the least knowledge who tend to talk the loudest.

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So why is our industry continually perceived as the “bad guy?” The answer is in the question -we are perceived as doing wrong. Show a series of pictures of clear-cut forests to the public and they will proclaim the “perpetrators” criminals. What is not shown are the replanted trees that renew the forests. What is not discussed is the natural cycle of forests – how even they will get old. Is it better to allow an old forest to burn in a summer of fires, or to harvest it safely for the benefit of all?

When I am asked what it is that I do, I answer proudly when describing my work, how I improve the processes I work with and make our world a better place. A new friend may hear much more than he expected when he asks me, “So what do you do?” I welcome questions about my work from friends and neighbours alike, as well as casual acquaintances. Moreover, I have often gotten into detailed discussions about our industries, how they affect the world around us and how they can or cannot be improved.

It is the perception that must be changed -and that is what my colleague did. He did talk to the teacher, but he did not yell or rant. Instead, he provided her with the real information on his industry and offered to give a presentation to her class, the one his daughter was in. He arranged for student tours of local industries and brought others to the class to talk about their industries. He became a regular at the school and turned around the perception of not only his own industry, but others as well. Now, I have an eight-year-old daughter -I have learned from my colleague’s example and I volunteer at my daughter’s school. I too help arrange tours and give talks at other local schools. Even if you are not in a position to make this particular kind of contribution, make sure you tell your friends, relatives and neighbours about what you do and how it helps our society to run effectively and efficiently. After all, perception is reality in the public’s mind -and it is the perception that we must change.

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