The perception of industry
I have a colleague who had an eight-year-old daughter. He was furious when she came home from school one day, asking tearfully why he was destroying the planet. As it happens, when the child was explaining what her father did for a living during a classroom discussion (he works at a mill on a mine site), her teacher told the class that the child’s father was ruining the environment and destroying the planet.
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 address the root problem. The root problem is how the public sees anything to do with heavy industry.
Most people are very happy to use manufactured items such as cars, houses and computers; they utilize the Internet, with all the required electronics, cables and other infrastructure; and 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 myself am an industrial chemist. I have worked in lumber, chemical manufacturing, mining, environmental treatment and pulp & 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, more efficient. I am proud of what I do!
However, as recently as 50 years ago, some people thought the oceans were infinite and could accept an unending stream of any pollutant. Now, effluent treatment systems in most industries in Canada are among the best in the world. Areas mined or logged are reclaimed; 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. These problems will not be fixed by shouting or rhetoric — on either side. Unfortunately, it is those with the least knowledge who tend to talk the loudest.
So why are we still perceived as the bad guys? The answer is in the question — we are perceived as doing wrong. When I am asked what it is that I do, I answer proudly describing my work, how I improve processes 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 both friends and neighbours as well as casual acquaintances. And 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 talked to the teacher, but did not yell or rant. Instead, he provided her with the real information on his industry and offered to do a presentation to her class, the one his daughter was in. He arranged for student tours of local industry 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 learned from my colleague’s example and I volunteer at my daughter’s school. I help arrange tours and give talks at other local schools.
Even if you are not in a position to do that, make sure you tell your friends, relatives and neighbours about what you do and how it helps our society to run. As I once saw on a bumper sticker, “If it cannot be grown, it must be mined!”
Freelance writer Dan Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.