Forest Voices: Looking beyond what you see
One of the things I try – it’s really not easy - to keep front of mind when meeting a new person is the need to look beyond what I see. There have been so many times in my life when my prejudices have been proven completely wrong. I’ve found myself assuming one thing about a person – usually based on their appearance and often something quite negative – only to find the absolute opposite is true. I feel ashamed when this happens, when I’ve given in to those negative perceptions.
We have a delightful habit of being different and it’s our differences that so enrich the world we live in. At the same time, it’s almost always our differences and our rush to judgement over why they exist that divide us. Our conclusion that we’re divided often leads to conflict as we try to impose our world-view on those we deem different. “Different’ is almost always interpreted as “inferior”.
We each have our own prejudices, drummed into us from an early age by our parents, peers and the culture we grow up in. As we get older, these prejudices can be hardened as we read news, follow certain folk on social media or generally just choose things to look at and listen to that fit with who we are. We’re comfortable in cliques, in circles of folk speaking the same language and voicing the same prejudices. We avoid engaging with those we’re prejudiced against; at least in part. A lot of it is borne from fear – they’re weird, they look different, they do things differently, it’s scary. Staying safe means staying within your pack, your tribe and being ready to attack and demean another if they get too close, too strong, too dominant.
In Australia, we like to have a go at “bogans”, perceived low-life from the Western suburbs. We have the same prejudiced view of “red-necks”; folk from the bush or those who work outside, no education, no culture, the sun has cooked their brains. We mock and demean their clothes, the way they speak, their politics, the way they live. And let's not even start to speak about the way many Australians view indigenous Australians.
In my work, I see prejudice all the time. Companies tend to look at those who work for NGOs as folk that don’t wash, that hug trees, who smoke drugs and sponge off philanthropic foundations for a meagre living. They see NGO attacks as clever marketing, paid for by foundations, that keep the “NGO gravy train” running.
NGOs have their own prejudices. Companies are evil empires and anyone who works for or with them must be evil too. Company leaders don’t care about people, the environment, they only care about money and are all too ready to destroy lives and the planet for their personal gain. Low-life indeed.
Like all prejudices, these come from somewhere - where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I don’t doubt that on both sides, we can all cite examples where the prejudice is more or less true. And yet…
It’s also true that there are some sensationally good people working for both NGOs and companies - people who care about people, about the environment, who care about animals and plants and don’t want to be linked to bad things. Yet bad things sometimes happen, not because the people who do them are bad, but just because bad stuff happens sometimes. Things change, we learn more but perhaps we don’t move to a better place fast enough. Companies keep doing the things they’ve always done, even if those things are causing destruction and suffering. So often I've found that they do them not because they like to cause destruction and suffering, they do them because that’s the industry norm and changing norms is, well, difficult; the power of tradition is not to be under-estimated.
Likewise NGOs…we don’t talk to companies! Talking gets you nowhere. We need more money to run more campaigns, that’s how we’ll save the planet, “beat the bastards down”. When companies do get the need for change and want to talk, they don’t always find a sympathetic ear inside NGOs. Companies and the people who work for them are written off, never the ‘twain shall meet.
These might be generalisations, of course there are people on both sides ready to talk and listen but from my experience, they’re rare. And this brings me to my experience with Enviva.
Back in April 2016, when I first met folk who work for Enviva, I found a group of people who were determined despite constant, aggressive attack from NGOs deriding the company practices. NGOs argued that Enviva was the villain destroying the forests of the US South East and everyone working for the company was complicit in the destruction. Yes, they were evil.
I found people who had a different view of the work they were doing. They’d gone into producing biomass because they felt it was good for the environment, for people, for the planet. They understood the need to constantly improve practices and were taking the NGO campaigns seriously. They were also pushing back against what they felt to be unfair criticisms.
At a most basic level, I met good people. I was mostly impressed by the approach the people were taking, trying to listen, trying to change. They were still doing some things that wanted changing – aren’t we all? – and were in part guilty of writing off the NGOs as professional campaigners not interested in solutions. That said, their minds were open to a different perspective and they accepted my challenge on such prejudices. I enjoyed meeting these people…yes…people, not evil red-neck troglodytes. People who accepted things had gone wrong in places, but people who were working hard to set those things to right. Good people.
When I mentioned this to Enviva’s Chairman and CEO John Keppler, he was justifiably proud, but remained wary of the potential for negative reaction should he do more to get the voices of these good people out there, to tell the story of the work they do.
So I said to John that I would come back one time and record some discussions with his good people.
I keep saying over and over like a badly scratched record, that the only way we’re ever going to make progress on the troubling issues that confront us is if we sit down and speak to people, good people who often hold very different world views to us; like I said, it isn’t easy. Yet despite these differences, I’ve always found that there are real and very deep human connections between us all.
We all worry about our families. We all worry about the future. We all have loves and passions and from experience, so often, the worries, loves, passions and beliefs of those who work for companies and NGOs are not as far apart as folk imagine.
And so I did get back, in April this year, to Enviva and I did interview eight Enviva people. I interviewed another three folk who are linked to Enviva’s operations – a logger, a forester, and a land owner. I didn’t ask them about their jobs so much – just a little bit to set the scene of what they do. Instead, I wanted to learn about them. About who they were, how they came to be in the forest industry, about what inspires them, what worries them.
What I found – how surprising! – is that they’re all good people. They’re inspired by their parents, their wives, they love forests, often because they love hunting which of course is a different passion from what most NGO folk would have. They love their families and have aspirations to live their lives to the fullest, to travel, to be the best they can be. Often, they’re inspired by their faith.
You can listen here to a compilation of their answers to the question: "What inspires you?" I found this to be particularly beautiful.
I was inspired by them! I wasn’t surprised but I did love recording the conversations. They just confirmed to me the strong sense I have that people are good people, wherever they are from, whatever their race or skin colour, whether they work in a city-based office or outdoors, however they vote, whatever their accent. It was my pleasure and privilege to speak to these good people.
I want to be clear that I’m not taking sides here. I didn’t get to speak to any NGOs. I did try to connect with one but no one replied. It doesn’t matter; I know with 100% certainty that they’re good people too, wonderful folk in fact, passionate about exactly the same things as the Enviva people.
So…my point is that if we can set aside our prejudices and our fears, our sometimes vitriolic hatred of another, of each other’s tribe, and actually sit down and speak together, from a place of acceptance and listening, then we stand a much better chance of solving some of the concerns we each have, some of the most pressing problems we face in the world today.
So I offer here recordings of my podcasts with these Enviva people, people from the forest – yes, from the forest industry, but no less Forest Voices – in the hope that their beautiful, imperfect and fragile humanity will shine through and someone might stop, just for a moment and say, “They sound like nice folk.”
You can listen here to a compilation of their answers to the question: "What is your greatest disappointment?"
My thanks go to:
Don Grant, Aaron Boyd, Elizabeth Smith, Dennis Vick, Kim Cesafsky, Brad Antill, Vince Taylor, Phil Bain, Lauren Killian, Kyle Prendergast and Lee Jackson for being good human beings and for stopping from your work for a moment to record something of your story with me.
Thanks also to all those NGO folk who are yet to record a moment of their story with me but who nonetheless are equally sensational people.
I hope that you might all come together one day soon as good folk and speak about what inspires and worries each of you, to discover the common ground that unites you and to use that as a bridge to grapple with the things that divide you. If you all could do that, I am certain that the discussion would help you all to make the world a much better place.
Below are links to the podcasts. I have also posted them on the Cooee! Podcasts page.
If you'd like to know why my podcasts are called Cooee! Podcasts, click here
I hope you enjoyed that and that you can find some time to listen to the podcasts, at least the two compilations. If you'd like to get notified whenever I post something new, scroll down and fill in the wee form below.
And, if you fancy some poetry and thoughts, my colleague Julien Troussier has recently launched his own website. The White Shadow is worth a read.