Scott rang me to suggest that one of the matters that often appears to be overlooked in any debate over mineral development, is the fact that all human activity impacts on the environment to some extent and that the role of government agencies is to assess whether the benefits of undertaking a particular activity outweigh the negative impacts caused by carrying it out.
To underline his point he related a conversation that he had over lunch with a prominent environmental lobbyist.
In this conversation he ventured that this person was happy to live in and enjoy the amenity that the wonderful city of Darwin provides but that in order to create that built environment, we as a society, and by implication he as an individual, had accepted that there would be a price to be paid by the environment. Habitat would be lost, flora and fauna species may be locally depleted, groundwater, surface water and the air quality would most likely be adversely impacted. Nonetheless, the city was built and continues to be developed.
Perhaps because we all need somewhere to live, food to survive and hopefully a job to fund the former two needs that we find it easy to accept these compromises or perhaps we simply ignore them.
The recommendations of regulators to their political masters on any development, whether it be a housing development, industrial complex or a mine, should be entirely fact based, the result of detailed scientific studies, social impact assessments and economic modelling.
However, the decision on whether or not to approve the development is nearly always made by a politician and in my view politicians rarely let the facts get in the way of their decision-making! They are nearly always swayed by public opinion, or more precisely public outrage and in particular whether they think their decision will enhance or diminish their chances of re-election.
In my opinion the challenge for the mining industry is not in getting the population in general and politicians in particular to understand that every human activity is a trade-off; that much I think is implicit, the true challenge is in dealing with the outrage that often accompanies a proposal.
This challenge can be summed up in the two words, Risk Communication.
In the late 1990’s I attended a seminar in Melbourne given by Dr Peter Sandman. Dr Sandman specialises in Risk Communication and founded the Environmental Communication Research Program (ECRP) at Rutgers University in 1986, and was its Director until 1992.
Dr Sandman coined the equation “Risk = Hazard + Outrage.” Just think about that for a moment. What he is arguing is that risk has two elements, Hazard, the actual physical threat or danger and Outrage, the community response to the Hazard.
Peter Sandman's studies have shown, there is often very little correlation between Hazard and Outrage. In other words an activity or proposed activity can actually have a low danger and yet still trigger enormous public outrage. Conversely he can cite examples where the physical danger is high, yet outrage is at best muted or even non-existent.
Another fact borne out by research conducted at Rutgers, is that we humans are far more responsive to outrage than we are to facts.
To demonstrate the point during the seminar, Dr Sandman related a study that they undertook using 30 paragraphs of text relating to an imaginary accident at an industrial plant. The paragraphs were carefully constructed so that they contained either facts or outrage.
The 30 paragraphs were given to a bunch of journalists and they were given the task of reducing this down to an article suitable for the front page of a newspaper. The journalists duly edited the paragraphs. The results were very interesting because the journalists focused on the paragraphs which conveyed outrage although they did still retain some of those containing facts.
The same 30 paragraphs were then given to a group of newspaper editors, who were asked to undertake the same task. Again they focused on the outrage but still retained one or two facts, but certainly far fewer than the journalists.
Finally the same paragraphs were given to a group of newspaper readers who were assigned the editing task. This group removed all of the facts and left only paragraphs containing outrage.
There are three take away's from this story, firstly we as readers never let the facts get in the way of our outrage, secondly we therefore get the newspapers that we deserve or at least desire and finally, once the outrage horse has bolted it is difficult if not impossible to get it back in the stable.
The evolution of Social media over recent years has, by the way, provided the outraged with an easily accessible and ready platform to air their anger and it works far more effectively for those outraged than those trying to quell the anger. Dr Sandman recently wrote an article titled “10 Things You Need to Know about Outrage Management and Social Media”. (Please refer to the references at the end of this article)
One of the other aspects of Risk Communication that Dr Sandman talks about are the "Publics". Yes that's correct, plural!
He divides the population into four concentric circles. At its core are the "Fanatics" those leading the charge. In Peter Sandmans words, "You know their telephone numbers by heart, and they know yours. They want input into everything you decide. Your issue is their main interest aside from job and family". I have had first hand experience of this!
Surrounding those are the "Attentives", "They monitor the media on your issue carefully. Once in a while they want to attend a meeting or answer a survey. Your issue is in their top 20."
Then we have the "Browsers", "They check you out in the media from time to time, but they don’t want to be bothered providing input. Your issue is on their “worry list,” but way at the bottom."
And finally the "Inattentives", "They don’t know and they don’t want to know."
The key is therefore to engage with the Fanatics because the way that they respond influences the way that the broader population will behave, in particular the Attentives and the Browsers. (For those looking for Dr Sandman's advice on dealing with the "Publics", refer to the link to sand40.pdf in the References section at the end of this post)
So what does the mining industry needs to do?
Firstly there is a need for openness, a need to talk at an early stage, with the communities and stakeholders that our potential activities may impact upon. Be truthful will them as to how a project may develop, what they can expect from you during each stage of development, from exploration through to construction and operation. Invite questions, be open and responsive to people's concerns and provide them with relevant factual information regarding their particular concerns. Identify who the Fanatics are and make sure that you are engaged in a dialogue with them.
When it comes time for an environmental impact assessment, in an ideal world Dr Sandman argues that if the meaning of scientific data can be agreed in advance then this will defuse much of the potential for outrage because there is a shared understanding of its meaning.
For example, before any studies are commenced, if it is agreed between the proponent and the community that, if the discharge water from a project changes the chemistry of the receiving water by more than certain limits, then it would either mean that the project could not proceed or that an alternative means of treating the water prior to discharge would have to be employed, even if that were a more expensive alternative for the proponent.
By gaining consensus on the meaning of the outcomes of studies it defuses the opportunity for outrage even getting started.
Developing my previous example of the water discharge. If the proponents scientific advisers and the communities scientific advisers; normally the regulators, agree that a 10% change in the certain elements of the water chemistry is perfectly acceptable and as a result of the studies, it is determined that these parameters will change by approximately 8%. Then by prior agreement this is a totally acceptable outcome.
However, were the proponent to undertake the same studies and deliver this outcome without prior discussion and agreement, there is the potential for someone opposed to the project to seize on the 8% change in the chemistry and fan the flames of indignant outrage, “how can this mining company be allowed to impact receiving waters to such an extent?”
As you can see from these two scenarios, none of the facts have changed yet an opportunity has been created for significant outrage to be generated from something, that by agreement would have been an acceptable impact.
We have all seen the newspaper articles and headlines with emotive phrases such as, "the food bowl of Australia", or, "this pristine environment". I'm sure readers could contribute many of the own examples of such impassioned statements. The factual evidence may differ starkly for the perception created by these emotional phrases.
So my recommendation to the mining industry is to get on the front foot, talk to your community and other stakeholders, and discuss what the impacts might be and gain agreement on what is acceptable and what would require an alternative approach to be taken. Agreement will never be unanimous, but if the majority of community opinion is agreed on the meaning of certain outcomes, then those who would promote outrage will find it harder to gain traction.
I also highly recommend that anyone involved in gaining approvals for mining developments attends one of Dr Sandman's seminars or at least takes the trouble to read some of the many articles that he has written on the subject.
I did a toy with the idea that I would use the "Lock The Gates", or the "Frack Off" logos as the image to associate with this article as a way of highlighting the type of outrage that is sometimes triggered by proposed resource developments. However, on reflection, whilst it may perhaps have made the point, I decided against giving these lobby groups web space but instead chose some rather old, but nonetheless poignant stickers that used to be distributed by the Minerals Council of Australia.
There will be no blog next week as I shall be attending the Africa Down Under conference. If you are attending, then please come and seek me out.