THE public hysteria surrounding the proposed Tasmanian pulpmill shows that the logging of native forests remains one of Australia’s hottest environmental topics. This is surprising given that sustainable wood production is now permitted within just a net 6 per cent portion of the nation’s public forests, it is highly regulated, and it is regarded as among the best managed in the world. As an environmental threat, the government’s Australia State of the Forests Report, regards logging as insignificant.
Despite this, it has become politically incorrect to support native hardwood production as a sensible and responsible use of a naturally renewable resource. Those who do so are routinely vilified as I was last week when a letter I had published in The Age newspaper drew responses that scorned me as an “industry apologist trying to keep us in the dark ages” and a “spin doctor” who “relies on the public being fools”.
In the past, I have also been described as a “mouthpiece for the logging industry” or the “pro-logging lobby”, which is apparently “blind to the bigger picture of global crisis”. I have been called a “forest raper” and a “pro-logging, anti-life person”. Others believe I am “motivated by short term greed” and “headed towards my own demise”. I am apparently one of those “people who can chop, hunt, maim, kill, exploit, dominate and destroy in the name of progress and jobs” and I have been likened to “the captain of the Titanic refusing to believe that your enterprise is fatally flawed”.
When I have made the point that wood production is planned and controlled by foresters on a scientific basis, my professional discipline has been described as an “anti-science rooted in greed and domination” and a “science that fosters death”. Although the facts about forestry are readily accessible from government sources, my critics have described them as “twisted deceptions, cover-ups, hidden agreements between power brokers who care little for the welfare of our planet”. They are apparently “nothing but justifications for an evil that is supported by governments, corporations, and those who cannot see beyond their own narrow interests”.
I am no “logger”, but a forest scientist with five years of tertiary training including a university degree, and additionally, close to 30 years of experience including the last 13 years as a self-employed consultant involved with both plantations and native forests. However, despite this extensive grounding, any attempt to add an informed and rational voice to the forestry debate is met with a stream of personally vindictive bile.
It would be surprising if any other scientific discipline has endured such public disrespect and vitriolic contempt as forestry. This mostly emanates from career activists who – through “green” conservation groups – have engendered a supporter base that is largely drawn from an inner urban populace who know little about forestry. These include our brightest, most articulate, and highly educated people who are not normally prone to follow populist causes without firm justification. Remarkably though, when it comes to environmental issues, many need only the flimsiest of evidence to drop their rational reticence and morph into self-righteous and emotional “save-the-whatever” advocates.
This over-the-top and largely irrational support for environmental causes is increasingly being enhanced by enthusiastic, but ill-advised celebrity activists with ready access to a fawning media. This is a social phenomena that has been magnified in recent weeks by the near hero-worship of Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan for his efforts in opposing forestry and industry development in his home state. This was the subject of a recent episode of Australian Story on ABC television (November 3, 2008) and was informally discussed in a follow-up appearance on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne (November 12, 2008).
Richard Flanagan is undoubtedly an intelligent and passionate man with a great love of the environment. A Rhodes Scholar and skilled wordsmith, he is admired for publicly standing-up for beliefs that are in equal measure as unpopular as popular in the stifling hot-bed of emotion which continues to swirl around the forestry debate in both his Tasmanian community and beyond.
For this, Flanagan is feted among the literati, the media, and the intellectual elite; particularly in the urbane mainland states which are farthest removed from the issue. Despite having no scientific training or experience in forest management, he has for many Australians, become the oracle on Tasmanian forestry and all its perceived or actual social ills.
That his every pronouncement on this issue has for many become an undeniable truth, was effectively confirmed at the recent 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards when his 4,000-word essay, “Out of Control: The Tragedy of Tasmania’s Forests”, was awarded the John Curtin Prize for Journalism.
“Out of Control” was published in The Monthly in May 2007 at the height of the Gunns pulp mill debate and was heavily publicised during the 2007 federal election campaign when a wealthy businessman used it as part of his personal mission to unseat then Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. In assessing the essay, the award judges correctly described it as a “piece of advocacy journalism with no pretence at balance”, but substantially erred in describing it at the same time as a “fact-rich piece … full of great anecdotes and telling details”.
If Flanagan knows the facts about Tasmanian forestry he has never publicly acknowledged them nor allowed them to get in the way of a good story. Indeed, after the publication of “Out of Control”, the then federal Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Eric Abetz, noted that it contained some 70 “deliberate or inexcusably negligent errors of fact, selective citing of fact, or twisting of facts”.
This included ignoring the most basic information, such as that 47 per cent of Tasmania’s native forests, including 79 per cent (or about 1 million hectares) of its “old growth” forests, are contained in parks and reserves where wood production is excluded, whilst a substantial part of the balance is unsuited to timber harvesting. Recently, the United Nations World Heritage Reactive Monitoring team concluded that tall Eucalyptus forest in Tasmania is “well-managed for both conservation and development objectives”.
Flanagan’s reluctance to discuss Tasmanian forestry in its proper perspective in “Out of Control” is understandable because it would have invalidated his essay’s central theme that “the rape of Tasmania will continue until one day, like so much else that was precious, its great forests will belong only to myth”.
This studious neglect of the full story of Tasmanian forestry is ironic given that in an interview with the ABC”s Ramona Koval last January, Flanagan complained that his most recent book was written “with a sense of growing distress about what had happened in Australia, the way that anything seemed to be able to be said except the truth, that we were in a prison with these terrible lies, … and we couldn”t break out of it”.
The lauding of Flanagan says much about the media’s unhealthy preoccupation with celebrity and the extent to which writers, actors, artists, chefs, gardeners, film directors, rock stars and sports persons are given opportunities to influence public thought, whilst those who actually know more and work with the issues are largely ignored.
In addition, forestry is one of a number of environmental topics where some elements of the news media have become activist advocates rather than objective reporters from whom we can expect balanced commentary.
The easy media accessibility enjoyed by Flanagan is obvious to anyone who watched Australian Story. Heaping him with praise were two veteran journalists – Martin Denholm (of The Australian) and Charles Wooley (formerly of Channel Nine); as well as Maurie Schwartz (owner of The Monthly), and internationally-acclaimed filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann. The program’s only dissenting voice belonged to former Tasmanian Premier, Paul Lennon, who has been so denigrated on previous ABC programs that his views were effectively discredited even before he spoke.
The unquestioning support for the celebrity view of Tasmanian forestry is also evident in the following exchanges from ABC Radio 774 Melbourne – the Conversation Hour (November 12, 2008):
Flanagan (referring to Tasmania): There is a great crime that has taken place and continues to take place there. I’m no hero, and I don’t actually do that much, but …. I’d feel ashamed if I didn’t do my bit.
Libby Price (ABC Presenter): You have done enough though. You copped it big time from the former Premier Paul Lennon. I was really taken aback at how venomous he was in “Australian Story”.
Bryce Courtenay (author): You said it Libby, that was a wonderful adjective. As though there was some ulterior motive there, when the only motive was to keep the most beautiful island on earth pristine.
Libby Price: It really was extraordinary, and he almost accused you of using your power of language to give a false impression. He doesn’t like you much.
Bryce Courtenay (author): I can’t understand why people don’t get onto their websites, get onto their superannuation funds and say “Don’t buy shares on my behalf in those companies that cut down trees” We could stop it that easily.
Mark Dapin (Program co-host and author – referring to his first visit to Tasmania): I was astonished driving through hills denuded of forest cover. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I couldn’t believe that people had allowed that to happen. I can still remember the feeling of rage now. ….. Chainsaw graffiti.
Given Australia is among the world’s top five consumers of wood and paper products, and that book authors such as Flanagan, Courtenay, and Dapin are especially reliant on paper; their views on forestry are incredibly ironic and display a naïvety and lack of consideration for the consequences of what they are espousing.
In so far as public policy is to a large extent determined by popular opinion, this type of media coverage is extremely damaging. There is no opportunity to respond. It is almost inconceivable that a forester or industry representative with day-to-day practical knowledge of the issues could ever get the media opportunities of a Richard Flanagan, let alone the many opportunities available to media presenters to subtly peddle uninformed personal agendas.
This raises an important question of public interest given the capacity for agenda-driven celebrities to create a flawed conventional wisdom that can lead to poor outcomes precisely because they do not understand or care about the consequences of what they are striving for. Even something so apparently benign as closing the native hardwood industry is ill-advised because timber is the most environmentally-friendly building material and reducing its availability will have such effects as:
1. Increase demand for substitute rainforest timber imports given that we have few hardwood plantations capable of supplying sawn timber of equivalent quality. We already import a quantity of tropical timber products from suspicious origins (i.e. presumed to be illegally logged and unsustainable) that in round log equivalent is approaching the combined annual native hardwood sawlog harvest from Tasmania and Victoria;
2. Weaken the acknowledged link between the strength of the rural sector and the capability to manage fire, which is by far the greatest threat to the ecological integrity of Australian forests and its associated values, such as water; and
3. Increase demand for substitute products such as steel, aluminium, and concrete whose production and manufacture involves greenhouse gas emissions up to hundreds of times greater per unit.
On Australian Story, Richard Flanagan drew a close to his active opposition to Tasmania’s forest industry citing personal and family stress. However, it is difficult to feel much sympathy given that he has played such a major role in helping to create a grossly distorted negative view of Tasmanian forestry and, some would say, Tasmanian life in general. This has provoked considerable insecurity among those thousands of people who work in jobs that are threatened by little more than false premises. They stand in stark contrast to the secure and relatively luxurious lifestyles of those celebrities who continue to be ill-informed, but outspoken critics of Tasmanian forestry.
The media’s preoccupation with celebrity activism will always feed ill-informed populist views that ignore proportionality and lack perspective, and will ensure that natural resource conflicts are resolved by media opportunities focused on conflict rather than facts and achievements. The merit and morality of shaping critical environmental policies in this way is a theme that the media really should explore.
Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a member of the Institute of Foresters and the Association of Consultant Foresters, and author of the book ‘Saving Australia’s Forests and its Implications’.
This article was first published on the ABC Unleashed website on November 24, 2008, then at On Line Opinion on December 2008.
The photograph was taken in the Huon Valley in May 2005 by Jennifer Marohasy.