Social licence is not licence to operate

Social licence is a buzz phrase that has caught on with the public, largely because it is unregulated and issued by the court of public opinion.

Anyone can claim to offer one, from tiny interest groups to big governments, whenever it best suits their needs.

They often do so when no real licence is available to them, at least not one that they want.

There are plenty of real licences in agriculture, plus economic barriers to entry, also known as reality checks. Most real licenses involve scientific and legal analysis, along with political review and democratic approvals. The economic ones tend to keep out destabilizing, fly-by-night operators.

However, if those tools aren’t working for your cause, whether it be opposition to genetic modification, animal agriculture, oil production, pipeline construction or the mandatory vaccination of children, then pull out your court of public opinion social licence requirement.

This licence will likely have been validated by the internet, media talk shows and irresponsible journalists and publishers. It won’t have been approved through the normal channels.

When industries such as agriculture are reminded that it needs a social licence to operate, we are really saying the court of public opinion has to be with you. That unsanctioned court often assembles juries of the under-informed to sit in judgment of technology and economics for crimes of complexity and ineffective communication.

I have spoken to a couple of farm groups recently about communication in our not-so-modern world, which believes that enlightenment is attained by spending all its free time in the library of the internet. I reminded these groups of the Canadian agricultural social licence and the need to claim their rights to it. The bad news is that the fee for a social licence tends to be rather high if you are still using your grandfather’s version.

We all have to pony up for this one if we want to keep operating more-or-less the way we always have, based on economics, science and safety and in the true public interest.

To do this requires a reliable, well-fed free press, informed politicians and strong professional associations that avoid the shrill ex-tremisms and claims of catastrophe when describing the future.

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