Can you work as an environmental consultant without losing your soul?
As director of program development at The Environmental Careers Organization, Kevin Doyle knows a thing or two about job searching. In this recurring column for Grist, he explores the green job market and offers advice to eco-job-seekers looking to jumpstart their careers.
I have been working in the environmental consulting field for several years now. I must admit, I’m quite disillusioned due to clients who simply don’t care about the environment. I turn away projects when I realize the goal is to use me to produce an assessment that removes their responsibility. When I explain that the data cannot be altered, many attempt to offer more money, but end up choosing to find another consultant. I want to return to why I entered this field in the beginning. I’m 40 years old now, and I need to make a change. Where does this idealist go from here? — Jacqueline M.
Is there something in the water, Gristers? Recent calls and emails are bringing plaintive cries from 40-something environmental professionals all over the country.
It’s not only people like Jacqueline in the so-called “environmental industry.” I’m hearing from federal, state, and local government employees, environmental officers at corporations, academics, and even a few activist types. Just this week at a pollution-prevention conference in Atlanta, I listened to a state government environmental leader declare flatly that the permitting work her team spent “thousands of hours on” was producing little or no additional benefit for people or the natural world. No one seemed shocked and appalled. No one suggested she was being too negative. Most everyone nodded and shrugged as if to say “tell me something I don’t already know.”
The message I’m getting is that many of the people who have been toiling in the greener part of the vineyard for years have begun to suspect that they may be part of a game — one that’s better at keeping expensive professionals gainfully employed than it is at creating a sustainable world.
In Jacqueline’s case, the story turned out to be much darker than simple worries about benefits versus costs. Our follow-up phone conversation was filled with depressing tales of political pressure; doctored and withheld data; bribery; “good old boy” networks between consultants, elected officials, and developers; gender discrimination; and previously respected mentors revealed to be corrupt liars when the spotlight was turned off.
Ouch. What am I supposed to say to the long line of students and career-changers queuing up for jobs at environmental agencies and companies? Don’t bother? Sorry, we’re not the good guys after all? It’s all a big greenwashing scam?
Well, of course not. Let’s be clear. There are thousands of highly ethical and productive professionals out there doing creative, productive work that results in improved ecological and human health. For every example of less-than-ethical behavior there are many, many more stories of green workers generating results we can be proud of.
(Can I add an aside? We environmentalists would do well to talk more loudly about the dozens of remarkable success stories our movement has produced. People like that sort of thing.)
Still, Jacqueline’s experience should raise concerns for citizens and taxpayers, as well as career seekers. The pressure to stay afloat in a fiercely competitive environmental marketplace can tempt even honest professionals to bend the rules — or worse.
Moreover, environmental business owners largely respond to the needs of their government and corporate clients. They are rarely asked to weigh in on the question of whether or not the proposed work makes any sense or will produce any real environmental results for the money and time invested. Securing contracts that result in billable hours for employees is the name of the game. If that means churning out reports to fulfill an increasingly meaningless regulatory permit requirement, then so be it.
This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the role of business in environmental problem-solving was fairly small. But it’s not small. Over the last 40 years, government agencies and regulated businesses have transferred more and more responsibilities to the private sector, creating a large industry that employs an ever-larger percentage of the professionals who actually do the on-the-ground work that most of us think of as “environmental.”
And I do mean large. The Environmental Business Journal reports that the companies and quasi-governmental agencies that offer environmental goods, services, and equipment took in $245 billion in revenues in 2004. Water and wastewater entities accounted for the largest share, at $90 billion. Solid waste management and recycling related businesses were next in line, with over $54 billion. The remaining billions tracked by EBJ are spread out over hazardous waste management, air pollution control, site remediation, “clean energy” systems, and prevention technologies. Some $20 billion went to environmental consultants large and small, including Jacqueline’s tiny company.
Here at ECO, we conservatively estimate that the environmental industry employs at least 750,000 people. And this doesn’t include hundreds of additional environmentally related companies in fields like organics, green construction, energy conservation, efficient appliances, hybrid cars, and more.
So here we are, 36 years after the first Earth Day. An entire generation of environmentally concerned people has invested the better part of their lives in creating a massive infrastructure of institutions, including a sprawling private sector industry. Money is pumping through it. Talented people are showing up for work every day. Permits are being filed and approved. The system we’ve set up is churning along.
Jacqueline speaks for many people, however. She remembers why she got started in this field. She’s concluded that at 40, she needs to make a change.
No, Jacqueline. I’m guessing that you’re pretty much OK just as you are. Perhaps the rest of us can work on bringing the change to you.
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Kevin Doyle is the national director of program development for the The Environmental Careers Organization in Boston. He is coauthor of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World and The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century.