Crystal Ball gazing - A Critical Examination of the Environmental Profession in the New Millennium

- By:

Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

As I sit down to write this month’s “EH&S Advisor” it is the first week of the new millennium. Caught up in the wave of New Year reflections on the past and forecasts of the future, I take a close look into my crystal ball to see what’s on the horizon for environmental professionals. You may not like what I see. Whether you strongly agree or disagree with the conclusions I reached, I look forward to your feedback.


Environmental staffs in the 1960s were nonexistent or combined into other departments such as plant utility service groups. Earth Day in 1970 was just one of the more visible events that triggered a wave of demand for environmental professionals. Environmental staffs grew exponentially from the 1970s through the early 1990s, developing methods to maintain compliance, clean up contaminated sites, and better manage risk. Even as other departments were relentlessly cut, environmental budgets increased. The environment as a profession was in vogue!

So much progress has occurred over the past 30 years that many environmental activities have become service commodities. What was cutting edge 10 years ago is commonplace today. Programs are now off-the-shelf packages that require little or no customization. Consulting services such as environmental permit writing, monitoring, and environmental assessments are routine and standardized. Information systems and implementation techniques are well developed to handle regulatory demands.

It took talent and specialized resources to develop the first systems for auditing, pollution prevention, and environmental management. Environmental professionals rose in level and stature as their budgets and influence in the companies increased. Officer-level positions were created beginning in the mid-1980s, and senior environmental managers were allowed near the inner circles of power for the first time. The size and influence of regulatory agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in particular, grew in prominence. There was even talk of the agency becoming a Cabinet- level department.
At the beginning of the environmental movement, executive management had little understanding of the emerging science of environmental protection or of the intricacies of the regulations. They clearly understood, however, the political, legal, public relations, and financial consequences resulting from flawed policies and misdirected programs. In the 1980s, environmental managers were riding high on a wave of expanding departments constrained by few limits and even less second-guessing relative to other departments. The “You can go to jail. We have to do it!” was the Excalibur that would smoothly slice through business management resistance.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the “hands off” treatment of environmental programs came to an abrupt end because of three major forces. First, programs matured to the point that many could be outsourced entirely or grouped into internal “shared service” departments competing with external service providers. Business managers better understood both the issues and the resource requirements of environmental programs. Managing environmental compliance had been demystified. Threats of jail time have a hollow ring today.

Second, new regulatory programs began tapering off at a time when companies were better positioned to deal with them. Proactive programs such as pollution prevention have reaped the lowhanging fruit and have become maintenance efforts, losing the appeal that comes with newness. Many of the acute problems that triggered the environmental movement have been dealt with adequately, at least to the general public’s satisfaction.

Third, cost pressures were absolutely relentless. Environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) departments are treated today with the same objectivity as any other department. Mergers, divestments, and acquisitions have prompted rethinking of how environmental staffs should be positioned within companies. The current movement to consolidate or outsource all business services comes at a time when environmental activities are viewed narrowly as a service, not as a strategic business issue.

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