Will Rogers once said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Pick up any newspaper or magazine and you will find an environmental story. It’s not just hot, it’s fashionable, as in, Green is the new black. Environmental professionals have chosen an excellent career, but now it’s time to examine where this profession has been, where it’s headed, and more specifically, if it has begun to split into separate paths. Which track will you be on? In this, the first of a two-part series, I examine how the profession has reached its current junction. Next time, I will explore the career implications in the paths forward.
The nature of environmental work has increased in scope and complexity over the past 40 years. First came regulations, followed closely by infrastructure projects to meet those regulations.
Next, environmental professionals began cleaning up legacy contamination issues, addressing community relations issues in response to media attention over toxic hot spots (e.g., Love Canal) and environmental disasters (e.g., Bhopal). Then came the efforts to reduce costs through pollution prevention programs and environmental management system efficiencies.
Beginning in the late 1980s, environmental issues required a level of resources and attention that elevated managers to directors and vice presidents. Professionals were being consolidated into environment + health + safety (EH&S) departments (more about this later). Security and quality responsibilities were added to some groups. Individuals with a real grasp of EH&S were getting to speak directly to the CEO and influence business decisions. They were helping drive the corporate train. And then the signals started to appear that this engine fueled by regulations was stalling.