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In Praise of Environmental Careers

Recently, I received a review copy of a handbook for people seeking “green” careers. This has been beat for a long time now, and I’m always interested in other people’s wisdom and advice. I was vaguely troubled after reading it, but I couldn’t exactly say why. There was just something wrong.

The handbook was informed and up-to-date, so there was no problem there.

The authors emphasized the fact that sustainable economy careers were often in the business world and that one could promote greater ecological health from a job in traditional business professions like sales, marketing, finance, investment, human resources, facilities management and product design. I make those same points in my own presentations, so that wasn’t a cause for concern.

The global climate change crisis was front and center, as it should be, and a call for people to consider jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy careers and companies was loud and clear. The need for revolutionary advances in energy technology was covered. Check that.

There was a more than adequate description of the “green collar jobs” movement, which effectively carried the message that jobs on the manufacturing line and in the trades were an important part of the emerging green economy. Double check.

The 21st century of information technology was amply represented, with references to website designers and social marketing campaigns. Right on.

Finally, the handbook clearly explained that green careers were not limited to a focus on protecting, conserving and restoring the natural world, but also included social justice and economic security concerns. Amen, brother.

So, I started through the text a second time. And then, it hit me. The problem wasn’t with the careers and professions that were included. It was with the people that were left out. And who might they be?

There were no foresters. No fisheries, wildlife, wetland, soils, freshwater, marine or conservation biologists. No agricultural scientists. No air, water, hazardous waste, or solid waste professionals. No environmental, geological, chemical or any other kind of engineer. No Environment, Health and Safety managers. No land use planners or recycling coordinator. No environmental lawyers or activists. No park rangers or interpretive naturalists. No land trust managers and staff.

In this world of green careers, there was no Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or Bureau of Land Management. In fact, there wasn’t much reference to government careers at all.

In the effort to demonstrate that green careers were not limited to traditional conservation and environmental protection professionals, this little handbook seemed to suggest that our brave new world of sustainability didn’t include them at all!

The real green careers, it seems, involve producing, marketing and selling high-end organic iced teas or coordinating “social responsibility” reports for global corporations and retail chains.

So, I Googled the words “green jobs” and “green careers” and began to re-read some of the more recent media stories. To greater and lesser degrees, I found the same thing. The definition of environmental careers hadn’t been expanded to include a wider circle of professions for sustainability. It was in the process of being redefined so that entire swaths of the environmental and conservation professions and institutions were somehow labeled as old school, irrelevant, or (worse) actively negative.

So, things are getting just a bit out of hand.

You can help! Next time you hear an expression like “I’m not one of those tree huggers,” or “I care about people, not polar bears,” “I’m not one of those bugs and bunnies environmentalists,” or any of the dozen other ways that we belittle traditional conservation and environmental protection people while still claiming to care about the health of the planet, push back a bit.

Stand up for the foresters! Stand up for the fisheries and wildlife biologists. Stand up for the air and water permit processors at the state DEP! Sure we need the cool renewable energy technology venture capitalists and the exploding number of innovative green businesses with their colorful marketing campaigns.

But, we need our park rangers and water quality technicians, too. We won’t get to the promised land without them. Don’t leave them out of the green career handbooks.


Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, an independent consulting, research, facilitation and training firm serving the public and private institutions who are growing a more sustainable global economy. He is the co-author of three books about environmental careers (including The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World) and writes the monthly green careers column for Grist Magazine ( He delivers presentations and workshops about green careers on college campuses through "Grist U" and he welcomes your questions. Write to Kevin at