Environmentalism: A Brief History & Today's Job Market
The gradual development of environmentalism and conservation is closely linked with social movements that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. A swirling combination of that era’s emerging environmental problems—most notably polluted air and dirty water—and resultant public health problems, coupled with a growing population and the “taming” of vast swaths of wilderness, served to catalyze American environmentalism.
Early pioneers included Ellen Swallow, who, in 1887, supervised a massive water quality-testing project in Massachusetts. Viewing clean drinking water as a fundamental human right, Swallow advocated for stringent water quality testing—an effort credited with driving a reduction in waterborne disease and shaping sanitation and treatment guidelines. Logically, Swallow is regarded the main founder of the of water quality science and public health professions in the United States.
In terms of land preservation, a turning point came in 1872, when Congress officially recognized the importance of environmental stewardship by creating the country’s first national park in Yellowstone, mandating that the park’s resources remain “unimpaired for future generations.” The movement to create more national parks, monuments, forest reserves and wildlife refuges took off from there: In 1892, John Muir formed the Sierra Club, now the nation’s oldest nonprofit, and in 1916, Woodrow Wilson founded the National Park Service.
Meanwhile, around the same time, members of a garden club in Butte, Mont., lamented the death of the very last tree in that mining town. The fall of the tree under a sky that remained perpetually dark beneath a blanket of coal-fire smoke from open ore-processing pits prompted citizens to fight for cleaner mining methods.
A Sand County Almanac, published by American ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold in 1949, is made up of a collection of essays about the land around his home in Wisconsin. In the book, Leopold describes his “land ethic,” a creed that promoted the maintenance of “a state of harmony between men and land.” In the early 1960s, marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an exposé on the dangers of pesticides, served as a call-to-arms for the environmental movement: The screed made The New York Times’ best-seller list and led to the eventual ban of the infamous pesticide DDT.
In 1970, federal legislation created the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, measures followed later that year with the passage of the Clean Air Act; the Endangered Species, Clean Water and Pesticide Control Acts followed thereafter in rapid succession. The hazardous waste management and solid waste management industries grew during the 1970s and 1980s, following media coverage of the immense chemical spill at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, and the impact of toxic waste on the residents of Love Canal, an upstate New York residential development built atop a massive chemical dump. Driven by such scrutiny, much of the nation gained a new appreciation for the importance of strict pollution control measures. Today, professions that either revolve around or near environmental issues remain focused on these and other concerns—the production of so-called “green” goods such as organic foods and beverages, for example, continues to increase in response to ever-rising demand. Organic products are now available in most conventional grocery stores, and account for approximately 2 percent of total food sales in the United States. Many towns and cities now also promote community supported agriculture programs that allow consumers to buy a share of locally harvested foods—part of an expanding national grassroots push to urge people to buy locally produced goods whenever possible. Growing concern over environmental toxins in food, water and air, as well as increasing awareness of the myriad negative effects wrought by pollution and the depletion of natural resources, provides an ample supply of opportunities for employment in an amalgam of environment-centric industries.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines environmentalism as “advocacy of the preservation, restoration or improvement of the natural environment” and conservation as “a careful preservation and protection of something … especially [the] planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect.” An environmental career can accommodate a variety of philosophies, goals and beliefs. In a field where a drive to help conserve, preserve, protect and/or restore the environment is essential, there are countless options for where and how to apply that passion.
Each environmental profession requires a different skill set, approach and background depending on such factors as the specific field, the size and culture of the specific organization and, in many cases, the geographic location. Environmental jobs are found in government, for-profit industry and the nonprofit world, as well as in academia and science. There are literally thousands of career opportunities—from counseling children at nature camp to lobbying for emissions controls on Capitol Hill.
Because jobs in the environmental and conservation sectors cover such a broad area, educational requirements vary widely. Some jobs, such as the position of research director for a national nonprofit, may require candidates to hold a PhD and have a minimum of 10 years of experience in scientific research and management. Others, such as that of a program instructor at a regional educational camp, may require only a college degree in an educational or environmental field. Many government and nonprofit jobs offer on-the-job training, while some private companies maintain graduate/work programs that provide a salary with job training for candidates who already possess a master’s degree. Once they’ve finished the training program, graduates are typically extended job offers by the company.
Some environmental positions are desk jobs, while others require work in the field or in research labs. Some, such as forestry jobs, require physical labor, while still others can be performed from a home office. Policy and consulting jobs may include attending evening land use meetings and early morning site meetings; they may also require travel.
Compensation varies by the type of job, the education and background required and whether the position is in the nonprofit or for-profit industry. Salaries can range from six figures for CEOs and executive directors of large nonprofits to minimum wage for forestry workers. Private industry executives and investors can make much more, depending upon the success of their ventures. PayScale’s Salary Survey Report, updated in May 2009, shows that the median salary is $60,000 for an environmental project manager, $44,326 for an environmental scientist, $46,076 for a geologist and $50,830 for an environmental engineer, while the median annual earnings for an environmental scientist was $56,000 as of May 2006; the median annual pay for an environmental hydrologist clocked in at $66,000. A master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for most of those jobs. Many forestry and conservation jobs, on the other hand, often require only a high school diploma, but wages can be as low as $8 to $10 per hour. Executives in national nonprofit organizations can earn salaries well over $100,000.