The new millennium brings with it similar global environmental and human health issues that challenged us at the end of the 20th century: climate change, species extinction, decreasing habitats, and diminishing freshwater supplies. But does it also bring with it the knowledge and infrastructure required to solve emerging problems? Today’s environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) professionals are well trained, better educated, and brighter than ever before. Yet, scores of A&WMA members to whom I have spoken over the past few years have expressed concern that something is fundamentally wrong in our industry. There are outward manifestations of this growing malady. For example, a recent salary survey, conducted by a U.S. environmental trade magazine, found environmental professionals to be an overworked, ignored, and generally frustrated lot.1 The typical reaction by nearly everyone caught up in the current economic downturn is, “So what? Things are rough all over and getting worse.” Indeed they are, but there’s more to this story than just the growing cynicism and negativity found by industry surveys. Daniel C. Esty, associate dean at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, reported in a recent article what many in the industry have felt: “Sustainable development has been the rallying cry in the environmental realm since 1992. Yet for all its laudable goals and initial fanfare, sustainable development has become a buzzword largely devoid of content.” 2 To be sure, concepts such as “industrial ecology,” “design for the environment,” and “supply chain environmental management,” have inspired us, but after nearly a decade, we’re still left thinking, “Where’s the beef?” Our profession is stuck in a time warp between the success of the past and a future in which the solutions to global EH&S concerns will be pivotal for human survival. If our profession is to successfully meet this critical challenge, we must increase our effectiveness and influence. But how and where do we begin? In the words of William Shakespeare, “What is past is prologue.” Understanding how we got where we are today provides some insight into what may be on the horizon. I have been working in the environmental profession “since the beginning” (i.e., the inception of the U.S. Environmental ProtectionAgency), and have witnessed some major transitions over the past 30 years.
Getting Focused in the 1970s
With the formation of EPA and the rise of public interest in the environment, business managers in the 1970s recognized the need to assign more resources to “make this issue go away.” Because they did not foresee the true extent and financial impact of environmental issues, management did not assign their star performers to manage the issues. Very few employees had environmental experience and many that did were in transition jobs prior to retirement. I vividly recall attending conferences at the time and listening to unhappy folks who felt like outcasts, pushed aside into positions working on projects that they considered a waste of business resources. As the decade continued, these people retired and management realized that environmental issues were not “going away,” but would instead involve serious future investments. A new breed of very focused and competent professionals began to emerge in business, government, and environmental organizations.
The Rise of Professionalism in the 1980s
A series of major environmental disasters, revelations of massive site contamination, and escalating regulatory demands during the 1980s forced management to devote both significant resources and their personal attention to environmental issues. New positions, such as vice president of environment, were created and the management systems that are commonly used today were developed. The environment was a hot issue. Regulatory agencies and environmental organizations became staffed with dedicated, skilled employees. They had the commitment to do the right thing, even if it meant pushing the envelope and taking personal risks. It was a heady time for the profession and society memberships grew exponentially.