Does idealism have a place in the environmental industry?

As any graduate can tell you there is nothing quite like landing that first job fresh out of university and stepping out into the world as a young professional. After years of study we are eager to get out there for the chance to apply and hone all our newly acquired skills. More importantly we are eager to make an impact; eager to make a difference. Now I admit that this is coming from a biased perspective but I think that this is particularly true for environmental graduates; be it environmental engineers, legislators and law makers, or scientists like myself. Throughout our studies and even outside of university we were constantly bombarded by the same messages. We are the generation that needs to make the change, we are the generation that needs to come up with the solutions to some of the biggest problems facing our planet, and it is up to us to take over from the generations that caused all the problems in the first place. It went on and on. Not a light weight for graduates to carry into the workforce. But there is no denying the truth, we have some monumental challenges ahead of us and there is no one else to face them.

So there we are, bursting with optimism but fundamentally clueless, shaking the new bosses hand as we accept our first job. I felt like I was diving blindfolded and head first into murky waters hoping to hell I wasn’t at the shallow end. Nonetheless, I didn’t let it get to me. I hopped on that Fokker 50 and as we flew through clear cloudless skies I looked down out of my little window onto the vast Australian outback with my mind racing. To say I was elated would be an understatement. I was on my way to the Pilbara where I would be catching and studying all these amazing animals from Mulga Snakes and Gould’s Monitors to shore birds and Northern Quolls. On top of that I was going to get paid to do it as well – what’s not to like? But when I landed, instead of heading out to do some science on the red undulating dunes of the coastal Pilbara, I found myself at a construction camp. Instead of the quiet pristine wilderness, I was surrounded by flashing lights, beacons, warning bells and a sea of people dressed head to toe in hi viz. You could say it was somewhat of a culture shock and you’d be right. I was unswayed however, so I put on my PPE and blended into the crowd. I wanted to get on with it but instead I was sent to inductions and workshops and it seemed like I would never actually get to do anything. I signed all the paperwork and I ticked all the boxes and after even more “training” I was apparently ready to get on with my job.

Once I started to do what I was up there to do I can honestly say that I enjoyed my job. I worked and still am working with a team of people who care about the environment, who are proud of their work and who are willing to stand up for their beliefs. However, as time went on and I became more familiar with my surroundings I noticed that one question was being asked of me more than any other. How do I feel about having to “sell my soul” to the resource industry and compromise my integrity as an environmental biologist? I was confused; does working in the resource industry automatically discredit you as an environmental professional? If so, I never got that memo. They even went on to ask if I had been brought back down to earth, if I was disillusioned, and when would I stop being so idealistic about the environment after seeing how things are actually done up here? Tough questions all of them and even though at the time I laughed them off I didn’t really have definitive answers. Are we as environmental consultants failing at our jobs if despite all our best efforts our suggestions are falling on deaf ears in favour of profits or expedience? Are we there because we are needed to be by law, or are we actually wanted? I didn’t have the answers to most of these questions and I still don’t.

This finally gets me to my main point and something that I have been thinking about for quite some time now. I have just passed the one year mark since my employment with Terrestrial Ecosystems and even though I’m still young and inexperienced I have learned so much. But after one year as an environmental advisor am I still as idealistic as I was when I graduated? Do I still think we can make a difference? Or am I simply joining the ranks of the many disillusioned environmentalists out there who have given up and lost sight of what they once so strongly believed in? I would be lying if I was to say I am completely comfortable with what I do. I still don’t think it’s right that I am part of a 2500+ person camp (which plans to grow to 5000) that is run completely on diesel generators. I struggle with the fact that whenever I walk by empty dongas during work hours the air-conditioning units are left running 24/7, cooling down empty rooms. I struggle to see how an industry that prides itself on pioneering sustainability can produce waste by the tonnes in the space of weeks just because they are too lazy to follow their own sermons that they so ostentatiously preach. But what does give me hope is the people around me who understand that they need to at least try and do their bit. The people who bring their own lunch containers instead of using the mountains of disposable plastic ones for the sake of convenience, the people who turn off the lights and generators when they finish work and who turn off their air-conditioners when they’re not in their rooms. They may seem like simple trivial things but even the smallest changes in behaviour are extremely encouraging to see.

So yes I am disillusioned but not in the way that you might think. The environmental issues that I thought would be associated with the industry when I first started pale in comparison to the complex problems that I have seen in my time up here. Problems which if we ever hope to solve as scientists must be tackled by walking on that tight rope between cold scientific fact and irrational human emotion. I realise now how little we know about the world around us and how much we take for granted. And so I am still idealistic and as excited as the day I first boarded that Fokker 50 not because I’m blind to the issues but because there is so much more to do, so many more opinions and habits to change and so much more to learn. Stagnation is boring and even though progress is challenging that’s what makes it so damn fun. All you have to do is look at how much the environmental industry has changed from the early beginnings of planting European pine trees in an effort to “rehabilitate” destroyed native woodlands to the methods we now use involving topsoil recovery and fauna relocations. To think that we have only scratched the surface in terms of what we can do and what we should feel morally obliged to do is both encouraging and exciting.

I don’t see how one could work in the environmental industry without that childish idealism and drive to push the boundaries of what the industry holds as best practice. Any time you become content with what is currently held as best practice is the moment you stop being an environmental scientist. Yes, people are going to disagree with you and yes, not everything you suggest will be taken on, but to use that as an excuse to not try is completely absurd. I’m as guilty of giving up at times as anyone but I have to keep reminding myself that if we don’t try no one else will try for us. In my short time doing what I do I have noticed a drastic change in the opinions and habits of some of the people around me. From management staff to dozer operators who in an almost comical juxtaposition melt on the inside when you show them a gecko or small mammal that was saved all because they altered what they’ve been doing for years on the back of your advice. Ultimately I believe there are very few people who don’t care about their environment and who don’t wish to protect it. I just think the majority of them haven’t had the opportunity or guidance on how to and as environmental professionals that’s where we come in. We must remember that effectively communicating our ideas with those who are less scientifically inclined is one of our most important objectives.

The answer then to the question of does idealism have a place in the environmental industry is ‘yes’. In fact, the moment when idealism and that constant striving for the implementation and discovery of better practices is no longer the driving force in this industry is the day that I won’t want to be identified as an environmental professional anymore.

Alex Vuksic

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