Thanks for your nice note and sorry for the delay. Well, if you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I give unconventional, straight forward advice. I almost always say to young people that they need to understand how government works, and to do so involves voting. You have to vote or all environmental work gets destroyed by greedy politicians. The current stock of politicians are already trying to pass laws that reverse decades of environmental gains. You know why? Because young people didn’t vote in the mid-terms. Less than 30% showed up to vote. So, issues that they care about, like women’s health, racism, environment, climate change, are all managed by very dishonest people. I also recommend that you participate in the process of passing environmental policy by joining a committee or board in your local town. This is were the action is on environmental issues. Joining in on how your local community works will give you deep and incredibly valuable experience in understanding how ‘environmentalism’ actually, fundamentally, and realistically works.
In my opinion, therefore, in order to be an effective environmentalist, you absolutely need to understand how environmental laws and policies are created. The best way to do this is by reading and commenting on draft environmental bills, participating on boards and committees that write and pass these bills, and showing up for the meetings.
To understand bureaucracy is to understand environmentalism.
So, I think for you, think about not how to make a difference, but when? When do you want to ‘make a difference’? If you want to save some animals from being destroyed right now, volunteer in the animal shelter. If you want to change the conditions that caused these animals to end up in the shelter, get involved in your municipal government. It’s easy to join a crew and clean tires and trash from a river - you can do that tomorrow. Just know that the river will keep getting dirty without proper protections. And, like I said, it’s difficult to create laws that protect the river from pollution in the first place. One action is immediate. The other “makes a difference”.
You can join the Peace Corps for a year or two to drill some drinking water wells in rural Africa or distribute mosquito nets in swampy coastal villages. That’ll feel good for while. Peace Corps is also good networking and looks great on your resume. I work with a few people who started in Peace Corps, and went on to become effective environmental bureaucrats. But, if ‘making a difference’ is what drives you, what environmental changes occur during these two years?
When do you want to make a difference? I think you are right to feel scared. Working on environmental issues is hard work. It’s slow. It’s risky. It has lots of failure. It expensive, from a career and investment perspective.
‘Making a difference’ is risky.
Often, a project takes years or even multiple lifetimes to start, never mind finish. Read Silent Spring. Read The Making of Environmental Law. Professors will rarely tell you how slow this is. And I cannot think of a single environmental research paper that convincingly emphasized the sisyphean temporality of environmentalism. Sure, research papers always conclude with ‘more research is needed’ or ‘with more time, data can be validated’ etc., but this doesn’t tell you or anyone that environmental work is like a slow walk through thick mud while wearing concrete boots. It’s a long, slow slog. Are you prepared for this?
I’m also sorry to say that environmental work involves long hours
staring a spreadsheets and analyzing data. You will be in an office
environment. You’ll also have to work with people who don’t like, or share your
goals. Yes, you can make a difference, so long as you understand how it’s done, and are prepared for the long haul…Good luck, Michael