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A Day in the Life of a Environmentalist/Environmental Scientist

“I became an environmentalist because I wanted a profession that would let me sleep well at night,” wrote one respondent. Nearly all our respondents said their desire to better the world was key in their becoming environmentalists, and many said that even if their jobs didn’t pay, they would still do environmental work. Environmentalists help the public make informed decisions about the use of limited natural resources. They do research, produce reports, write articles, lecture, issue press releases, lobby congress, fundraise, and campaign. The daily routine depends on the specialty. Environmental researchers measure decay and its pace and patterns, including the depletion of the ozone layer in space or contaminated groundwater in suburban communities. Policy-determining environmentalists determine how behavior can be modified in the future to avoid these problems. Other environmental positions involve office work, policy analysis, lab work, or computer analysis. Some companies sell “environmentally friendly” goods and services such as recyclable products or products with recycled content. Not-for-profit environmentalist companies, account for 70 percent of the industry, engage in more aggressive campaigns to educate the public about environmental causes and often work in education campaigns on college campuses, where much of the scientific work is done. In the private sector, at least 80 percent of the not-for-profit companies have ten or fewer employees. Over 50 percent of the companies in this field rely on non-guaranteed sources of income such as federal grants, private donations or corporate sponsorship. The occupation can entail long hours, difficult and sometimes severely under-funded work situations, and a sense of frustration that “no one listens, and even if they listen, no one does anything.” But environmentalists are drawn to their work by a sense of satisfaction in doing something they really believe in—even if the warm feelings about their work rarely translates into a strong financial rewards.

Paying Your Dues

Understanding the issues involved in environmentalism—degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment—is central to finding work in the environmental care and maintenance industry. An academic background is recommended but not required (some colleges now offer degrees in environmental science). Many entry-level positions are highly competitive and require a rigorous set of interviews. By letting representatives from a range of areas meet and talk with prospective candidates who have majored in anything from psychology to natural science to economics, these companies ensure they get people who can fill a number of roles and who are dedicated to hard work. Entry-level employees use many skills, from interviewing and writing, to organizing events or mailings to raising funds, to scientific testing in a laboratory environment. Continuing education is the norm, since the work deals with a physical, changing system.

Present and Future

Environmental concerns arose with the land use changes brought by urbanization and increasing population density. As early as 1300, London was thick with smoke from excessive coal use. Today, Los Angeles is one of many cities with a substantial smog problem. While the 1970s were a time of growing environmental awareness, the 1980s saw a loosening of environmental regulations and a surge in the use of fossil fuels and other natural resources. The 1990s are a time of environmental reconsideration. Air pollution control alone is now a $45 billion industry; hazardous waste management (see separate listing) is also a fast growing industry. The biggest question is whether environmentalists’ concerns will be addressed through legislation in the next few years. More regulation for a cleaner, environment could dramatically increase the demand for people in the environmental sciences. Deregulation and a return to the “laissez-faire” attitude of the 1960s will result in a weakening of these prospects. But environmental crises are ongoing; one-shot disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska or continuous ones such as the steady deforestation of the Brazilian rain forest will continue to pose challenges—and opportunities—for environmentalists for years to come.

Quality of Life


At the beginning, this profession involves a lot of paperwork and phone calls. New environmentalists learn the specific concerns of their companies, acquire contacts needed to get information quickly and accurately, and assist in the ongoing educational process. Specialization happens right away; your company’s concerns become yours immediately. Client contact, responsibility, and pay are limited. Hours are not bad. The burnout rate is a very high 35 percent, perhaps due to unfulfilled expectations for immediate change in environmental attitudes.


Responsibilities increase; environmentalists oversee projects and write articles, reports, and press releases. Many organize conferences on specific topics, using contacts within the industry to bring together notable speakers and players. Salaries go up, but so do the hours. Some earn the title of “senior environmentalist” between years four and seven. The attrition rate levels off at seven percent for the five-year veterans.


Most remaining environmentalists have attained the title of vice president or its equivalent at small companies or moved on to other industries, most often the private sector. Fifteen percent become freelance consultants to other industries, advising ways of improving their environmental education and environmental friendliness. Many environmentalists begin their own businesses. While over 20 percent of these companies fail within the first year, ten-year survivors can trade on their reputations and experience to find other companies and begin again.