Friday, May 12, 2017

On Environmental Ethics (5/12/2017)

In a LinkedIn group I am a member of the question came up: “Can an environmental consultant who works for industrial companies or land developers be ethical?”  My answer was a resounding yes. 
In my classes I use an example that goes like this:

During my consultant years, I was sitting behind my desk and Mike the head of our planning group walked into my office.  “Jan, can you attend a meeting next week with a client?  We are going to show him this new sub-division we have designed for him here in Virginia Beach.”  “Sure Mike, can I see the plans, so I can prepare myself a bit?”  Mike returns to my office in a few minutes with the plan.  “Mike, I have been on the property next door, and it has a lot of wetlands.  I want to bet this property probably has wetlands, as well.  I have not done a wetland delineation for this site, shouldn’t we do one?”  “Oops ...  OK Jan, why don’t you go and take a look.”  I go out the next day with my equipment and GPS, find a lot of wetlands on the site, survey them and stick them on a map.  The next day I walk into Mikes office.  Mike goes: “Oops.  Can you make them go away?”  I say: “Sure Mike, lots of money.”  At this point light bulbs go on above the heads of the students in my class.  They are paying attention now, I teach mostly government officials and I now work for the government.  He is finally going to expose the non-ethical corrupt industry of land development that he used to be part of, here it comes, they think!  But I tell my class: “No, when you are working with wetlands, the permitting and mitigation process is time consuming and very expensive and it is better to avoid it.  But if they want to build it the way Mike wants to propose it, the process will cost a lot of money for mitigation and permitting”  That is also what I tell Mike.  And the story continues from there, there was nothing unethical in my proposal.  Mike calls the client, asks for a a for more weeks of time and redesigns the site to avoid the wetlands.

I am proud to say that I have always been ethical in the work I have done.  Often my clients have done a little bit more for the environment than the laws and regulations required they should (thanks to me).  I have tried to show them the beauty and the importance of the resources.  In one case, I found the largest water oak in Virginia on a client's property.  A photo of my client under the tree made it in the local newspaper.  You bet that oak and the surroundings was saved, whether that client was ethical or not.

Ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.  As a study it is the discipline that deals with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).  That is a mouth full, isn’t it?  Here you get to the argument of what is is!  Or what some people think is good or bad may differ from other people.  

There is a whole branch of philosophy devoted to ethics so it is not something I can contribute to; I am just a naturalist, biologist and trainer.  But I can try to live ethical or at least as ethical as possible.  This is what ethics studies:  "What would a person do or how would she/he react under a specific circumstance?"    

But I want to get back to environmental ethics and my job.  An argument can be made that I helped my clients check that box either on an application for a permit or maybe in the back of their conscious saying: "Yes, they have done their environmental due diligence."  I am not even talking about the best thing for the environment.  Like with Mike in that example above, I may have saved a few wetlands, but that subdivision still got build, birds, snakes, and turtles lost their home, the environment was still impacted.  As a consultant with sincere love for the environment the Serenity prayer was my escape hatch:

"Please give me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things I can and the WISDOM to know the difference!"

That Serenity prayer kept me going, I could not change the outcome, but I had the courage to make a little bit of difference.  That made me feel better.

Even in my current job; I teach people and companies to follow the laws and the regulations.  It makes me feel good, when I get back to my motel room or back home, I feel satisfied; I ticked off those boxes of being a environmental steward, good for the environment.  But does it really help what I do?  I don't know.  I have often said and written that I would feel great that on any specific day in one of my classes of 40 individuals I have 1 or 2 people either change their attitude towards nature or actually become enlightened.  That's when I feel successful.

Often this is what we in the environmental movement need to look for.  No, we cannot stop a project but we can make reduce or minimize the environmental impact of these projects.  Those are our small ethical victories, save the world one turtle at a time.

We cannot stop development and that is not what my job is about.  We just need to make sure that it is done sustainable, responsibly and according to the laws and regulations.  Here my colleague Don and I are inspecting a building site.  We did not find much wrong here.

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