Professor Ian Spellerberg
World Environment Day has come and gone. Once again the familiar acts of commemoration, many of them almost ritual, have been completed. The trees have been planted, and the spades are cleaned. The posters on countless classroom walls will yellow, but the environmental messages of concern and hope will remain for a time.
As the sense or urgency rises about the environment issues, we might well reflect on how many more of these events we might witness in our lifetime? Why does the environment receive global attention for just one day out of 365.
The good news is that participation in Environment Day has become markedly more diverse. No longer is it a day reserved for school groups and community projects. For example, this year’s Ministry Green Ribbon Awards needed three new categories to accommodate business and commercial interests. These groups have embraced sustainability-thinking as part of their vision and values. Regional and city councils have reached deeper into the business sector with events like the Sustainability Business Expo that filled the Christchurch Convention Centre.
The intersection of views – from individuals, community groups, governance and business – needs to be celebrated quietly. It will not deliver us immediately from a pattern of consumption that demands cheap energy and endless waste disposal, but it suggests that we finally have everyone on the bus. The real journey can now begin.
Or can it? If we are to control and reverse the slide in the world’s biological and physical integrity, we are going to need significantly more specialists in these areas. More importantly, we will need to develop a new age of competent environmental practitioners that have a clearly defined pathway of continuous professional development, and who aspire to independent certification of their standards of practice.
The diversity and complexity of environmental issues demands nothing less than the highest standards of practice amongst environmental practitioners. World Environment Day provides a useful barometer of what society demands, but the slow development of a trusted environment profession suggests that we have neglected the process of building professional capacity.
We can certainly do better. In a recent survey by the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ), it was found that many environmental practitioners in New Zealand and Australia are not well prepared for the challenges ahead. It was subsequently agreed that there needed to be a boost in professional development so as to prepare for the future.
In the U.K., the Privy Council has sanctioned a new class of practitioner - The Charted Environmentalist. Anyone wishing to apply for such status has to demonstrate that they have a long record of high standards of professional practice.
Here in New Zealand we are slow to acknowledge that we need to develop and to build trust in the environment profession. While we have every right to be proud of our environment practitioners, as yet we have not widely accepted the need for processes for auditing standards of practice. These are generally high, but, like other professions, there are instances of poor practice, some dishonesty and occasionally some unethical behaviour.
The environment profession is one of the last to be formally organised and recognised. Law, medicine, engineering and more recently planning and architecture – all of these specialisations have a more sophisticated approach to capability-building and ensuring there is a lifetime approach to learning.
So how can we improve our standards of environmental performance? How can we build trust in the profession? There is surely no better place to start than at the beginning, when young graduates in environmental science, resource studies, and environmental policy take up their first positions. Whether they are in interdisciplinary areas such as resource management and environmental science, or in a more specialised role such as ecology, we must ensure that education and training does not end at graduation. New environmental practitioners need to accept the need for continuing professional development and they should seek mentoring from senior colleagues. As with other professions, they should apply for membership of a professional body for more than just the certificate and a newsletter. There needs to be a deeper and long-term commitment to professional environmental practice.
Employers of environmental practitioners should be supporting and expecting continuous advancement. There should be an expectation that prospective environmental staff will be able to demonstrate levels of competence, standards of practice and ethical behaviour that have been assessed by a professional institute.
If all of this were to happen there could be major benefits for employers, practitioners, and all who aspire to good environmental decision-making. Most importantly, the environment will benefit.
Professor Ian Spellerberg is Director of the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation and Vice President of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand.