Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ageism in the Natural Resource World - Let's All Discriminate!

Talk to the Hand - because your generation's input does not matter
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There are a lot of things happening right now in the world of environmental policy - especially at home, here in the Chesapeake Bay. Some of them are great - the passage of new water quality laws, enforcement of existing environmental laws, and the restructuring of funding for voluntary habitat restoration projects.  As a "guild" (I guess you could call us), we are getting more effective at what we do.  However, some comments that I've heard in meetings, along with some interesting blog posts at Women in Wetlands and a Blog that shall not be named (that focuses on Chesapeake Bay policy issues from the perspective of those who have been at it for 30+ years) really have me thinking.........at a time in which singleness of purpose (cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, the USA's last significant wild commercial fishery) is absolutely critical, we, including myself, are wasting time with divisive thoughts, processes, protocols, and plain old verbal comments that seek to exclude other biologists, engineers, farmers, lawmakers, etc. solely based on how many years they have been working at it. 
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I suspect that you're thinking, "this post is about revering the elder statesmen and women of the natural resource field, and not discriminating against the aging boomer generation."  And yes, this is partially about that.
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Interesting thing is, age discrimination cuts both ways.  In the first five (post-masters degree) years of my career, I, like many other practicioners, was subjected to comments like, "Aren't you too young to be doing this?" and "Please just leave and tell them to send someone a little older to the next meeting."  And of course, "What are you, 19? Phhht (rolls eyes)." For the last seven years, it's been more of a sigh of relief, "Thank God you are older than you sound," and "How long have you been doing this, son? (10 years) Oh, OK then."   Over the years, I've mentored and trained a few dozen young biologists, and I've watched them go through this ridiculous hazing as well - honestly it does seem like the young women get it worse than the young men.  As a supervisor, I've had to delicately field the question - and a hundred similar to it - "Why can't you send someone older, you know, more experienced.....(name) is just too young to understand the complexity of this project."  The accurate (rarely given) answer is typically, "You aren't paying us enough to send an older biologist."
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Here's the problem with this - what I perceive as an industry-wide (if not society-wide) discrimination against young, highly engaged, highly talented, well-trained professionals - who will pick up the torch in 5, 10, 15 years and carry on with our work - and the work of the generation currently in the midst of retiring?  Don't we - at minimum - have the obligation to mentor and shepherd these professionals in a way that will allow them to carry on our work - and improve on it - and see that it's turned into something more significant?  Let me make the key distinction between "the world of ecologists" and "pop culture."  In our pop culture, youth is everything.  Youth is a convenient excuse.  Youth is a reason to prop up someone who is less talented than they physically appear.  Youth is something that can be sold. 
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This does not transfer into algorithms about sea level rise, migratory bird populations, or nitrogen in the water.  Scientists bristle when their doctoral students casually talk about "the results from Alaska in 1972" because that student wasn't there - didn't have to endure "Alaska 72". Senior policy wonks are enraged when a 24 year old lobbyist says "passage of the Clean Water Act" and yawns while he's saying it.  Restoration "gurus" get downright murderous when told by a 25-year old restoration hotshot, "Yeah, this 1200 acre wetland is OK - I woulda done it differently."  I mean, in all cases, can you blame them?
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So, are young people "just like this," or is there anything in this career field that has fomented their attitudes about the generation preparing to retire?
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I'm not a psychologist, but I would guess "both." In most areas of the country, you can just look around outdoors and see that for wildlife, water, and outdoor recreation, the last 40 years have generally been a failure.  I mean.........look at it.  This is currently having some carry-over into professional attitudes - I've heard it myself.  As the years pass, and Baby Boomers in public agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations continue to hold off on retirement, there is a dangerous (and tempting) sentiment building in the environmental community.  A sentiment that "they didn't get it done."  Or "they have had 30 years to do this - NOW they want to make a change?" And "wow, he's stuck in 1971."  I would be lying if I said that I have never made comments like that.
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A couple things about that. 
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First, the evidence of failure is far more obvious than evidence of the many successes of the Boomers in the environmental field.   And since we're talking science, "obviousness" has about zero to do with truth.   The Baby Boomers oversaw passage - and some level of enforcement - of laws ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act to CERCLA (Superfund).  And thousands more Federal, state, and local laws.  Due to funding, lawsuits, and failure to enforce, these huge successes have largely been partial and in many ways, swallowed up by "failures" that were unpredictable and in many cases, direct reactions (by polluters, poachers, etc) to the legislative successes!
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Second, as we dally around one of a dozen "anniversaries" of the early American conservation movement, it's incredibly easy to look at the research, writings, and accomplishments of the Teddy Roosevelt/Aldo Leopold/Ding Darling clique and say, "THEY got it - not like the Boomers!"  Many of their worst sins, greatest errors, and embarassing follies have been omitted or deeply buried over time because they are not seen as particularly germane to the topic of their vast successes. Their failures continue to be viewed as a distraction, instead of being used as a lesson for the future.  If only the Baby Boomers were to be afforded such leeway! 
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Here's the problem with all of this - and the reason for this post.  When you automatically assume that a person, whether a TU volunteer, a research scientist, or a wildlife technician, cannot contribute significantly because they are too young or too old, you are giving yourself a luxury you do not actually have.  In the environmental field, when you form a committee, a task group, or "The Group of 56" or whatever else, the language that follows should absolutely NOT be "Senior Specialists that aim to solve this problem," or "Young Professionals who pledge to look at this in a new, unbiased way." 
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Our natural heritage, as well as our recreational heritage and the economic value of our natural resources, are simply too precious to allow any of us to isolate ourselves into age-based cadres.  If you are a leader of a group who is actively doing so, I strongly encourage you to reach out - if only informally - and ask some representatives from the excluded group - "are we missing something?"
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Carrying on in the way we have for the last 10 (or 100?) years in this field is going to lead to two things: the incredible loss of institutional knowledge possessed by soon-to-be-retirees, and the incredible, avoidable, and inexcusable alienation and disengagement of the next generation of environmental volunteer and professional leaders.
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Just something to think about.

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