Jobs for a Greener, Brighter Future

How many career advisers or college guidance counselors would put up a poster of this sort? I don’t want to reduce the notion to a mere image, but not to belabor the point either, I’ll limit the discussion to two of the listed occupations.


  1. A Mayor  Who Knows Ecology

An ecologically-minded mayor is key. It’s based on the idea that we should think globally but act locally, a concept first applied to environmental matters around 1970, but subsequently often ignored by municipalities. Critical thinker Nassim Nicolas Taleb believes that in a globalized world, municipal rule is central. He was recently supporting a grassroots movement in his native Lebanon led by Beirut Madinati, who unfortunately lost the election. The movement wants to turn around her namesake city of Beirut by:

(1) improving urban mobility by facilitating walking, biking and shared transportation systems (e.g. large buses, mini-vans, services, taxis). This cuts air pollution and beautifies a city.

(2) adding green spaces and turning the waterfront into a livable area.

(3) making housing more affordable and closer to work—which in itself would cut commuting costs and pollution for citizens. Presently the average cost of an apartment in Beirut is nearly $600 000.

(4) giving businesses and homes incentives for creating less waste. The city is currently experiencing a waste management crisis and needs a reuse and recycling program.

Across the Mediterranean and Atlantic,  our borough mayor has taken several steps towards a green city by creating a bike path network along main roads, and most recently by implementing a wide-scale composting program modeled after San Francisco’s. The compost product is used in city parks and distributed free biannually to citizens to encourage them to garden. Because the compost includes more than just leaves and encompasses all kitchen waste, it is richer in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, eliminating or at least significantly reducing the need for any other fertilizer.

The past two generations of Italian immigrants in Montreal were avid gardeners. In urban and suburban areas they grew basil, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, thyme, oregano, chamomile, and a variety of fruit trees including plums, cherries, pears and even fig trees, which either were carried indoors in large pots for the winter or even bent over and buried. With the composting-incentives in place, hopefully the younger generation will follow suit.  Widespread local, organic growth would reduce the scale of commercial farming and eventually pressure it to mend its ways. Often done irresponsibly, large scale agriculture has led to eutrophication, overuse of pesticides and land erosion. At the same time gardening is a more sensible alternative to lawn maintenance, which consumes large amounts of water, fertilizer and energy while yielding little in return.

The larger city of Montreal, which is committed to similar cycling and composting projects, has embarrassingly been using a very crude form of sewage disposal. But beginning in 2018 it  will finally ozonate its sewage . It will set up the largest facility of its kind in the continent. Ozonation is crucial because screening and sludge removal alone still leave residual bacteria and other organic molecules such as pharmaceuticals in the water reentering the St.Lawrence River. But ozone kills microbes, oxidizes and cleaves organic molecules. Unlike chlorine, ozone doesn’t create chlorinated organic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic.

Previous Montreal administrations had been spending tax money on less important stuff, while funds were literally being stuffed in mobsters’ socks. Corruption in Beirut and Naples, just to name a few cities, also cause environmental degradation. But to turn urban areas around, where most of the economic activity takes place and where a growing majority of the population lives, will be a significant step towards a greener planet.

2. Environmental Chemists

It’s frightening to see the amount of rhetoric buzzing over the regulation of chemical compounds. Trumped by the notion that dilution is not pollution, influential people hope for the death of protective laws or guidelines so they could swoop in for more short term profits. Or they are deluded in thinking that their actions are a strike against some form of communism. Rather than applying the precautionary principle, many industries want a carte blanche with new compounds and be allowed to proceed until proven guilty, at times suppressing their own research when the results are not convenient to them.

An environmental chemist understands that the earth has a finite supply of limited elements essential to life such has nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur. Each of these elements is part of vital cycles where the elements are in the form of various molecules and ions, only some of which can be directly absorbed by living organisms. Associated with silent, invisible players such as bacteria and fungi, these elements are constantly made available in the growing seasons of thriving ecosystems. The hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, three other essential elements, are found in water and carbon dioxide, which have their own cycles.

Without the work of environmental chemists we would have had no idea that each of the cycles is threatened by chemophilia, which has led to an irresponsible and massive use of man-made compounds. Becoming more sophisticated technologically creates a greater need for a self consciousness with regard to a society’s intake and outflow of compounds. We have no choice but to reduce and recycle as many compounds possible. And if the compounds are novel, we cannot release them into rivers, hoping that microorganisms will take care of the rest.

I had my first shock with regard to industry’s at-times-shameful attitude to environmental causes when I worked in a quality control laboratory of a large copper refinery in 1981. To meet guidelines of toxic metal emissions into our river, a second pipe was used to deliver tap water in order to lower concentrations for provincial inspectors. The same amount of effluent was entering the river; they were just playing with numbers so that business could proceed as usual. Equally deplorable was the attitude of the engineer who was in charge of student replacements for regular employees who were on summer vacations. In the orientation session, he explained how the electrostatic precipitator used to filter selenium emissions was only 90 to 95% efficient, so that whenever production was boosted, neighbors would still get red selenium all over their trees. He explained this with a smug smile that led to an outburst of laughter from the student engineers. The recruits had come to them with the company’s priorities already in place.

This is why we need the new generation to aspire to new careers, to change the lingering culture. Otherwise we just add to the litany of unpleasant, unexpected consequences from continuing to play along in an anti-ecological society rooted in hubris.