July 24 marked the 13th anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase in the United States. In 2009, the minimum wage was raised from $6.55 an hour to $7.25 an hour. In the near decade and a half that has followed, the wage has remained stagnant.
As pointed out in viral tweets on this year’s somber anniversary, it appears that several facets of society have not evolved since the Bush Jr. to Obama era. I was a new college graduate in 2007, the financial crisis was upon us and the 2008 crash loomed just around the corner.
At the time of my major declaration, well-meaning friends’ parents told me that environmental studies was not a real degree and would amount to a pile of pennies. Wouldn’t I rather study hard science and volunteer in my free time to fill my “do-gooder” void?
Professors responded to these challenges by arguing that a boom of sustainability jobs were about to take the nation by storm and that the green skills I was attaining would pay off and pay out. In hindsight, I would argue that both stances were inaccurate.
My degree anointing saddled a recession, and while there were ample jobs in environmental education, low pay nonprofit organizing positions, and a budding solar industry, longterm career opportunities were few and far between. In this divine year of 2022, full-time and fully-funded environmental positions are flooding job boards and my inbox, often generated by relatively newly minted sustainability offices in academia, government and corporate America.
This 15-year delay is indicative of the larger marathon-when-we-need-to-sprint mentality that threatens earthly survival. How many times have you heard that overused saying? Yes, creating change is a marathon that never ends. But when the world is burning, we need to run a 4-minute mile. We need to sprint.
Key throwbacks from my undergrad experience include when John Kerry conceded defeat to George W. Bush in 2004 and I woke up to the headline “How can 59 million people be so dumb?” while my professors retreated into a noticeable state of mourning. A bright spot reignited hope when former Vice President Al Gore released 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth warning us about the urgency of anthropogenic global warming.
In 2006, California passed Assembly Bill 32 which required the state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and directed the California Air Resources Board to develop and implement a scoping plan and regulations to meet the 2020 target. Through AB 32, California became the first state in the U.S. to mandate GHG emission reductions across all industries.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.” Gore and the IPCC were co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 due to their attention-grabbing climate advocacy, urging policy makers to listen to scientists, and, most importantly, take commensurate action.
When I graduated in 2007, Congress was debating same-sex marriage. When I graduated in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote to uphold a federal ban on late-term abortion, which pro-choice advocates believed could threaten Roe V. Wade.
For context, many environmental studies degree programs (ENVS) started popping up around the nation in the 1980s in response to environmental quality and environmental justice activism, the political agenda of the 1960s and 70s related to clean air and water, and the unjust placement of toxic waste sites.
Academia historically had separated the fields of natural and social sciences. ENVS linked these areas of study through an interdisciplinary degree which often combines field and ecology courses with environmental law, economics, policy, and theory. Many ENVS departments recognize that crises facing the planet are caused by humans, and that studying systems related to human behavior is crucial towards achieving planetary sustainability.
ENVS departments at the time of my declaration might have had a few decades under their belt, and their validation increased with every “Global Warming Is Not Cool” t-shirt that Urban Outfitters sold (I was the irritating hipster who wore one that’s now crying that Gen Z-ers consider it “vintage.”)
Back to 2022, what has changed, and what remains the same? Minimum wage is more unlivable and more cruel now than it was then, a bill is presently before Congress to consider making same-sex marriage a federal law after messaged threats from the Supreme Court, individual states are debating the right to access safe abortion, and politicians continue to promise swift action on climate change while the country and globe experiences record-breaking deadly heat waves.
Political movements can shape the areas of institutionalized study to prepare the workforce for needed jobs, and ever-present environmental issues have now enshrined programs, with new associated disciplines coming forth such as sustainable business management and even climate change majors in the UK and Australia. Similarly, advocacy influences policies that demand funding allocation, which creates jobs, which require a workforce.
Local jurisdictions have advocated for, and many have attained, climate management positions, offices of sustainability and climate resilience, and have incorporated sustainability and environmental justice in general plans and mandated climate action planning processes.
“Until just over a decade ago, there was no such thing as a Sustainability Director or Chief Resilience Officer for cities. Now, cities feel incomplete without them,” notes MIT’s Sustainable City Podcast. Tech giants hire Sustainability Officer roles. This July, CNN ran a story with the headline, “Why tech workers are quitting great jobs at companies like Google to fight climate change.”
In conclusion, it’s worth pursuing environmental studies and similar fields as a major in 2022. I’m confident that there are increasing opportunities, and that green careers are needed and critical. However, these opportunities correlate with the longevity of human survival on earth, which is where my uncertainty now lies. Political advocacy and organizing matters, and shapes our institutions and societies. Fingers crossed that we start sprinting.
Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.