How do I save the planet with computers and stuff? and get paid!?
December 9, 2009 12:19 AM   Subscribe

I want to help guide the development of "new" environmentalism... Where should I (educated/trained as an Ecologist) start on a career change into media (online/web development)? better explained...

I graduated in June with a Master's in Ecology/Conservation and a certificate called Leaders in Sustainability. I started out in the PhD program, but about half a year in I started thinking a lot about doing something at the interface of environmentalism/activism/science through an online medium. I distracted myself immensely, setting out my grand entrepreneurial vision. I thought I could balance all that....and my very demanding dissertation research abroad.

Well, I couldn't. A couple of years of tortured back and forth, I decided to take the Master's and try to explore the sort of channels I was envisioning. The entrepreneurial vision still exists, although on the back burner a bit. I was faced with the reality that I have a lot to learn, and my ideas need maturation.

I set out to learn more and gain experience. In my last year of grad school, I worked with an environmental non-prof that aimed to engage youth in recreating activism...a lot of interactive, educational pieces at events and festivals. I functioned as an event coordinator/"engineer"/educational programmer....many hats, so to speak. I really enjoyed the broad audience and the "cool" factor of this type of work. The work, however, wasn't paid and would not last forever.

Since graduating, I have worked with The Nature Conservancy. It was a short term position that has been extended by working myself into some new projects....but I am starting to earnestly look forward to what's next. TNC has been a great learning experience - amazing to see conservation on the ground and to be involved behind the scenes with all the different stakeholders. That being said, I still feel my heart gravitating to the entrepreneurial vision I had in grad school.

I know I can't rely on a vision alone, so I need the help of you MeFites to figure out my next steps....

My "vision" rests deeply upon the future of the internet/social networking and the fusing of media with environmentalism/science.

What would be a logical next step to dive into this realm? What kind of jobs can I apply to? I feel like I have been hovering around the conservation world for a bit....and maybe I should be exploring the media side some more.

I am very interested in computers and web development. I don't have much of a "formal" background in computers so I am not even sure which area would be the best (or if I even would have a chance of working anywhere).

What about back-up plan? Should I continue in the conservation world? Perhaps seeking out work with environmental consulting companies?
(OH YEAH, I am in debt and need something that pays at least 30-35k)

Any tips on career change and anything that would help get me closer to my goal would be greatly appreciated. TY

I live in Los Angeles...if that helps
posted by Gaeacon to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of things that's gradually becoming clear to me as I muddle my way through a interdisciplinary sustainability PhD is that there is an important distinction between discipline and context. I would define a discipline to be a set of problem-solving tools, and a context to be a set of problems. Normally disciplines and contexts go together: ecologists use ecology to study ecosytems; chemists use chemistry to study chemicals. But there are some contexts, like "the environment", that can be attacked from multiple angles.

A lot of great scientific progress is made by people who realize the relevance of their discpline in a different context. For example, behavioral science normally works on figuring out human behavior in a psychology contexy but it can also say a lot about economics, and the person who figured that out won the Nobel in economics despite never taking an economics course.

When dealing with messy problems one of the important things to do is figure out what other disciplines might have the tools to attack this problem. It is much more difficult to switch disciplines while keeping the same context than itis to switch contexts while keeping the same discipline, but there is room for someone to pull in disciplines to their own context if no-one has yet thought to do so.

I can't offer much specific advice in your situation except not to reinvent the wheel; don't repackage yourself as a web developer, because a professional web developers could easily work in this context, and learning how to be a professional will take a lot of time and money and it's a demanding field. If you want to talk about social networking and media, there are marketing companies who make it their business to know everything there is to know about this; likewise there is probably a discpline (communications?) that has worked on this stuff.

There may not be a job that synthesizes these things, at least not the sort of thing you could apply to. I don't know what to suggest except that you should stay as close to your base as possible as you start to branch out; use as much of your expertise as you can while you gradually move into a new area.

Finally, the book How to win campaigns by Chris Rose has been recommended to me and might interest you. Good luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:23 AM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about this a bit more. The book recommendation came from a guest lecturer in a course I took who runs a major environmental organization in Canada. She was a very refreshing voice because she took a systematic, scientific approach to her goal of changing policy: figuring out what makes politicians change their mind, figuring out what makes people get engaged and what makes them switch off, and developing strategies that play to those strengths. For example, people get engaged when you talk about the missed opportunities for cleaner air because of weak regulation, but people get depressed and turn off when you talk about how much we pollute. It's a subtle shift, talking about a possible brighter future instead of possible doom.

The key behind these insights is evidence, primarily through polling data, and experience from watching successful organizational capacity building like the Obama campaign. She gets immensely frustrated with a lot of large environmentalist groups because they have great policy people who knows exactly what's needed, and they have great marketers who know how to get a message out, but the two don't talk to each other. Thus rather than campaigns to enact specific legislation which would make a large measurable impact, we get Earth Hour - token gestures with questionable impacts, if any.

My point is that I can imagine there being room for something like what you're talking about: a better bridge between science, policy, and the public, and it will likely happen through the media, including (possibly) social networking. However, the hard part will always be convincing people to join your cause, and for that I will reiterate my suggestion that you investigate how marketers do this sort of thing - and also how political campaigns do it, and how Obama did it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:18 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I was writing kind of whimsically (especially in the title), but thanks for the great replies PPaul!

I went back and read one of your posts...It was clear to see where all the good insight comes from, since you are trying to find your niche in the same inherently interdisciplinary context.

I really enjoyed the discussion of "context" and "discipline".

I think I have been focusing, perhaps too much, on "context", and not grasping onto "discipline" enough since it seems that having a "discipline" well-established would tend to be more effective. In a lot of ways, I got impatient with my "discipline" and wanted more immediate gratification. Now that I am running into the wall of either changing "disciplines" or sticking with what I'm in, I wish I had more patience in grad school and stuck out the PhD.

That being said, I appreciate the thoughts and will look into the marketers/ was a direction and resource I hadn't previously thought about.
posted by Gaeacon at 10:23 PM on December 9, 2009

Response by poster: great answers by PercussivePaul -

I guess I will leave this open for now if anyone else comes across it or I will close and ask perhaps a more guided question.
posted by Gaeacon at 10:12 AM on January 28, 2010

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