A shortage of students for environment-management programs

The Toronto Star‘s magazine-like Sunday issue has a lot of coverage of green subjects today, mostly fairly routine — gas prices are really high, we’re not sure we can trust food that comes from China, here’s a zero-footprint commune — but there’s one story that brought me up short:

Canadian students haven’t been signing up for forestry and related environment-management subjects in universities and colleges:

This year there were 124 undergraduates in the Faculty of Forestry and Forest Environment at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Twenty years ago, there was nearly four times that.

At the venerable Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, there were nearly 300 graduates in traditional agriculture yearly through the 1970s. More recently there have been only about 75.

In Vancouver, the B.C. Institute of Technology’s two forestry programs are closing because of declining enrolment.

At the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management has about 180 students but is equipped to handle twice that many.

Part of the problem seems to have been that the programs in question have genuinely been behind the times, losing students to programs explicitly in environmental sciences and policy. Part of it’s optics — after you major in forestry, people assume, you go to work for a company that cuts down every tree it can get a chainsaw into.

It’s not mentioned in the story, but I’d add that most programs in agriculture, forestry and so on are not at schools that are otherwise particularly prestigious; if you go to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay for forestry and discover that forestry isn’t your thing, you’re kind of stuck, whereas if you go to UBC for botany and can’t stand the thought of xylem and phloem after freshman year, you’ve got alternatives you can sell to Mom and Dad.

The Star reports that there are signs of a turnaround for some of these programs, but we’re clearly running behind any politician’s plan to make Canada a leader in environmental science and thought for the 21st century.

It comes up a lot about water, this idea that Canada ought to be a world leader in water management, monitoring and control, building expertise we can share with the more parched parts of the world. Which makes me question: why? We have, for now, more water than we know what to do with, to the point where there are essentially no consequences for wasting it. Why would we expect to be notably good at managing a commodity we have in gross abundance?

Saudi Arabia, or Chad, or Algeria — that’s who you’d expect to be good at managing water.

A permanent problem in a land of plenty.

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