Consultants are paid to help design and/or evaluate plans for siting and building projects such as dams, landfills, nuclear waste sites, electrical power plants, and factories. Consultants are also used to evaluate polluted areas and recommend strategies for cleaning them up or to develop plans for establishing nature preserves. Some environmental consulting groups specialize in policy making: they draft legislation for government or for an industry which may want a specific regulation enacted. Other consultants specialize in risk assessment and environmental impact statements which identify probable risks to human health and the local environment associated with proposed projects. The term "consultant" has become as confusing as the term NGO, or Non Governmental Organization. Like NGOs, consulting organizations vary in size from one or two persons operating out of a home or small office to giant multinational corporations with budgets in the millions of dollars.
If NGOs too often avoid claiming the title of consultant, it is also true that too many self-proclaimed consultants benefit from their professional titles even though the quality of their work falls far below the standards of unpaid NGO experts or even the more fundamental criteria of common sense. We have attended numerous public meetings announcing a controversial environmental project where a crowd of ordinary citizens uncovered embarrassing math errors, factual errors and unproven assumptions presented by professional consultants. Unlike lawyers, engineers, doctors, and most other professionals, consultants in the United States are not licensed and the profession is not regulated by the government. In the environmental information marketplace, the best advice is "buyer beware."
It is clear that almost anyone can assume the title "environmental consultant". But who deserves to be referred to as an environmental consultant? The answer determines whose advice will be heeded, who will be respected, and who will get paid and therefore be able to continue influencing environmental policies and actions. Perhaps the time has come for NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to simultaneously enhance their credibility and their treasuries by selectively providing fee for service consulting.
ECOLOGIA is most familiar with technical consulting performed in the field of municipal waste incineration in the United States. The record of faked data on air emissions and mis- representation of costs in this field is extraordinary and frightening. Consultants hired by the nuclear industry have asserted that "fail safe" technology would prevent accidents.
In the interest of providing a balanced view of how consultants operate in the real world, we asked some of our colleagues if they had personal experience with distortions by consultants hired by NGOs. Following are explanations of some situations and their results.
SITUATION # 1: Over the last few years, NGO experts have issued alarmist pronouncements about the severity of environmental problems. For example, environmental experts across the former Soviet Union have frequently asserted that their local ecological problems are "worse than the Chernobyl disaster". The intention of such exaggerations is undoubtedly to emphasize the need for outside support. RESULT: Aid has been discouraged as the situation was made to appear hopeless and unsolvable.
SITUATION # 2: Several international environmental organizations were premature in declaring that global climate change is a reality and an immediate threat. But scientists still do not understand the process. The public is confused. A weary and emotionally exhausted public is beginning to ignore many warnings, including well founded concerns about ozone depletion and about future energy shortages.
SITUATION # 3: International NGOs and zoos focus publicity and fundraising efforts on threats to species such as giant pandas, African elephants, and whales because of their enormous popular appeal. They claim that by developing "safe havens" in countries of origin, or by relocating animals, these species can be preserved. RESULT: Zoo purchases are depleting the existing wild animal population, in some cases reducing the chances of successful reproduction. With African elephants in Zimbabwe, lack of attention to the habitats of the animals has resulted in the deforestation of overly small reserve areas, the destruction of other species, and problems for the local farming communities.
SITUATION # 4: Citizens in a community are concerned about a local environmental problem, such as a leaking landfill. They hire a consultant to evaluate the situation. The consultant intentionally exaggerates the severity of the problem so that they will hire him to do further tests. RESULT: Citizens and regulatory agencies spend money, time and emotional energy on something which is really not a problem. Only the consultants and the lawyers benefit.
SITUATION # 5: Public concern in the United States over exposure to hazardous wastes led to the passing of Federal Superfund clean-up legislation in the 1980s. This set up a mechanism for certifying an area as highly contaminated and eligible for Federal clean-up money. Consultants claimed that by digging up and removing the hazardous wastes, environmental quality could be improved. RESULT: Wastes were moved into other communities, where they still leaked. Billions of dollars were spent. Bureaucrats, lawyers and consultants received most of the money allocated to clean-up efforts, in legal wranglings over where and how to move the wastes.
But in a world of increasing environmental problems and decreasing financial resources to deal with these problems, consultants can make a vital contribution. They can operate above the political arena and short term financial interests of individual clients and provide us with the information we need to be rational, to apply our limited financial and technology resources to ecological problems.
Much of the responsibility for the failure of consultants to live up to their potential is not the fault of the consultants themselves. It is the failure of the public, of NGOs, of industry, and of governmental officials who often do not want to be troubled with the extraordinary complexity of ecological problems. One local official in Pennsylvania summarized this feeling after hearing a two hour presentation by an internationally recognized consultant who presented evidence that challenged the claims of a previous government paid consultant. The official snarled, "I do not want to be confused by the facts".
Consultants play an increasingly important and valuable role in emerging democracies. As specialists they can provide information that average citizens and local governments do not have. However, the policy recommendations of consultants are not a substitute for broad based and informed citizen participation in political decision making.