But environmental jobs were few and far between, they paid poorly, and they were so fringe as to be risky. So Bell dabbled in environmental education for a year, then moved to Chicago to earn a master’s in art education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
That led him to jobs in education, visitor services and operations with the Field Museum and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, then to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a city-owned facility that offers public education and demonstration programs.
It wasn’t until January, however, that Bell found the job with his name written all over it: the newly created post of director of sustainable operations at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.
There, Bell discovered a new generation of environmentally minded interns who won’t be traveling the circuitous career route that he did.
"These interns have a completely different background. They’re architects, land-use planners and policymakers. They are actually planning their careers around sustainability, which is a much different job environment than I came from," he says.
Careers that used to be niche are now mainstream, says Andrew Horning, who manages the business-science master’s program at the University of Michigan.
"Companies have realized there’s a real business opportunity there," he says.
Now that he’s found his dream job, Bell hasn’t wasted any time, especially since he’s building a sustainability operation from scratch.
Before hiring Bell, the garden did an environmental audit, which he has used as a baseline to develop long-term goals, drawing input from staff and thinking hard about the garden as a role model.
As the garden staff begin a $100 million project to expand into a world-class plant-conservation research center, CEO Sophia Siskel says it’s their responsibility to "embrace sustainability" and encourage the public to do the same.
First came the easy stuff: switching food-service tableware from plastic to biodegradable materials, adjusting heating and cooling temperatures by a few degrees and ending the sale of bottled water at the garden to cut down on plastics waste. Soon they’ll install low-flow aerators on the garden’s faucets.
What’s next will take more time, including writing grants and raising funds. But Bell plans, among other things, to improve building efficiency and use green standards for new construction. He also intends to make the garden cafe a venue for local organic food and to trade the garden’s old fleet vehicles and lawn equipment for alternative-energy models.
"This isn’t a fad," Bell says. "There is no ‘green team’ here, no six or seven people whose responsibility it is to take greening seriously. Sustainability needs to be incorporated into everybody’s job description."