Maybe it's time to start limiting bay-area population Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay

June 12, 1991|By Tom Horton & William M. Eichbaum

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation this morning released "Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay." Written by Tom Horton and William M.Eichbaum, funded by the Abell Foundation and published by Island Press, the book amounts to a status report on the condition of the bay, with recommendations for rescuing the estuary from the human onslaught. With permisssion, Other Voices will publish excerpts today, tomorrow and Friday.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

-- Pogo IF THE enemy is us, the solution is near at hand. For those who wonder how many more people can ultimately live around Chesapeake Bay without degrading it, the short answer is this: Too many are here already.

The bay is already degraded; its capacity to remain unpolluted and healthy is already exceeded. The real point, of course, is that population numbers can never be divorced from population impacts. What is our per capita consumption of natural resources? What is our per capita production of wastes and our disposal of those wastes?

Make no mistake, most of the problems with Chesapeake Bay are the cumulative impact of every one of the nearly 15 million people who live in its watershed. To indulge in the exercise of assigning the blame only to "industry" or "chemicals" or "developers" is to bury our heads in the sand. And environmental protection measures that do not consider the habits and lifestyles of individuals are generally assured of undershooting their target or failing outright. Some examples:

* We now plow far less land for agriculture than we did 40 years ago; but we slather far more chemicals on each acre.

* We have dramatically reduced emissions from individual autos; but we each own more cars and drive them more than ever. Thus, as the bay region's population rose by 50 percent (1952-1986), air pollutants from cars increased by more than 250 percent.

* We have expanded landfills and built waste incinerators; but we have continued to generate more and more trash per capita. Residents in the watershed a few decades ago generated 2.2 pounds of garbage a day. In 1986 this figure had risen almost 50 percent to 3.3 pounds a day.

* We currently plan and zone and lobby for "controlled growth" more than ever in history; but each of us has been using nearly twice the open space to live on as we did 40 years ago -- and each new resident averages nearly four times as much because of galloping sprawl development. More land in the watershed will be developed in the three decades between 1990 and 2020 than was developed in the three centuries between 1608 and the 1950s, based on projections from the recent "2020 Report" on population and land use.

* Energy consumption in the watershed has followed a course similar to waste -- population up by 50 percent but energy consumption up by 100 percent.

And these numbers only hint at the ripple effects of an increasingly consumptive lifestyle -- the added trees that were felled for the added roads needed for the added cars; the destruction of bay shoreline to site the added power plants needed to meet the added electrical demands . . .

Fortunately, the alternatives do not mean an impoverished existence; rather, they may lead to a higher quality of life. One example: Western Europeans, with a high standard of living use about half the energy we do to generate one dollar of GNP. Similarly, reducing waste means recycling and reuse, not doing without material goods. Reducing the runaway consumption of open space can mean a return to small town and village patterns of development, as well as enhancing the appeal of cities. Using fewer pesticides is turning out to be a way to more profitability for more and more farmers. They hire "scouts" who track insect populations and tell them when they need to spray (and when not), saving substantial money in most years.

The power of individual impacts is often hard for a single person to visualize, but when we multiply any action by millions it becomes impressive. The recent change in home laundry detergents brought about by phosphate bans in [Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia], for example, was painless and virtually without cost to consumers. Yet almost overnight it accounted for a 30 to 50 percent reduction in a major pollutant of Chesapeake Bay (phosphorus from sewage plants). Achieving the same reductions through technological changes to the plants would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and taken years for construction.

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