A bay manifesto

Tom Horton & William M. Eichbaum

June 14, 1991|By Tom Horton & William M. Eichbaum

and published by Island Press, the book is a status report on the B condition of the bay, with recommendations for rescuing it from the human onslaught. This is the third of three excerpts. :

WHAT must we do, then, to save the bay?

We must learn to see the bay whole, as water and watershed, inseparably linked -- as a system whose forests and oysters and underwater grasses and marshes are every bit as much components of pollution control and environmental health as sewage treatment plants, automotive catalytic converters and sediment control fences.

We easily accept spending $50 million or more on sewage treatment, but the filtering, cleansing forest may not be allowed to stand because it is "uneconomic" not to develop it. Likewise, we haul sewage sludge to Haiti and beyond for environmentally sound disposal, but to haul excess farm manure halfway across Lancaster County to soils that can use it is "not cost-effective." These differences must change.

We must similarly restructure our approach to environmental protection to be more than corrective of piecemeal problems as they arise. Rather, we must define and enforce limits on all of society's environmental impacts. And wherever those limits are ill-defined, the burden of proof must be on us to show no harm, not on the bay to demonstrate degradation.

Lifestyle changes alone, at least in the voluntary sense, will not occur fast enough or widely enough to sufficiently reduce our impact on the Chesapeake environment. Nor can government simply make it all happen by fiat. It must happen as a partnership -- people pushing government to push them to do what is right. That will take the highest quality of leadership, both in government and in the environmental community. The extraordinary federal, state and environmentalist partnerships that fostered our current Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs nearly a decade ago are a model for what must become the norm.

We must articulate and demonstrate visions to replace the myths of "grow or die," "economics vs. environment" and "pollution is the price of progress" that underlie current development of the watershed. What is needed to save the bay must be linked wherever possible to a better quality of life, not simply sacrifice. Saving open space while revitalizing downtowns is an example; protecting forests also benefits hunters and hikers and reduces air pollution.

Just as introducing a pollutant may have unforeseen effects that reverberate throughout the environment, so introducing an environmentally sound practice can have "multiplier effects" for the good. Driving less to cut air pollution means, ultimately, fewer oil spills and less toxic rainwater running from parking lots and driveways. Given a chance, it will no doubt amaze us with the bounty it can produce.

But there are also deeper reasons for cleaning up our act. Everywhere in the world, environmental pressures are growing most severe along the edges of land and water so exemplified by the bay. About half of all the people on Earth live on about 5 percent of its land, and much of that 5 percent is around coastal edges and estuaries. The problems here are also happening globally. Thus there are vital lessons everyone can learn from environmental success on the Chesapeake.

Love for Chesapeake Bay is the closest we come in this region of the world to having an environmental ethic. This love can be built on and extended to the watershed as a whole. If you love the bird, then you must learn to love and keep the forest in which it lives -- and perhaps learn to love logging and clearing a bit less.

The environmental crisis is also a moral crisis. Squandering natural riches which are collectively inherited, not one iota earned, seems particularly irresponsible. We cannot justify continuing to take from future generations. We must choose stewardship, the care of what we have, rather than a philosophy built on the acquisition of ever more material goods and the treatment of natural resources as disposable commodities.

We need to learn how to behave, and quickly. We have already ensured that nearly a generation will grow up in parts of the watershed without the ability to catch shad and rockfish; that a generation or two will never wade as children in grassy, clear shallows in pursuit of softshell crabs; that generations to come will take congested highways, strip development and sprawling suburbs as their normal environment.

We are not far from consigning a coming generation of children to seeing oyster skipjacks only in museums and books; to traveling ever farther for a glimpse of natural landscape; to only savoring the regional uniqueness attached to so many parts of the bay watershed from books and pictures or the reminiscences of their elders.

It is our tragedy that this is happening now. That it need not continue is our hope.

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