A Time For Vigilance, Values?


January 23, 1993|By TOM HORTON

From Horton's Believe It Or Not: Everyone on Earth, some 5 billion souls, would fit into Baltimore and Howard counties; and a few good-sized Eastern Shore farms would hold the 15 million or so people who live in the six-state watershed of Chesapeake Bay.

Admittedly, that's packing the people like chickens in a coop, about 4 square feet apiece. And wouldn't you know it, before long someone in the crowd would raise a hand, wanting to go to the bathroom.

And before long, somebody would want a house, on a little land; and while you're at it, how about a water view, even if it sacrificed a few trees and a smidgen of wetlands.

Before long, someone would get hungry. Got to plow up some ground to feed 'em. And people would want consumer goods; well, here come the factories and power plants, and we'd be off to the races.

The scenario is absurd, but the point is real: Protecting the bay has as much to do with how we act as with how many actors there are. As millions more people join those already in the bay region, we all must learn to take up less space and to behave better than we have. If we don't, this old bay's got trouble.

One way we'll try to avoid trouble is by passing more laws and making more rules. It is not as immutable as a mathematical principle; but whether it is the family bathroom or the bay's watershed, it seems impossible to add more people without making more rules, if order is to reign.

It has been said that regulation can prevent the worst but cannot alone ensure the best. Moreover, there is increasing frustration with the ratio of environmental progress to increasingly complex and expensive regulatory burdens.

In addition, the regulatory route that works for smokestacks, sewage pipes and automobile exhausts applies less neatly to private land. Where do private property rights end and public responsibilities begin? Along such a continuum no uniform standard can be set, no simple line drawn.

Regulations no doubt have a role; but it seems unlikely they will work as well with land as with air and water. The only acceptable alternative to more rules seems to be more personal responsibility, a heightened environmental ethic -- in short, better behavior.

Here are some ways to improve our behavior that deserve more consideration than they usually get:


I don't mean warm, fuzzy, aren't-they-cute nature shows, though these have their place; nor do I mean the "10 simple things you can do for the environment" lists, or advisories saying that if you can't abide driving a smaller car, at least inflate your tires properly.

I mean education that forces a hard examination of the roots of our environmental crisis: Must we, 6 percent of Earth's people, consume a quarter of its natural resources and produce a quarter of many global pollutants? Why is the unending growth we embrace nowhere the rule in nature, excepting perhaps the cancer cell -- which eventually kills its host?

And what is progress? Buying a five-bedroom home after growing up in a house with three bedrooms? Needing an acre of yard, twice as much as your parents had? Each generation driving 50 percent more miles than the last?

Is our only choice between an ever-expanding economy and a depressed one? Or does the emerging discipline of ecological economics, with its definitions of a "sustainable" economy, have something to tell us about a middle choice?


Consider a wetland and a cornfield. The former nourishes an astounding variety of life -- year-round, for free if we let it alone -- and also filters polluted runoff. The latter requires chemicals and machinery to produce a single, if impressive, harvest; but the cornfield is a polluter unless we manage it very carefully.

Both are equally vital parts of our modern world. Yet the gross domestic product, the way the nation measures its economic health, counts the cornfield as a huge plus, simply totting up the value of both corn and products purchased for cultivation. As for the wetland, GDP does not count it, perhaps because the wetland works for free. Only if it gets filled and paved for a shopping mall does it show up positively in the GDP.

We say we love wetlands, but we tend to protect best what we value most; and wetlands scarcely even appear on the official books.


We all want to preserve wetlands. But most have been destroyed in urban and suburban areas. Tough laws now protect wetlands in rural counties near the bay. Should those counties get some tax credit or other subsidy from the millions of us who benefit from the preservation?

Let's turn to farms, a major source of polluted runoff. They cover nearly a quarter of the 41 million acres in the Chesapeake watershed. But the farms are owned by less than 2 percent of the population. Should the other 98 percent, all of whom benefit from the agricultural plenty, somehow contribute more to agricultural cleanup?

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