Bay, Earth need more than Earth Day deeds

ON THE BAY

April 22, 1995|By TOM HORTON

On this, the 25th Earth Day, here is a list of not-so-simple things you can do for the bay and the planet.

The simple things that will be done throughout Maryland in celebrations today are wonderful -- recycle, pick up trash, plant a tree, install fluorescent lights -- who could argue?

But sharing the Earth and the Chesapeake, forever, with all the rest of nature is as complex and frustrating, as pleasurable and rewarding, as life itself.

Up with cities

From metropolis to village, livable urban centers have been a crowning achievement of every great and enduring civilization.

The ongoing abandonment of ours for the centerless sameness of bedroom communities and strip developments is as much an environmental trauma as a social one.

Commuting pollutes air and water. Sprawl consumes vast tracts of natural spaces, also farms and timberlands, and shreds the integrity and regional character of our landscapes.

Working to improve public safety and schools in Baltimore and Washington, to revitalize Cumberland and Cambridge, is the ultimate recycling, tantamount to preserving wildlife and wetlands and rural beauty.

Also, environmentalism has to be about more than preserving clean air and nature for the materially comfortable.

The environment, as Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day founder, said in 1970: "is also . . . a hungry child in a land of affluence; public housing that isn't worthy of the name . . . decaying, polluted urban areas."

Stop acting nouveau riche with energy

There is a principle in ecology that says species that maximize the energy available to them are the ones that win out.

But humans have glommed onto energy stores of a magnitude and potency unavailable through all of time to any other species, even to ourselves until the last century or so.

These are the long-buried fossil fuels -- coal, oil, gas; also uranium and phosphate plant fertilizers.

Like a great fortune, inherited suddenly by one not accustomed to riches, this has permitted a growth binge whose polluting side effects may permanently impair Earth's natural systems before rising price or absolute scarcity rein us in.

A major bay polluter, for example, is nitrogen from autos and industrial facilities that falls from the air. Rising sea levels, pushed by global warming, are destroying bay wetlands.

At the least, we need to husband nonrenewable energy stores more like people from old money might treat their capital.

How? Car pool, and trade the Jaguar for a Civic (OK, an Accordif you must). Conserve hot water and forgo the air-onditioning when it's merely warm. Insulate. Choose a smaller home to heat and cool. Use a solar hot water system.

Or eat more vegetarian. It's healthy, and wastes less landtopsoil and energy than eating meat and dairy products from animals fed on grains; and modern animal farming can be a big water polluter.

Save energy by opting for the reusable over the disposable. Plastic shopping bags or paper ones? You can debate it endlessly. Meanwhile, buy durable canvas ones.

Learn how to live in a place

This can be a rewarding one.

Many environmental solutions need national and statewide laws to achieve them, but the best implementation may be specific to a given locale.

Get to understand your region. What is the nearest stream to you? Where does it go to? How is the land in its drainage used, now and historically? What kind of soils, trees and animals are there?

We should know these things like our street address, but too few do.

Wise land use is key to water quality in the bay, but people look at the land in so many different ways, and few see it whole.

Talk to local farmers, foresters, developers, planners, wildlife managers and environmentalists. What vision emerges for your region? Who is determining it -- market forces or people who live there?

Much of this you can't affect in the short term; so consider also that most local of land uses, your own yard.

Consider all the environmental benefits to wildlife and water quality of work you don't do.

Don't burn leaves; don't even rake them -- plant a ground cover to hold them and slowly compost them in place. Don't cut any tree you don't have to, living or dead; the latter probably supports more wildlife than the former. Don't fertilize. Don't mow. Let part of the lawn revert to nature.

Population -- How many?

This is, of course, a minefield, and avoided or put on the back burner by most environmental groups.

Perhaps the model pro-lifer was Noah, willing to make room for every species. The crowd in control of Congress now probably would have yanked his ark license (or left it up to each state to deal with the Deluge).

Earth today is more crowded. Around the bay, a near doubling of population since 1950 has offset much of our environmental progress.

We face a future of running hard just to stay in place. If we insist on doubling our numbers again, while preserving a high quality of life, we may find a prime "pollutant" to be the welter of rules needed to handle such crowded circumstances.

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