Amid problems, optimism must exist Environmentalists fear good news, author says

ON THE BAY

September 22, 1995|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Years ago, after a lecture in which I set out, realistically I thought, the problems facing the Chesapeake Bay, a woman in the audience raised her hand:

"Then there really is no hope, is there?" she said.

Since then, I still don't soft-pedal the environmental problems we face; but I try to let people know the reason I stay in this game is a fundamental optimism that we will fashion a better and durable fit between ourselves and the rest of nature.

So perhaps I should have been more welcoming than I was last week at a University of Maryland debate-discussion with Gregg Easterbrook about his new book "A Moment On The Earth."

In more than 700 pages of text, he documents his contention that the nation's air and water pollution rapidly are being eliminated.

He also argues that "fragile" nature, throughout all of time, has in fact welcomed and readily adapted to constant, rapid and massive changes -- including the explosion of human population.

In making the case for his "eco-realistic" view, he accuses the environmental movement of fearing to publicize anything good or positive about what is happening.

Some ground he works has been spaded irresponsibly by right-wing arch-conservatives, more interested in blowing away environmental regulation than in stewardship of nature.

"If only the air had been privatized, it would be far cleaner than now," I was told by one of this ilk. One can only wonder, if Beth Steel had owned the sky over Sparrows Point, how breathable it would be today.

But Easterbrook is a respected environmental reporter for Newsweek and other national magazines, a political liberal who feels the growth of environmental regulation and activism has been a resounding success.

From my experience, the questions he raises about fashionable "doomsaying" and "fragile" nature deserve careful thought.

Why, for example, did we pursue toxics as the cause of the rockfish decline even as rock in the Hudson flourished -- too full of PCBs to be caught and eaten? The real problem, which should have been obvious, was overfishing.

Why do polls still rank industry and chemicals as primary threats to the bay, when farm runoff and the ways we build homes, drive cars, care for lawns and use septic tanks are far more out of control?

Why is it that the greatest damage from oil spills often is the thorough cleanup we insist on?

Why are so many of the country's endangered species, and whole ecosystems like the vanishing longleaf pine forest, flourishing on military lands, including bombing and gunnery ranges?

Still, I could not help reverting in last week's forum to the very environmental peevishness Easterbrook wishes would subside.

My concerns begin with the too-facile manner in which the author plays with geologic time to make his point that human impacts are puny in the larger scheme of things.

Indeed we are, compared to glaciers that moved mountains, and tectonic forces that moved continents; and yes, nature in a few centuries might well adjust, as he speculates, even to human projects like mirrors hung in space from satellites to alter the day's length (a proposal not actually endorsed by Easterbrook).

It all reminds me of the interview a bay scientist gave years ago to the New York Times, about how there have been several Chesapeakes, alternately appearing and vanishing as ice ages come and go, and the seas flood the coast's indentations and retreat.

"Estuaries not necessary" was the gist of the headline.

And from some millennial perspective it was true; yet not one bit true in any sense that means anything to me or to you; and "A Moment On The Earth" plays such games too much.

For example, the changing, adaptable nature posited by Easterbrook might well ask whether, in the declines of bay species we bemoan, the estuary's "biomass," the total quantity of life in it, had in fact changed.

TC And the answer probably is no. Oysters are down, but menhaden are up; the grass beds where we waded to net soft crabs are down, but floating algae has gone zonkers, and so on.

Nature, which does care more about life, per se, than what kinds of life, might be satisfied; but my standards, human and puny though they be, say a quart of oysters is worth bathtubs of algae.

The book, seen from the bay, also suffers a flaw that is almost inevitable when writing about the global and national environment.

Forests, the author tells us, are increasing nationally. But they aren't in the bay region, which already has less than 60 percent of its pre-European tree cover.

Likewise, Easterbrook says for all our concerns about development, only two percent of America's land is developed. In Maryland it is more like 15 percent; and sprawl is alive and burgeoning.

It is the same problem with air and water quality, where he correctly states we are moving closer to meeting federal standards.

But for one of the bay's biggest pollution sources -- nitrogen -- from farmland, sewage treatment plants, septic tanks and auto exhausts, legal standards either are too lax, or don't exist yet.

"Moment's" admonition to dwell more on the good news thus seems premature around here.

However, some things do link us all, at least in the affluent West. I particularly like this insight toward the book's end:

"To the extent environmental sentiment transforms into a critique of the materialist lifestyle it will serve a more important purpose than halting pollution, since it will help bring not just clean air and safe water but something of greater value: inner peace."

On the Bay now runs each Friday. Harbor events appear each Thursday in Live.

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