Values triumph over easy money Ethics: Tangier's rejection of filming on the island is in line with adoption by 58 watermen of a biblically based covenant to keep the rules and protect Earth's resources.

On The Bay

March 20, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TANGIER, Va. -- This bay island has made national news for saying no to filming a PG-13, Kevin Costner-Paul Newman movie, which the Town Council found objectionably coarse.

Whether one agrees with the decision or not, it had a profound basis -- placing values over easy money in a place that could use the income.

The decision was an outgrowth of less-publicized events here that go to the core of bay restoration efforts and offer a fascinating foretaste of environmental politics in the next presidential campaign.

Last weekend, Tangier unveiled its Stewardship 2020 Initiative, for a "sustainable Tangier Island." The three-day town meeting drew participants from all levels of government and from environmental groups, academia and other communities of watermen.

The centerpiece was a covenant, made by 58 of the island's 175 licensed watermen, to abide by all fisheries regulations, and to stop throwing plastic and trash overboard and dumping used engine oil.

Abiding scrupulously by the laws is no light decision for watermen, many of whom feel that bending conservation rules is sometimes the only way to make a living.

That has led to some intense soul-searching into consumption -- a volatile issue in an economy based on never-ending wants.

How much do you need to be happy? How much is contentment linked to making more money, catching more crabs?

Such debates, going on at Tangier, command the attention and respect of us all. They are grappling in the here and now with an issue to which most of us pay lip service at best.

They must make their living largely from a public commons, the bay, and from a limited natural resource, the blue crab.

Ultimately all of Earth's natural resources, including its ability to absorb pollution, are finite. The planet itself is an island.

But very few of us, environmentalists included, come close to living as if that were so, even while making "sustainability" our watchword.

We are all, in this sense, Tangiermen. We just have more options than they to mask the overdrafts on our natural capital.

As for Tangier's stewardship efforts foreshadowing presidential politics, consider this likely scenario in 2000:

Al Gore runs for president and is demonized by the Republican Party's Christian right wing as a tree hugger, dangerous to American freedoms and valuing endangered birds and bugs over humans.

Until recently, such a view of environmentalists probably held sway on Tangier, where fundamentalist religion is dominant enough that the public school does not make its annual schedule before running it by the churches for conflicts.

The covenant taken by the 58 watermen is based on biblical stewardship principles, although it is open to, and embraced by, non-Christians as well as Christians.

But last week's Stewardship Conference was a virtual love-in among islanders and environmentalists, with attendees from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation warmly received.

Susan Drake, a doctoral student and Christian missionary on the island, persuaded the island's churches that ample foundation is in the Scriptures, taken quite literally, to justify stewardship of "the creation" (nature) without any conflict with worship of God the Creator.

The keynote speaker last weekend was her mentor, Calvin B. DeWitt, a biblical ethicist, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, and co-founder of the national Evangelical Environmental Network.

DeWitt masterfully wove together environmentalism and the Bible: Noah, laboring decades on a mountaintop in a desert country to build an ark, seemed at least as silly and strange as the Endangered Species Act's striving to save a rare toad. Yet both were about caring for "every part of God's creation," he said.

In the weeks before DeWitt's arrival, he and Drake were bitterly criticized by some Tangiermen on the basis of a "dossier" downloaded from the Web site of the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Part of a network of conservative, anti-environment groups loosely known as the "Wise Use Movement," the center uses its dossier collection to smear everyone from EPA chief Carol S. Browner, to the late Carl Sagan, to the League of Conservation Voters to Gore.

Wise Use groups will be key in stirring anti-environmentalist sentiment in the next presidential election. On Tangier, one such group published a "white paper" last year purporting that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wanted to eliminate watermen.

DeWitt's teachings, coming from an evangelical and political independent, make a powerful counterpoint. Compare them with what the Wise Use Movement believes, as published on one of its Web sites.

From the Wise Use-linked, Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise: "The earth and its life are tough and resilient we only learn about the world through trial and error; our limitless imaginations can break through natural limits to make earthly goods virtually infinite; Man's reworking of the earth is ultimately benevolent."

And from DeWitt:

"Keep God's Earth as God keeps us; do not defile or destroy the creation. Do not occupy the land to the exclusion of other creatures. Practice contentment; do not exploit the creation beyond meeting your basic needs."

You will see the same clash nationally in 2000 between so-called Wise Use principles and those of DeWitt, who is consulted by everyone from Billy Graham and leading rabbis to Gore.

And long after the movie flap fades, little Tangier will remain one of the most interesting places to watch in the Chesapeake, as residents struggle to define their future.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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