More than 1 day for Earth

April 21, 2000|By Peter G. Brown

AS ANOTHER Earth Day rolls around, Americans will turn off their car ignitions, recycle their prepackaged food containers and take a moment to appreciate the songbirds that are migrating north.

And then they'll return to their Earth-unfriendly habits.

That's a reason I decided to leave Maryland for Canada to head McGill University's School of Environment. It is an opportunity to guide a program that will help educate students to protect ourselves and the commonwealth of life of which we are a member.

But I might not have left the state I called my home for more than 30 years if I had not repeatedly witnessed farms and forests giving way to shopping malls, subdivisions and massive highways. If the path to opportunity is paved in gold, then surely a path to environmental degradation in the United States is paved in asphalt.

In Maryland, I was a tree farmer for a number of years, and in 1995, I was named Tree Farmer of the Year for Garrett County. I was committed to the state's biodiversity, and I worked hard to reforest land in Garrett County that had been heavily logged and then pastured. On my farm of 450 acres, 275 acres is now forested. But trees take hundred of years to grow, while houses rise in weeks.

During the time that I farmed in Garrett County and helped found the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and its environmental policy program, the following things happened:

The population in Maryland grew from under 4 million to more than 5 million. These new people, and people from the already settled areas, spread out into the countryside to the point that once-rural Hagerstown is essentially becoming incorporated into the Washington metro area.

Despite improvements in vehicular emissions, air pollution in Maryland continues to exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in Baltimore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those improvements were largely offset by increases in vehicle miles traveled.

The number of vehicles registered in the state has risen from 1,890,314 in 1970 to 3,971,809 in 1998, the last year for which data were available. Each of those cars contributes to air pollution. In fact, the United States is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, altering the earth's atmosphere so that Americans can idle their SUVs in traffic jams.

The Chesapeake Bay continued to be endangered by urbanization. Only 400 years ago, this estuary was pristine. Today, despite vigorous efforts to clean up the bay, pollution continues to have an impact on the shellfish and plant population. The Chesapeake Bay commission predicts the population will rise to 17.4 million in the bay watershed by 2020.

Maryland is not alone. The United States is a nation at war with its own landscape and, ultimately, its own life support systems. The individual reigns supreme in America: Each person has the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness -- even if it causes deforestation, air pollution and fewer fish in the sea.

So I chose Canada to help conserve and restore the commonwealth of life. Canada isn't perfect, but it has better habits. It is more community-oriented, valuing the good of the whole in balance with the good of individual. Its population of 30 million inhabits a larger land mass than the United States, yet that population does not proportionally sprawl over as much landscape. In Montreal, we have extensive and heavily used mass transit. The government is allowed to protect property in the public's interest without having to compensate land owners. Furthermore, Canada signed the 1997 Kyoto accord on greenhouse gases, and although it will have trouble reaching its target for emission reductions, at least real discussion is in progress here about what to do. The United States continues to fiddle while heat-trapping emissions soar.

All countries need to do more to protect the environment as we celebrate another Earth Day. Although I moved to Canada in part because of my discouragement, the environment in the United States is not without friends. Maryland is a good example of a state that, although the assaults on its environment are formidable, is still fighting to protect and restore its commonwealth of life. The state's Smart Growth and Rural Legacy programs are successes that should be duplicated across the United States.

The Rural Legacy board has protected 26,000 acres by paying owners for development rights. This step is good news, and I applaud the group's efforts, which I helped in 1998. But the land preservation effort in the United States gives me pause when I consider that we're paying to protect land, like that surrounding public reservoirs, that should never have been considered for development in the first place. The state is paying for rights that local governments needlessly created.

It is not too late to recognize that we live in a world of limited systems, that we need to limit the number of cars and people and that property rights come with obligations to the public health and the commonwealth of life itself.

We all must take responsibility for sustaining the planet -- in the United States, in Canada and in every country.

Peter G. Brown is director of the McGill School of Environment. His latest book is "Ethics, Economics And International Relations: Transparent Sovereignty in the Commonwealth of Life" (Edinburgh University Press). His e-mail is pgb@mse.mcgill.ca.

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