Imagining an economy that accounts for nature's contribution

ON THE BAY

September 27, 2005|By Tom Horton

Early morning, late summer, Nanticoke River, Eastern Shore. A flooding tide fills the marsh, and the rising sun gleams on smooth, brown water rising among the tangled roots and stalks.

A photographer and I have come to make a classic "juxtaposition" picture - in this case a shot of the industrial, drab, angulated power plant by U.S. 50 in Vienna, set against a voluptuous foreground of lemony-gold wild rice and cream-petaled, scarlet-centered hibiscus.

It's the contrast of industry and nature in such a picture that commands one's interest. But more important is this: How do we reconcile the fossil-fuel-fired power of the electrical plant and the natural energies of the marsh and the river?

"No way to speak of power. ... "

I recall the lyrics of a song as we float serenely on the Nanticoke beneath the whine and swoosh of morning traffic on the U.S. 50 bridge.

My friend Tom Wisner wrote the song "Southern Maryland River Country Way" decades ago about another bay river, the Patuxent, which flows down from central Maryland's suburbia to Solomons in Southern Maryland.

Tom wrote it when the Patuxent region was experiencing a wave of bold new energy projects - the giant Chalk Point generating plant at Benedict, the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, the liquid natural gas terminal at Cove Point.

Changes in the poetry, he sang, are comin' in our time

No way to speak of power in the rhythm and the rhyme

Of that old easy flowin', down right knowin'

Southern Maryland river country way.

He meant that we easily measure and value the output of the nuke plant, the coal-fired boiler - how many kilowatts it produces, how many homes it will heat, how many bulbs it will light.

Such items we add to measures of the economy's health, such as the gross domestic product. But GDP, and most other ways economists measure progress, take scant account of the dazzling power of rivers and marshes.

My, what they miss:

Schools of baby white perch and striped bass riffle the shallows, drawn to these Nanticoke marshes by the rich broth of nutrients carried by tides from the decay of the exuberant plant life here.

Kingbirds and redwing blackbirds and waterfowl flit and paddle through the rice beds - even a hummingbird, no seed-eater, hovers there for reasons known only to itself. Eagles and ospreys cruise the swampy shores, looking to dive on larger fish.

The marshes not only shelter and feed, they do the work, baywide, of billions of dollars of sewage treatment, removing as much as 40 percent of the polluting nitrogen coming downriver from farms and towns, according to a study of the Patuxent.

Power aplenty here, lots of vital services provided - and it's lovely, too, and runs forever, just for the price of being let alone.

But the energy of the marsh, compared with that of the power plant, is diverse, unfocused, transmitted throughout thousands of pathways instead of a few big power cables. And since no one gets a bill for it, it's regarded as worthless - literally - in toting up measures of economic progress such as GDP.

Indeed, if we were to fill the marsh to build a power plant, GDP would count the economic activity generated by the construction/destruction as a plus.

So what? you say. We need energy to grow, and not just the kind found in rivers and their marshes. And we have laws to protect the latter anyhow. We can have our lunch and eat it, too.

A lot of people thought that on the Patuxent some 30 years ago, when ambitious plans were launched to restore the polluted river's health.

Since then, all that added energy from places such as Chalk Point and Calvert Cliffs has enabled population in the river's basin to increase nearly 20-fold.

It's a large part of the reason the river's not much better off now, despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, courtesy of big subsidies for nuclear, gas and other traditional power sources in the new federal energy bill, Southern Maryland may be embarking on another round of expansion at Calvert Cliffs and Cove Point.

Why? Well, we need more energy to grow. For progress.

But what of the polluted river? And the polluted bay to which it connects?

What would conventional measures of progress look like if we were to subtract losses of natural capital from increases in the human-built capital?

Intact natural systems often turn out to be worth more in the services they provide us than the systems we replace them with, according to a recent study whose authors included former bay researcher Robert Costanza.

What might it look like, a human economy that followed principles designed to promote nature's economy in the process?

Some say that would end progress. But maybe we just need to redefine progress. National polls taken since World War II, asking people how happy they are, show the percentage of "very satisfied" peaked in the mid-1950s, despite material wealth (including energy consumption) that has exploded since then.

How to speak of power in the rhythm and the rhyme?

twh@intercom.net

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