To truly treasure the bay, we must recognize its value


December 13, 2005|By TOM HORTON

"Treasure the Chesapeake." It's proudly displayed on special bay license plates all over Maryland.

It's a fine sentiment, but it has yet to translate to the billions of dollars needed to make the bay once again a real treasure.

Perhaps it would help if we focused equally on the immense and very real dollar costs of not caring for our troubled estuary.

Rog Morton argued the case well in a speech nearly 40 years ago. The Eastern Shore congressman, who became Richard Nixon's Secretary of the Interior, said:

"If we were to present a citation to nature for a near-victory in her struggle of resistance against the works of man, [we should] vote unanimously the Chesapeake as the recipient.

"The valiant way in which the vast ecology in the waters, in the marshes, on the land and even in the sky, has fought against the poison of pollution and man's rank disregard for the living values makes one stand in awe of the power of nature."

Morton captured intuitively what would increasingly come to be understood as resilience - the profound capacities of natural systems such as forests, wetlands, oysters, menhaden, aquatic grasses - to filter, buffer and stabilize the bay's rivers and streams against both human pollution and natural disturbances such as hurricanes and floods.

Trees absorb air pollution and the greenhouse gases that cause global warming - also the nitrogen that pollutes the bay. Oysters cleanse algae from the water, and aquatic grasses settle out sediment and absorb the energy of shore-eroding waves.

They do this and more for free, which strangely is part of the problem - for all our "treasure the Chesapeake" talk, mainstream economics attaches no hard cash value to these natural services.

At a national and global scale, there's a serious movement to raise consciousness about "ecosystem services," the actual worth of nature; to broaden mainstream capitalism's narrow view to include natural and social capital.

In other words, to begin asking not just "How's the market doing?" but also "How are other species doing?" and "How's your quality of life?"

Nature's services cast a broad net, says Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. He spoke recently in Maryland, where he studied the bay for many years.

They range from regulation of climate, pollination of crops and food and timber production, to soil formation, genetic resources, waste treatment and recreational opportunities.

"Nature is not a luxury, not an `if we can afford it' proposition," Costanza told members of the Maryland Conservation Council.

He and other researchers have attempted to put a price on the natural planet, coming up with what he calls "a very conservative estimate" of around 33 trillion bucks a year in goods and services. That far surpasses the value of the human economy.

Mainstream economists criticize attempts to put a dollar value on nature as unscientific. It also makes some environmentalists nervous because it puts a price on things they consider priceless.

Indeed, how would one value inspiration - morning light sifting through the canopy of an ancient forest; solace - a walk to sort out one's thoughts along a surf-swept beach; humility - taught by the forces of storms; or the bonding of a shared hunt or fishing trip?

Still, we tend to save that to which we assign value. And until we can put natural capital on a more equal footing in the human economy, we're going to continue to think we're making progress even as we trash the planet around us.

As an example, Costanza and other speakers noted the gross domestic product. GDP is this nation's broadest measure of economic progress.

And it's way too narrow.

GDP, which measures only the money economy, goes up when an oil company spends to clean up a spill, subtracting nothing for the loss of fish and birds and wetlands. Divorce and murder drive it up as money is spent on lawyers, with nothing subtracted for the costs of repairing damaged lives.

A couple of alternatives to GDP that value the environment and quality of life are compiled by Friends of the Earth and Redefining Progress. You can Google both under the Genuine Progress Indicator and the ISEW, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare.

By these still-imperfect, but better measures, national economic progress has been flat or turning down slightly for several decades, not soaring as the GDP would have us believe.

Interestingly enough, the percentage of Americans in polls who say they are happy has also remained the same for decades.

The Chesapeake too has been just hanging in there since it took a downward plunge some 30 years ago.

"Treasuring" the Chesapeake on SUV bumpers as we drive to vote for whomever cuts taxes most is hypocrisy. It's going to take cash, and it's going to require valuing nature so that continuing to degrade it is as unacceptable as bank

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