Pessimism, bit of hope, a few suggestions and farewell


On the Bay

December 27, 2005|By TOM HORTON

This is the last of these columns, of which I've been privileged to write some 600 during the past 13 years.

From the start I was never writing just about the Chesapeake Bay. The bay's a model for the planet - a world-class natural resource that we screwed up big time, then mounted an internationally unprecedented effort to restore.

It's a lofty and noble goal: to reverse 50 years of environmental degradation, even as population has doubled and a million more people move into the watershed each decade.

No one, anywhere, has ever done that.

Think of examples it could set for China and India, which will increasingly dominate the globe's natural resources, for better or worse.

It's not happening, of course. Holding the line, yes. Restoration, no.

In America, we remain 6 percent of the world's people using 25 percent of its energy, and the fallout from such high living is reflected in the degraded bay waters.

My fear, though it doesn't have to happen this way, is that as a generation grows up thinking of this damaged bay is normal, it will redefine what constitutes victory.

Sometimes I wonder if a restored Chesapeake, like world peace and justice for all, is just something we'll always aim for, accepting privately that we'll likely fall short. Perhaps what we're shooting for here goes too much against the grain of modern society, is too radical to succeed.

But then I think of what seems truly radical:

Prattling about "planned" growth while zoning most of the landscape for development.

Building willy-nilly along our lowest lying and most vulnerable shorelines as we document beyond a doubt that sea level will rise a minimum of 27 inches by 2100.

Promoting oysters as the great filterers and cleansers of the bay while expanding techniques such as power dredging to catch the last that remain.

Pledging allegiance to less airborne pollution of the bay while driving polluting sport utility vehicles that the great majority of owners do not need.

Celebrating forests for removing pollutants from the air and bay, while inadequately protecting them from development.

Staffing the leadership of Maryland's Department of the Environment, whose mission is "protect and preserve the state's environmental resources," with former businesspeople and industry lobbyists.

Embracing a "sustainable" balance between nature and humans while working hard to attract more people to the bay region without limit.

Only adding to national measures of economic progress when we fill a marsh or spill oil, counting money spent on paving, draining and pollution cleanup, never subtracting for the loss of natural capital.

The list could be longer. It is simplistic and, yes, many good things are happening, too. Indeed, I would be more optimistic had I not recently undertaken something I've been dreading half my adult life.

I cleaned out my files, the accumulation of more than 30 years of writing on the Chesapeake environment. Scientists warning of global warming, of bay pollution, of declining oysters; blue-ribbon committees to finance bay cleanup; reports and promises to preserve this, protect that - they march across the decades, eerily repeating themselves.

Every one seemed at the time like progress, and sometimes it was; but, too often it was two steps forward and one backward, or moving upstream at 4 knots, never mind the current was running downstream at 5.

And I cannot see that we've fundamentally broken out of that mold. Too little taste for enforcing, mandating, funding what we know we need to do.

Many years ago, I broke the mold. I stopped mowing my lawn, just said no to raking leaves. We were not overrun by rats, my kids grew up happy and productive - as did a forest. Just a tiny patch of green and birdsong it was, but multiply it by the 16 million of us in the watershed and you might see some progress.

What if we stopped letting developers finance the politicians who decide on zoning; just said "no" to the unquestioned assumption that we must "accommodate" however many millions might come here?

What a radical, sensible notion - almost as much so as our goal of restoring the Chesapeake Bay to health.

If I have offended anyone during this column's run, I have mostly meant to. If I have made anyone think we should act as a part of nature rather than apart from it, good; good, too, especially good, if I have made anyone feel a little less crazy and alone for suffering anguish at seeing open land skinned alive and shackled with asphalt and buildings.

If I have made anyone lose hope in saving the bay, for that I apologize. The great tension of this column, of my professional life, was always between lamenting all we're losing, while celebrating all that's left and precious.

I'm retiring from here, but sticking around - writing, speaking, paddling, cheerleading and offending.

Thanks to anyone who read me, agree or disagree, and to this newspaper, which always gave me a long leash and remains absolutely your best source of Chesapeake Bay coverage.

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