The Chesapeake's three stages of truth

March 05, 2010|By David Berry

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Schopenhauer's views could be applied to almost any issue that is currently being debated, but it seems one of the most useful times is during discussions of any environmental problem. Just listen to conversations about global warming.

The truth behind Schopenhauer's model was brought home on a local level during a recent presentation to a group about the problems of silt behind the Conowingo Dam. One man in the back of the room was quietly polite but obviously anxious to say something. As the questions wound down, he raised his hand and asked, "Why can't somebody show me why the Chesapeake Bay is not polluted?"

The question was phrased in a way that made it difficult to answer, but it became clear that his premise was that, except for three or four isolated spots, the bay is not polluted. His proof: The fishing in the upper bay is still good. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol indicating that money is behind all the talk of pollution.

He never explained how one could make money by overstating pollution, and we agreed to disagree on the subject. He, in Schopenhauer's model, is at the first stage of truth. He ridicules it. (For the record, not one of the other 40 people in the room rose in his support, but we cannot assume that they all have reached the third stage.)

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland introduced a bill in October that provides a new push for Chesapeake Bay cleanup but includes a further delay, to 2025, as the date for all restoration efforts to be in place. An earlier version of the bill set 2020 as the deadline. The change was to generate more support for the bill.

Support was not universal. The Maryland Farm Bureau took its typical stance opposing regulation of farms. The Baltimore Sun quoted the bureau's government affairs director, Valerie Connelly, as saying "We are not in favor of expanding the authority of EPA. We don't see how it can do anything else other than put a lot of small and medium farms out of business."

It's apparent the farm bureaus have reached the second stage of Schopenhauer's statement; they are violently opposed to any understanding that farm runoff is a major -- though not the only -- cause of problems with the Chesapeake Bay's water and air quality.

Many farmers, to their credit, are comfortable residing in the third stage. They have made great strides toward improving the situation on their own land. There are thousands of people who find themselves at stage three. To them it's evident that the Chesapeake Bay is polluted. However, there are almost as many people who either ridicule or oppose the truth about the bay. There are those who will never stop believing that any government effort is based on political science rather than physical science, no matter the evidence presented to them.

The question we must address is: how to move more open, thinking people through each stage?

There is hope. The role model should be the 10-year discussions that followed the publication, in 1962, of "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson's book about the dangers of chemical pesticides, specifically DDT, to both the environment and human health. It was met with great skepticism, if not violent opposition. Many believed food production as we knew it would end if these chemicals were banned, but supporters kept writing and speaking about the dangers. The public outcry steadily grew as the believers continued the discussion. DDT was finally banned in the United States in 1972. My own father, a chemist, had become a convert.

One result of the ban was the revival of the American bald eagle, our national symbol. Once near extinction, the eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.

Those who are comfortable at stage three of Schopenhauer's model need to continue talking, writing and pushing our legislators. It's difficult not to dismiss those who ridicule or oppose, especially given the crucial need to address environmental problems. But as "Silent Spring" showed us, with time, more and more people will hear the message and reach the proper conclusion, that the Chesapeake Bay is in serious trouble.

David Berry lives and writes from Havre de Grace. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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