Volume XI, Issue 50 ~ December 11-17, 2003

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Imagine …
by Howard Ernst

Imagine that we lived a long, long time: 200 years, or 500 years or, better yet, 1,000 years. But there’s a catch. We live all those years on the land that we currently occupy.

Would we treat nature differently? Would we find environmentally acceptable ways to treat human waste before it spoiled our waterways? Would we control sediments before they clogged our rivers? Would we find the resources to protect our most sensitive areas?

Or imagine that every future person (the millions, if not billions, of people who are not yet born but that will some day be alive and occupying this land) had a say in our on-going environmental policy debates. Would they find a way to properly dispose of the waste now generated from the 500 million chickens on the Eastern Shore? Would they be more proactive in protecting the natural resources we are losing?

Or imagine if our waste and our runoff polluted our own property rather than becoming someone else’s problem. Would we use rain barrels to keep sediment off? Would we think twice before adding more impervious surfaces, so as not to pollute our homeland? Might we even consume a bit less if we could never throw anything away?

But we all know that we will not live for 1,000 years. We know the people who will inherit our beloved Chesapeake Bay are not here to influence our current public policy choices. We know the waste and runoff that we generate more often than not becomes someone else’s problem. The reality is that it is amazingly easy to escape the environmental impact of our lives, placing the burden on those downstream or on future generations.

With time as it is, government’s role in environmental protection is to create the incentives and punishments to motivate people and industries to behave as if they would live forever on the land they currently occupy. In other words, to help people overcome the renter’s mentality that is inherent in our ephemeral existence. A properly functioning environmental bureaucracy is the property manager that nobody likes but we all need.

It’s not Big Government that people who desire environmental restoration seek. All they want is for government to use its monopoly on coercive powers and its considerable resources to make sure that the short-term economic interests of the few do not destroy the collective, long-term interests of the whole. Such government can also make sure that the rules are equitably enforced so that environmentally friendly businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage.

Bay restoration remains a political problem. It is the problem of achieving collectively what we cannot achieve as individuals. When restoration works, it succeeds by protecting societal values from the onslaught of private interests. Thus the Bay’s current condition is the outcome of a century of failed politics.

On December 9, the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council joined a long line of missed opportunities stretching from the early 1930s.

What distinguishes our period of the restoration struggle from others is the size of the gap between what, from a scientific perspective, we know needs to be done and what, from a policy perspective, we are doing.

We’ve had 20 years to see that a collaborative, voluntary approach to restoration does not work. It is now clearer than ever that the Bay needs enforceable rules and considerable resources.

At the end of the day, only our elected officials have the authority to enact the changes necessary to protect the Bay. The hope for the Bay resides with them — as does responsibility for its current condition.

Naval Academy professor Howard R. Ernst is the author of Chesapeake Bay Blues: Science, Politics, and the Struggle to Save the Bay.

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Last updated December 11, 2003 @ 1:08am.