Volume 13, Issue 23 ~ June 9 - 15, 2005

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Take a 1,000-Year Lease on the Bay
by Howard Ernst

Imagine that you are going to live for a long, long time. Not just 100 years but maybe 1,000 years. But here’s the catch. You have to live for 1,000 years on the land that you now occupy.

Would you treat nature differently?

Would we find a way to implement environmentally benign agricultural practices before we lost our resources? Would we find an environmentally acceptable way to treat the waste generated by 16 million people who live in this watershed now — and goodness knows how many will live 100, 200, 1,000 years from now? Would we somehow find a way to implement the environmentally sustainable practices we can envision but never seem to achieve?

I think the answer is yes.

We all know that we’re not going to live for 1,000 years. The people who are going to inherit our land, our water and our living resources, those future generations are not here to influence our policy choices. The waste and runoff we generate all too often becomes someone else’s problem downstream.

Herein lies the problem. It’s not just a problem of Chesapeake Bay. It’s the human dilemma. Knowledge of our own mortality couples with the race to improve ourselves in the short time that we’re given and our ability to easily escape the environmental impact of our short lives.

Together those forces have given many of us what I call a renter’s mentality. That mentality puts a premium on short-term economic benefits against long-term capital investments. That mentality makes it difficult to envision, never mind plan for, a brighter future. It leads people to seek the highest possible return on a piece of property at the lowest possible cost.

The role of government as it relates to environmental protection is to create the necessary incentives and punishments — carrots and sticks — to motivate people and industries to behave as if they would live forever on the land they currently occupy. In other words, to overcome the renter’s mentality.

A properly functioning environmental bureaucracy is a property manager nobody likes — but that we all need. The challenge is to make sure government functions as a wise steward rather than a greedy slum lord.

Today’s environmental problems represent irreconcilable conflicts between people with the values of renters and people with the value of owners. Owners value the Bay and the larger ecological system that sustains it as an ecological treasure worth the cost of restoration and protection. Renters benefit from exploiting the Bay as a cheap and convenient place to dispose of unwanted byproducts — agricultural runoff, industrial waste, sewage, air pollution — or as something to exploit by overharvesting limited resources.

Acting like a renter is often rational from a business perspective. Business leaders, after all, aim to minimize production costs and maximize profits. That is their responsibility.

Environmental programs are not cheap. If they were, they would not be controversial. No amount of education, collaboration, synergy, adaptive management or wishful thinking can overcome this fact. Restoration is a continuous struggle to change human behavior.

Whether we like it or not — and I wasn’t happy coming to this conclusion — only government is positioned to make these changes. Only government has a monopoly on coercive powers. It can pass a law and enforce it. And only government has the considerable resources to make sure the short-term economic interests of a few do not destroy the collective interests of the whole.

Restoring the Bay is a political problem. It’s the problem of achieving collectively what we cannot and will not achieve as individuals. It’s the process of protecting societal values from the onslaught of private interests.
I would argue that the defining political question of our times — the one we’ll be talking about long after our latest war on terrorism — is whether or not we as individuals have a right, a human right, to clean water, clean air and vibrant natural resources in our private spaces. If we do, government has the responsibility to provide and maintain those things — even if it’s expensive and inconvenient.

U.S. Naval Academy political science professor Howard Ernst, who made waves with his book Chesapeake Bay Blues, offered this commentary at Bay Weekly’s June 1 Free Food for Thought book forum on living waters.

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