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Unite for the Chesapeake

The Ninth Ward: All of us must unite in the fight to save the Chesapeake Bay

By PAUL FOER, For The Capital
Published 12/02/09

Howard Ernst, a political science professor at the Naval Academy and author of "Chesapeake Bay Blues," takes off the environmental gloves with his new book, "Fight for the Bay: Why a Dark Green Environmental Awakening Is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay."

This short and straightforward book calls for regulatory, legislative and enforcement action to protect the Chesapeake.

Ernst says that in addition to the low or no-oxygen "dead zone" in the bay, we also have a "political dead zone" where politicians make pronouncements without making real laws to protect the bay.

For reasons of disclosure, I know Ernst and many of the people and events mentioned in and contributing to the book.

Hard-fought laws often get watered down or sidetracked. The Critical Areas Law, Open Space Programs and controls on poultry producers are just a few examples.

Many believe we only made real progress where we enforced regulations and restrictions, such as with rockfish and municipal sewage. But industrial interests that wield considerable political influence often make it difficult for citizens to fight polluters.

The public does not understand the complex challenges and Ernst laments the environmental reporting beat, which was never too prevalent, suffers more as the media get slammed due to economic and other reasons.

In 1983, I attended and reported on the landmark conference in Virginia that laid the groundwork for the multi-governmental Chesapeake Bay Program. In the 1990s, I served as the environmental management fellow for the director of that program. I continued to hope its consensual, voluntary partnership would work, but I now agree with Ernst - a self-described "Hobbesian pessimist" - that we should not rely on a voluntary approach but need tough laws and regulation.

Below, I list what I believe are the main salient reasons why the bay is endangered, and as with "Fight for the Bay," they are perhaps applicable globally as well:

We incorrectly frame the debate with false dichotomy of environment versus economics concerns

We do not understand real environmental costs and consequences

Politicians misunderstand or mislead the debate in a similar manner

We are unwilling to control population growth or pernicious sprawl

We marginalize many who speak out in favor of the bay by ignoring them or labeling them as zealots or extremists

We consider our private property rights to be sacrosanct at the expense of the public doctrine (i.e. we all own the air and water)

We are rich and hungry for more energy and "stuff" and pass on real costs and wastes to the environment (i.e. externalities)

Ernst's discussion of the different mind-sets of what he calls cornucopians, light-green and dark-green environmentalists, is provocative and insightful. I especially enjoyed the chapter by my former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad about what it really takes to enact appropriate legislation.

While Ernst's book focuses on media coverage and "command and control" regulatory and enforcement strategies, it is perhaps at the expense of what I consider the real source of pollution as listed above - our hubris, affluence, consumptive materialism and treating land and water as commodities.

The underlying philosophy and choices we must all make about how we live will ultimately have to become political action en masse, and thereby catalyze legislative and regulatory reform.

That's not to suggest we wait for that to happen or weaken the legislative and regulatory approach Ernst supports, but to argue this is not just about laws to stop big, corporate polluters. It's about laws to stop us as well. It's simply recognizing the trite and oft-quoted Pogo adage, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

However, that's just a quibble, and "Fight for the Bay" is a compelling book that may one day be viewed as the Chesapeake's counterpart to "Silent Spring."