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What's Up Profile

What's Up Magazine, by James Houck (Published October 2009)
Profiles Howard Ernst


Howard R. Ernst, Ph.D.

By James Houck

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vowed, once again, to enforce the pollution regulations of the Chesapeake Bay; this time as “environmental police” to keep both farmers and bureaucrats in check. Will the EPA finally be the change-agent that our estuary so desperately needs? In his new book, Fight for the Bay, Professor Howard Ernst explores political action and inaction—what is needed and what has yet to happen—to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s health. Ernst is an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy and senior scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, whose best known work is in the area of environmental science. Here, he shares his views on the Chesapeake Bay’s survival. What’s Up?: In your opinion, what is the catalyst that can awaken our political leaders to take serious action against the Bay's polluters? Howard Ernst: Throughout Bay Country, pledges of support are echoed by gubernatorial candidates, by Senators, Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and seekers of public office at every level of government. The claims of support are bipartisan and overwhelming, and ultimately inconsequential.

With all candidates claiming to be green, regardless of their environmental records, and so few environmental groups willing to distinguish between true environmental champions and environmental imposters, there is very little reward for making the hard decisions that could actually improve the Bay.

Until the community finds its political voice and makes use of all the tools at its disposal (lobbying, endorsing candidates, recruiting candidates, advertising the voting record of candidates, contributing to candidates…) we are likely to see politics as usual for the Bay.

WU: What are the questions with regards to Bay health that Chesapeake Bay-region constituents need to ask their elected officials to see action?

HE: Do they believe we have a right to clean air, clean water, and vibrant natural resources in our public spaces? If the answer is yes, then regulations on agricultural polluters, air polluters, and land developers are a necessity, as is billions of dollars in additional spending to fix the region’s broken sewage treatment plants and storm water facilities. 

WU: In your new book, Fight for the Bay, you describe “Light Green” and “Dark Green” movements toward restoring the Bay; please explain each approach.

HE: I argue that at the core of environmental conflicts is a debate concerning values— i.e., what is the value of nature (the Bay), and is the value of nature worth the cost of protection, and if so, who should pay for the cost of protection? “Dark Greens” start with the belief that human beings have a right to clean air, clean water, and vibrant natural resources in public spaces. They insist that these rights require the same protections as other basic human rights and that a world without wilderness and natural beauty is a world diminished. Necessary policies should be put into place to protect these rights and the desires of stakeholders or industry leaders shouldn’t determine the necessary course of action. 

The “Light Greens” posit that humans have a responsibility, rather than a right, to serve as the stewards of the environment. Light Greens are the “savers” (save the manatees, save the whales, save the oceans, save the Bay…). The cornerstone of the Light Green paradigm is the belief that voluntary environmental goals, produced in an inclusive manner, and based on established science, can supersede the type of confrontational politics often pursued by the Dark Greens.

WU: What is more threatening to the Bay; what’s currently in it, so to speak, or a lack of consensus toward saving it?

HE: In a healthy political environment, competing actors (Dark Greens, Light Greens, and Non-Environmentalists) complement each other, each fulfilling its niche in the overall system.
The Dark Greens bring a sense of urgency to the policy realm, threatening legal action, political action, and protests if their demands are not met. The Light Greens act as the environmental diplomats, working toward consensus and brokering deals between the Dark Greens, the business community, and the elected officials. The business community generally opposes environmental rules, as would be expected, but ultimately gives in when faced with the possibility of legal action, rigid environmental laws, or the promise of economic incentives.

But when the process is out of balance, the system fails to function. The net result is a political dead zone—a political environment that has been robbed of its political will and no longer supports meaningful environmental innovations. The political dead zone is the outcome of the process being saturated by the sticky sweet politics of the Light Greens. While the Light Green perspective is an essential element of a healthy political ecosystem, as the dominant mindset it weakens the system’s ability to achieve innovation and enact difficult decisions. What survives in the political dead zone are minor public policies that require little political will, policies that might slow the decline of an ecosystem but are insufficient to reverse the general downward trend.

WU: What was the genesis of you previous book, 2003’s Chesapeake Bay Blues? What inspired that project? How has writing Fight for the Bay compared?

HE: In 2001 and 2002, I wrote Chesapeake Bay Blues as an “outsider” to the Bay’s close knit environmental community. My outsider status proved to be both a blessing and a challenge.

The advantage was that I was able to see the Bay restoration community with a degree of clarity and objectivity that others have long lost. It was a challenge because many people were reluctant to share their time and insights with a researcher whose work was unfamiliar to them. I wrote Fight for the Bay as an insider. While I no longer have any problem getting my calls returned, I do have to work hard to protect my objectivity. Many people will not like what I have to say about their work or the work of the groups they represent, but at the end of the day I had to but personal friendships aside in pursuit of the truth.

—James Houck