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Science and the Bay

posted Nov 28, 2010, 5:53 PM by Howard Ernst

For decades, discussions about Chesapeake Bay policy have been dominated by the hundreds of environmental organizations that claim to represent the Bay and the hundreds of industry leaders that the environmentalists often oppose. The industry leaders are typically depicted by their environmental opponents as profiting from using the Bay as a cheap and convenient place to dispose of unwanted byproducts (poultry waste, toxic waste from steel production, runoff from developers…). The environmentalists, on the other hand, are viewed by their industrial opponents as championing pie in the sky ideas that are too expensive and too impractical to be taken seriously.

In the traditional arrangement elected officials act as referees between the competing sides, finding common group where they can, promoting compromise when possible, and, more often than not, delaying actions that prove too difficult or too expensive. Few policy makers actually “make” environmental policy at all, more accurately they moderate policy solutions between the desires of environmental groups and the tangible demands of industry leaders. They find electoral comfort in balancing the interests of two competing groups, one group they rely on for votes and the other group they rely on to fund their campaigns.

The problem, of course, is that what is politically expedient is almost never sufficient to actually improve environmental conditions. What this arrangement tends to produce is a series of sub-optimal policies that might slow the downward spiral of ecosystems like the Bay, but that are incapable of actually reversing environmental decline. The policies that survive the policy process tend to be expensive (because the general public is not represented well in the system), tend to let polluters off the hook (because polluters are represented well), and also tend to bring benefits to the environmental groups participate (small grants for their good behavior).

What is gets neglected in the process are the scientific realities that a body of water can take only so much pollution, that watermen can harvest only so many crabs, that living species (humans included) can tolerate only so much exposure to toxins before these natural systems begin to fail. In other words, what gets overlooked in the system is the carrying capacity of nature, which is ultimately not determined by the dreams of environmentalists or the demands of industry, but set by nature and identified by scientists.

The action plan contained on this site are not the desires of “stakeholders” (what we used to call special interest groups), but the consensus of many of the Bay’s leading scientists and policy experts. The plan pulls no punches, makes not claims that saving the Bay will be cheap or easy. It goes beyond wishful thinking, win-win policies, and the bureaucratic happy-talk of adaptive management. Instead, the plan makes specific suggestions that policy makers should consider if they are serious about Bay restoration. In other words, it does what scientists are suppose to do, inform the public debate by setting clear parameters.

Howard Ernst is a political science professor and author of two books about Chesapeake Bay restoration. You can learn more about Dr. Ernst at his website (www.howardernst.com). The views expressed in this entry are the authors alone and not the official position of his employer or any group.

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