Military bringing 'boon' and bust to Md.

Impact: Moving jobs and people to the area will stress the fragile bay, counties and quality of life.

ON JUNE 3, on its front page, this paper - along with most others in the region - carried news that went to the heart of why we're not making good environmental progress.

None of the articles mentioned the environment. They proclaimed only good news: Consolidations in the military and national security will shift 10,000 jobs to Maryland.

State officials are "spreading word of boon to local governments," the headline said.

"The possibility of more jobs is always good news," said a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who had lobbied Congress and the Bush administration long and hard to gain this plum.

What's wrong with this picture?

First, it's important to note that Maryland is not creating jobs, not putting unemployed citizens to work or opening better positions for residents.

This is an import of 10,000 people and their families, pure and simple. And while their presence absolutely will boost the consumption of goods and services within the state, it will just as surely take a bite out of our remaining, already-stressed natural world.

Consider Anne Arundel and Howard counties, which will bear the brunt of the "boon." Both have zoning well-documented as inadequate to protect forests, wetlands and farmland.

Consider also that the governor, so eager to attract more population, has underfunded open space preservation and given short shrift to stopping sprawl.

Consider also the traffic congestion, and the sediment and stormwater pollution from development that plagues our waterways.

Consider the continuing struggle to bring back submerged grasses, crabs, yellow perch and oysters to Anne Arundel County tributaries of the Chesapeake.

Consider recent studies that show low levels of development considered environmentally sensitive have more impact on water quality and wildlife than imagined.

Such is our blind allegiance to "economic growth" that we seldom ask whether it benefits the unemployed or creates new value for current citizens. And we don't include nature, quality of life or water quality in the equation when calculating growth's benefits.

Gross domestic product, for example, the overarching economic calculation of how the country's doing, climbs in value if a forest gets paved for a mall. But nothing is subtracted for the loss of that woodland for habitat, recreation and hunting, or for filtering pollution.

Indeed, during the past four decades, pursuit of economic growth has boosted the GDP to nearly $10 trillion annually.

That five-fold increase in purported well-being (about the same percentage of people polled say they're happy now as before) has been mirrored by a six-fold increase in the number of threatened and endangered species (200 to 1,200).

We might have expected it. The first sentence of the landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973 reads: "Congress finds and declares that various species ... have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation."

We've comforted ourselves by assuming that by "tempering" the destructive side of economic growth, showing "adequate concern" and promoting "conservation," we could have it all - never-ending growth of our own species and a sustainable relationship with the natural world.

We can always do better, but the laws of physics, principles of ecology and common sense say we're talking fundamental conflict here. Meanwhile, the "growth is always good" mantra prevents rational discussion of alternatives.

Indeed, had Ehrlich been tabbed as reticent to pursue those 10,000 jobs, it would have damaged his re-election chances. No Democrat would have acted any differently.

I once asked Ehrlich whether he thought we could pursue, nationally and locally, policies to stabilize population without hurting the economy.

He thought for half a minute - more than most politicians I ask this question. "No, not with this economy," then-candidate Ehrlich said.

And that is really the point. Other economies are not only possible, but are beginning to get real discussion - to date mostly among wildlife and other environmental professionals who most clearly confront the results of the current system.

"As long as economic growth is the overriding national goal, the wildlife profession is an exercise in futility," says Brian Czech, a wildlife biologist who is president of the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Czech and others like University of Maryland economist Herman Daly have written compellingly of the virtues of a U.S. economy that eschewed limitless growth for a stable population with relatively stable consumption of goods and services. (Don't worry, you get to keep capitalism, democracy, even stock markets.)

Economic development would still be prized, but that's different from just adding jobs and people. Such a steady state economy would not guarantee a flourishing natural world, but at least we'd have a good shot at it.

Yes, this would be a big project. But we can start by stopping with fooling ourselves that 10,000 jobs moving here is an unalloyed "boon" - or even a thing worth pursuing.
 

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