For a group deeply worried about mankind's survival in a world racked by escalating environmental problems, Earth Forum of Howard County takes an approach that dovetails nicely with the county's campaign for civility.
While the four-year-old church-sponsored organization promotes a respectful exchange of ideas among all on issues relating to global warming, sustainable living and care of the environment, its heart beats with a passion for radical change in how we treat the planet.
"The concept of honoring and protecting the Earth has existed for thousands of years as a part of all major religions, but it has taken on new meaning in the world's current situation," said Nancy Fayer, coordinator of Earth Forum, which is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Howard County.
"Earth will survive, but we are seriously questioning how we as a people will survive unless we make major changes in how we treat the Earth," she said.
Earth Forum is inviting the public to a Jan. 15 talk by Rep. John Sarbanes on his recent and future environmental legislation, as well as on what residents can do in their own backyards to help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The event is one of a six-part speaker series that has been held annually since the group formed in 2009.
Fayer said she doesn't have to look far to come up with examples to support Earth Forum's closest-held fears. The worldwide increase in violent weather extremes is well documented and can be seen not only in far-flung places such as Japan and Haiti.
Just last year, county residents dealt with tree-toppling snowfalls, hurricane-related deluges, record-shattering heat and earthquake tremors — a varied helping of natural disasters that were mind-boggling enough as individual events, but likely unparalleled in their magnitude when considered together, she said.
"The basic elements of water, air and land are being destroyed, and we will all suffer together, no matter our political beliefs, age or economic circumstances," Fayer said. "We're talking about the very building blocks of our lives."
Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, said he will echo the group's concerns in his talk by hammering home the notion that citizen stewardship of the environment is critical to stemming the tide of destruction.
"I'm absolutely convinced that the fortunes of the Chesapeake Bay rest completely on [citizens] developing good habits that will have an aggregate effect," he said. "We must hold the line on environmental attacks and fill the void that frankly has occurred because government is not doing as much as it could be."
Two new and potentially harmful threats to the bay's ecosystem that he will discuss are off-shore drilling in Virginia and hydraulic fracturing techniques employed in the watershed in the hunt for Marcellus shale, a source of largely untapped natural gas reserves.
"The citizens of Howard County are one of the most informed and engaged citizenries anywhere, and constituents are not shy about expressing their views and opinions," he said. "The county takes responsibility for innovation and experimentation since it views itself as taking a leadership role" in environmental issues.
Fayer said the county not only has the political will, but it is economically prosperous and therefore must contribute more to environmental solutions than other counties in Maryland.
"We are all in this for the long haul," she said.
Earth Forum is made up of faith-based communities, environmental organizations, county agencies and sustainable-living activists, said the Rev. Sue Lowcock Harris, co-pastor at First Presbyterian, located off Route 108 in Columbia.
The group grew out of the congregation's participation four years ago as one of 10 hosts of a nationwide pilot program called Earth Care Congregations, which was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church USA, she said. Churches were charged with making environmentally responsible changes in groundskeeping, building maintenance and recycling.
That switch to "a new way of thinking about ecological and environmental concerns" really resonated with the congregation, and under Fayer's "visionary leadership" it has grown to become a ministry of the church, Harris said.
"We're excited about it, and it's really taken off," she said. "Earth Forum has come of age as a place where people of faith and people of no faith come together to ask intelligent, probing questions and learn about the many ways we can express our environmental stewardship."
The University of Maryland Extension's Howard County office is one of Earth Forum's partners and will be one of the organizations staffing information tables following Sarbanes' talk, said Georgia Eacker, faculty extension assistant and Master Gardener coordinator.
Eacker noted that her office not only distributes rain barrels and compost bins to residents, but also maintains a 10-by-50-foot rain garden as a model at the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville. A rain garden catches storm-water runoff from impervious features such as parking lots and driveways and becomes a system to filter nutrients, she said.
"We can help homeowners look at their property, identify problems and guide them to beneficial resources that will help reduce their impact on water quality," she said of extension office services.
The Columbia Association, which just became an Earth Forum partner, is "heavily involved" in storm-water management, said John McCoy, the association's watershed manager.
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Columbia's three major bodies of water — Lake Kittamaqundi, Wilde Lake and Lake Elkhorn — are all basically sediment traps that lead double lives as amenities, he said.
"Any homeowner whose property contains a house with a roof or a driveway must get involved in managing storm-water runoff," added McCoy, who will lead one of the Emphasis Action groups that follow the networking interlude. "This is a shared responsibility; it's not solely government's job."
Earth Forum, which attracts as many as 125 residents to its sessions, provides the perfect educational setting for all parties that are caretakers of the environment and want to learn more, Fayer said.
"We are bringing people together to recognize the importance of Earth [and] work through changing behaviors, advocating for laws, and building community," she said.
"We must inspire and encourage one another to change our living practices in a fragile world where the balance is so delicate and relies on all parts functioning in concert."
The Earth Forum event will be held from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the church, 9325 Presbyterian Circle, Columbia. For more information, call 410-730-3545 or go to earthforumhc.org.