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Maybe it's time to start limiting bay-area population Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation this morning released "Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay." Written by Tom Horton and William M.Eichbaum, funded by the Abell Foundation and published by Island Press, the book amounts to a status report on the condition of the bay, with recommendations for rescuing the estuary from the human onslaught. With permisssion, Other Voices will publish excerpts today, tomorrow and Friday.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

-- Pogo IF THE enemy is us, the solution is near at hand. For those who wonder how many more people can ultimately live around Chesapeake Bay without degrading it, the short answer is this: Too many are here already.

The bay is already degraded; its capacity to remain unpolluted and healthy is already exceeded. The real point, of course, is that population numbers can never be divorced from population impacts. What is our per capita consumption of natural resources? What is our per capita production of wastes and our disposal of those wastes?

Make no mistake, most of the problems with Chesapeake Bay are the cumulative impact of every one of the nearly 15 million people who live in its watershed. To indulge in the exercise of assigning the blame only to "industry" or "chemicals" or "developers" is to bury our heads in the sand. And environmental protection measures that do not consider the habits and lifestyles of individuals are generally assured of undershooting their target or failing outright. Some examples:

* We now plow far less land for agriculture than we did 40 years ago; but we slather far more chemicals on each acre.

* We have dramatically reduced emissions from individual autos; but we each own more cars and drive them more than ever. Thus, as the bay region's population rose by 50 percent (1952-1986), air pollutants from cars increased by more than 250 percent.

* We have expanded landfills and built waste incinerators; but we have continued to generate more and more trash per capita. Residents in the watershed a few decades ago generated 2.2 pounds of garbage a day. In 1986 this figure had risen almost 50 percent to 3.3 pounds a day.

* We currently plan and zone and lobby for "controlled growth" more than ever in history; but each of us has been using nearly twice the open space to live on as we did 40 years ago -- and each new resident averages nearly four times as much because of galloping sprawl development. More land in the watershed will be developed in the three decades between 1990 and 2020 than was developed in the three centuries between 1608 and the 1950s, based on projections from the recent "2020 Report" on population and land use.

* Energy consumption in the watershed has followed a course similar to waste -- population up by 50 percent but energy consumption up by 100 percent.

And these numbers only hint at the ripple effects of an increasingly consumptive lifestyle -- the added trees that were felled for the added roads needed for the added cars; the destruction of bay shoreline to site the added power plants needed to meet the added electrical demands . . .

Fortunately, the alternatives do not mean an impoverished existence; rather, they may lead to a higher quality of life. One example: Western Europeans, with a high standard of living use about half the energy we do to generate one dollar of GNP. Similarly, reducing waste means recycling and reuse, not doing without material goods. Reducing the runaway consumption of open space can mean a return to small town and village patterns of development, as well as enhancing the appeal of cities. Using fewer pesticides is turning out to be a way to more profitability for more and more farmers. They hire "scouts" who track insect populations and tell them when they need to spray (and when not), saving substantial money in most years.

The power of individual impacts is often hard for a single person to visualize, but when we multiply any action by millions it becomes impressive. The recent change in home laundry detergents brought about by phosphate bans in [Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia], for example, was painless and virtually without cost to consumers. Yet almost overnight it accounted for a 30 to 50 percent reduction in a major pollutant of Chesapeake Bay (phosphorus from sewage plants). Achieving the same reductions through technological changes to the plants would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and taken years for construction.

And just as increasing individual consumption has ripple effects far beyond the direct impact, so does reducing it send our beneficial ripples. Thus channeling growth into more compact population centers not only saves open space, but it makes mass transit viable, reducing air pollution from cars and environmental degradation from highway building. Recycling plastics not only saves energy, but it helps attack the problem of throwaway plastic waste, which now accounts for more than 60 percent of the 14 billion pounds a year of garbage humans throw into the world's oceans (where sea creatures become entangled in it or eat it, clogging their digestive tracts).

At least 2.6 million more persons are projected to move into the bay's watershed by the year 2020, a number that many planning officials now think will be reached by 2005 or 2010. The choice is clear, if the bay is to be restored. The impacts per capita that presently are being made on the system must be reduced -- and then they must be capped so that, to the bay, it is as if the coming millions did not even show up. One need not wait on

government to force changes in individual patterns of consumption and waste generation to begin reducing impacts on the bay, although it is unlikely the reductions will come fast or broadly enough without regulations.

In guiding where such regulation will be most effective, a few overarching themes stand out. First, they must attack the

fundamental sources of pollution and degradation. There is nothing wrong with continuing to rely on "fixes" in the interim such as more benign pesticides, cleaner automobile exhausts, and new sewage treatment technologies. But these must increasingly be seen as means to an end (less automobile use, for example) rather than as ends in themselves. Second, some of the most notable environmental successes have resulted from outright banning of the polluting substance or activity rather than regulating it or developing technologies to lessen its impact. Examples include getting the lead out of gasoline, ridding the environment of the DDT that was killing our eagles and ospreys, outlawing production of PCBs and switching to nonphosphate detergents throughout the watershed.

Reducing individual impacts can go far to reconcile environmental progress with more people moving into the watershed; but it is quite conceivable that it will not go far enough unless we also move to limit the total number of people in the watershed. It is not too early to begin facing the need for such limits. The economic and environmental policies, as well as the physical infrastructure such as roads and sewers and bridges, that we lay down in the next decade or two will go far to determine population movements and growth well into the next century.

One of the fastest-growing portions of the watershed, Washington, D.C., and suburbs, is perhaps the most immediately susceptible to growth control. The federal government should consider decentralizing some of its apparently endless increase in jobs and agencies to outside the watershed. Few people seriously think we should simply post "keep out" signs around the region; but we can move to eliminate current subsidies to new growth in government taxing and spending policies and start to calculate the real costs of growth. To the extent that high growth rates can be uncoupled from economic prosperity, we may be able to rationally discuss limits to growth.

This will take a new kind of economics. The current economics counts actions such as clear-cutting an old-growth forest as a pure "plus" for GNP, never including the costs of losing wildlife along with a prime filter for air and water pollution. The growing discipline of ecological economics, which specializes in valuing the products of the natural world as well as manufacturing output, is one place to begin.

It may well take some preaching, too. Our churches have for the most part been slow to address the moral and spiritual aspects of restoring Chesapeake Bay and caring for the lands of its watershed. They could play a powerful role in interpreting what the biblical "dominion" over the Earth given to humans in Genesis should mean in our modern-day era of environmental crisis -- certainly it should not be taken as a license for the kind of ownership that sees only private property rights unencumbered by responsibility for the impacts of private land use on the commonwealth.

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