Saving the bay: For love or money?


The bay according to Mark Sagoff:

* Crabs, rockfish and oysters harvested from the wild are delicacies for the well-off; by no stretch essential commodities.

The sleek gray meats of the oyster, Sagoff once said, remind him of "something you'd see on the floor of a tuberculosis ward."

* The focus of the current, multistate program to restore the Chesapeake Bay, often considered an international model, is "crazy . . . crap."

* The educational efforts of the region's largest environmental group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are equally off base.

* The economic value of the bay is mainly "as a cesspool for waste and a liquid highway for transportation . . . everything else is inconsequential."

Actually, Dr. Sagoff, a philosopher who directs the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, thinks we are right in wanting to save the bay. But he thinks we are doing it for reasons that ultimately will doom us to failure; reasons that don't acknowledge how vital to our well-being a successful restoration is.

And so he is like the farmer who, after bragging to a bystander how able his mule is, smacks the beast between the eyes with a two-by-four: "Just need to get his attention, first."

Sagoff for several years has explored the conceptual and ethical underpinnings of the bay restoration; also of various national and global environmental policies. He says we must understand the difference between protecting the environment and protecting nature.

The environment, he says, "is life support . . . natural plumbing and infrastructure," the levels of natural functioning needed to maintain modern society's functioning.

In other words, we must have water clean enough that it won't kill us with disease, forests enough to produce lumber for our housing -- a mostly economic construct; our "natural capital."

Nature is different, wild -- those portions of the planet, or the bay, with no major quantifiable value. Nature is the raw stuff from which we forge a habitable, sustainable environment.

It is quite possible, Sagoff argues, for environmental protection to go hand in hand with natural destruction, as technological breakthroughs actually speed the transformation of natural landscapes into human-managed ones.

A version of this that comes to my mind is Blue Plains, the billion-dollar sewage treatment plant that serves some 3 million Washington-area residents on the Potomac River.

Blue Plains in the last 20 years has produced a cleaner river, more ducks and bass. It is a major environmental success, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program of the federal government, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Yet, what of nature and natural beauty in the ever more horribly congested D.C. metro region? Who would say it is better than 20 years ago? You cannot say Blue Plains has caused nature's decline, but you certainly must reconsider whether environmental success is all we want. And that is, I think, Sagoff's point.

Pursuit of environmental success is not going to protect what's left of the natural bay region -- and may even hasten nature's disfranchisement. What will protect it, he argues, must flow from understanding that nature is properly "the object of religious, aesthetic and cultural contemplation and appreciation."

In other words, we're talking morality, not pounds of fish and shellfish whose economic values, Sagoff says, pale before what it costs to keep the water clean enough for their production.

"Give up every economic argument for saving the bay because they're all crap," he says. "I have screamed that at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's environmental educators . . . not one of them are there because of economics. They are there for love, and spiritual reasons, but they are not saying it."

It sounds, I suggest, as if he would have environmentalists sounding like religionists. "Well, environmentalism is a religion, a secular religion; and that's great," Sagoff says.

"Religion is a foundation for morality. You can't have a culture without a religion; and morality . . . with the bay or anything else, can't come from anywhere else but a religion."

The next question: What should a Chesapeake morality be about saving? What is the bay's nature?

Sagoff himself has written that "Nature" in our time is a social construct -- the nature that existed when John Smith explored the bay in 1608 is forever lost. We wouldn't even want it back, complete with wolves and mountain lions. What we love and desire to preserve, Sagoff thinks, involves at least the following:

* What remains of the natural heritage. The plants and animals (and I think the landscapes) native to the bay.

* The human occupations and settlements that still relate to making a living from the natural bay. Watermen and fishing towns would be prime examples.

The bulk of us increasingly live in what Sagoff calls "placeless places," the cul-de-sacced and homogeneous landscapes of suburbia, our work mostly disconnected from the Chesapeake or from any particular place.

Only by preserving something of the natural and pastoral bay regions of past centuries can we retain a vital "sense of place," a moral identity, a distinctive connection with the bay region.

It is interesting, listening to Sagoff, to think that we might end up losing the bay, not to water pollution or toxic chemicals, but to sameness and tameness, to disconnection.

While he seems to encourage preserving our bay heritage, Sagoff also warns of "gentrification." He reminds us that it is often not the watermen and farmers who oppose the latest Wal-Mart; the affluent newcomers do.

Is this gentrification bad, then?

"I wish I knew," he says. "I think it's bad now but won't be in about 50 years."

He believes the bay, like objects ranging from furniture to rowhouses in Canton, goes through three stages: useful; worn out, depleted (the current stage that has sparked restoration attempts); and, if the object survives long enough, a stage of being antique, trendy, valued for its intrinsic worth, rather than because we need it to live.

The bay is in that third stage. Economics have nothing to do with the Chesapeake's modern-day value, if we are honest, he says.

So how do we save the bay? Sagoff offers no blueprints or easy answers, only this: "We must put it in a religious, cultural and moral context. Only then can we figure out what we should do."


Last week's column gave the impression that the Jenkins Creek Environmental Research Center proposed for Crisfield is endorsed by the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. Members of these institutions are on the center's board of directors, but there is no university commitment.

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