During the depression of the 1930s, the Chesapeake Bay thrived largely because people let it alone. They quit punishing the bay with overharvesting, and industrial pollution and construction diminished. The result was a maritime environmental bonanza. After the end of World War II, watermen were reporting record strikes of oysters, crabs and rockfish.
A roundtable of "experts," including this writer, mulled this scenario at a "Chesapeake Futures" conference held by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. We concluded that the same could happen today on the bay and its rivers as the result of our current recession. Rivers like the Anacostia in Washington, D.C., the Elizabeth in Virginia, and the Monocacy in Maryland will improve wondrously if we quit punishing them with pollution and if growth slows.
Recessions, of course, cause great economic hardship. But they also temper the impact of growth on the environment. They have unexpected spin-offs such as reduced traffic noise and diminished pollution, and they provide a hospitable climate for initiatives like surcharge fees to eliminate plastic bags.
Recessions also prompt real estate developers to come up with better ways of dealing with housing construction and sanitation. Developers are more amenable to the use of solar panels because of tax credits and are installing toilet systems that minimize water use. Furthermore, the economic slowdown gives Smart Growth advocates a chance to test new civic designs without having to fight developers in the courts.
Urban environmental directors like George Hawkins of Washington, D.C., have used the current period to take a strong stand on improving water quality. "This is a good time, says Mr. Hawkins, "to live up to the dictates of the 1972 Clean Water Act without developers neutering it with special exemptions." Less disposable income, he thinks, might result in less trash.
The recession has tempered enthusiasm for growth in Adams County, Pa., the home of the Gettysburg Battlefield and an area that has felt pressure from the rapidly growing Central Maryland-Washington region. With an economic slowdown, says George Weikert, chairman of the Adams County Board of Commissioners, "we have more of a chance to have a variety of information inputs - a chance to think about issues like wastewater treatment and the social impact of growth on our historic district and tourism industry."
Others, like Pat Naugle of the Land Conservancy of Adams County, see growth as more dangerous to their town than Lee's invading army ever was; they see the recession as a time to prepare for what may be "the second battle of Gettysburg."
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, organizations like the Salisbury-based Wicomico Environmental Trust have been trying to grasp any opportunity to stop the development juggernaut that is rampaging through the region. "The economic slowdown has cut down on the rate of new development starts," says environmental advocate John Groutt. "But we have an uphill fight on our hands to preserve the rural heritage and the natural landscape of the Eastern Shore."
The recession may help some developers in the long run. Developers function in a Darwinian world. The best ones survive hard times, and the recession, argues Michael Stevens, a Washington developer, "will give them time to position themselves for the next wave of development." LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification and green roofs are now an accepted part of architectural practice, he noted, and low-impact development and will be part of our riverfronts and communities in the future.
Some environmentally targeted federal windfalls will come to the Chesapeake as the government pumps money into local environmental initiatives to create jobs. Van Jones, author of "The Green Collar Economy," writes that "Joe Six Pack with a hard hat and a lunch bucket ready to install solar panels" can be part of a resurgent job force retrofitting buildings in our cities and elsewhere to meet new environmental standards. Mr. Jones argues that "it's time to bail out both the people and the planet."
While it is still too soon to see if the recession will have a long-range impact on our environmental thinking, there are hopeful signs. The recession has given environmentalists and developers alike a chance to look at the full life cycle costs of projects in the Chesapeake region. Also, notes Jim Connolly of the Anacostia Watershed Society, the recession has given many of us "a chance to reexamine the consumption model that governs a lot of our behavior."
John R. Wennersten is the author of numerous books on the Chesapeake Bay and regional environments in the Mid-Atlantic. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.