Bay fight pits 'light' vs. 'dark' green


o doubt, many environmentalists around the Chesapeake Bay wish Howard Ernst would go away. His recent criticism of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and suggestion that its president, William C. Baker, resign, isn't the team spirit they'd hope for as green organizations rally for vital federal clean water legislation in 2010.

Mr. Ernst, a Naval Academy professor and author of the new book, "Fight for the Bay," may be the skunk at the garden party, but from bad oysters to gas leaks, we ignore unpleasant odors at our peril.


The CBF, led by Mr. Baker for more than half its 41-year history, is the country's largest regional environmental organization. With its nationally acclaimed education programs, CBF's and Mr. Baker's green credentials seem unassailable. But it's too light a shade of green, argues Mr. Ernst, whose book is subtitled: "Why a Dark Green Environmental Awakening Is Needed to Save the Chesapeake Bay."

Light green vs. dark green, Mr. Ernst says, is about voluntary vs. mandatory, about "caring" vs. confrontation, about acting "responsibly" vs. demanding clean water, just as the civil rights movement demanded equality.


The light green approach is why, after three decades of Chesapeake cleanup, the deadlines for restoration have been moved from 2010 to 2025, Mr. Ernst says.

He doesn't really expect Mr. Baker to resign, Mr. Ernst says, adding: "at the end of the day, Will Baker is quite a nice guy and effective at growing his organization; but the bay does not need a nice guy at this moment. It needs a relentless advocate who is willing to use every legal tool to fully engage the political system."

Case in point, Mr. Ernst says, is SB 1816, recently introduced by U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland. It's the first real upgrade of the federal Clean Water Act in more than two decades, and would give EPA more control over runoff from development and from agriculture.

Development is the bay's fastest-growing source of pollution. Agriculture is the bay's biggest source of pollution. The Cardin bill is our best and perhaps only chance for making real progress in bay restoration, both Mr. Ernst and the CBF agree.

And though it applies only to the Chesapeake Bay, the bill is under nuclear attack by development and farm interests across the nation that see it as a precursor to tougher clean water rules nationwide. These polluters, Mr. Ernst says, play hardball with political action committees and heavy lobbying. Light green groups, who mostly eschew such tactics, are going to get their clocks cleaned. "There's not a politician around right now who fears for their job if they don't support the [Cardin bill]," he says.

Fred Tutman, the Waterkeeper for Maryland's beleaguered Patuxent River, agrees. "There's a tendency to assume we all want the same thing in the end, and I don't think that's so. We have opponents who are not interested in clean water, and our tactics don't match theirs."

Mr. Ernst says his call for a darker green is not radical. Indeed, other environmental thinkers have been calling for that and more.

According to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of the widely circulated treatise "The Death of Environmentalism," environmental groups have isolated themselves as just one more special interest by failing to treat environmental problems as inherently linked to broader issues such as economic growth, corporate power and cultural values. "Environmentalists are in a culture war whether we like it or not … a war over core values and our vision for the future," they write. It's a war that won't be won by continuing only to focus on "tactical and technical fixes" like hybrid autos and smart growth, or by advertising on behalf of clean water.


Solutions include forming more environmental PACs, making alliances with labor unions, working to get the money out of politics, and challenging the "grow or die" economic model.

Will Baker once lamented that support for the Chesapeake, like the bay itself, has been broad but shallow. Howard Ernst says that's likely to continue unless a darker shade of green settles over the Chesapeake's waters soon.

Tom Horton covered the Chesapeake Bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the bay. He is currently a freelance writer. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.