What if you had to save the Chesapeake Bay and you had almost no money?
It's a fitting question in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as governments across the watershed wonder how to afford the next round of bay cleanup requirements.
I've been investing cheaply in a host of advanced green technologies: a clothesline in the backyard ($3) and a rainy day drying rack ($20) in the cellar; organic cooling systems (aka trees) to shade the south and western sides of my house ($500); busting up half my driveway with a pickax ($27) to absorb storm water runoff and planting it with more organic cooling systems.
I bought a small house near work and stores, saving energy and allowing a bicycle to replace a car most days. A smaller fridge is next, as I now shop almost daily. I installed a super-quiet whole house fan ($900) for all the cooling I need most days, and heavily insulated the attic and crawl spaces ($800).
Had I sprung big bucks for Energy Star appliances, solar panels, geothermal heat pumps and an electric car, I'd have received tens of thousands in government subsidies. And in the end I wouldn't have been greener.
So I think it's time we took a serious look at cheaper ways of getting to a better planet — of saving taxpayer dollars as we restore our environment. Broadly, that would mean cutting government subsidies to polluting activities and letting those polluting activities reflect their full price.
If I'd bought a big house in a rural subdivision, I'd have been awarded a bigger mortgage deduction, even as I drove more, used more open space, required more roads and polluted more on my septic tank than on a city treatment plant.
We give some $1 trillion annually in federal tax breaks to homeowners, a presidential fiscal reform commission reports. At state and local levels, taxpayers pay thousands a year for every home in a sprawl development to ease the real cost of roads, water and air pollution and the cost of services such as fire, police and utilities.
The extra gasoline such residents burn would cost maybe $8 a gallon if we removed government subsidies to oil companies — and more than $12 a gallon if, as some suggest, we include part of the defense budget for protecting foreign oil sources.
If gasoline fetched its true market price, there'd be far less need to subsidize electric cars, or mass transit, or bigger roads. No need either, to subsidize solar and wind energy as much if all our traditional energy sources operated without subsidies (like the taxpayer guarantees for part of the accident insurance on nuclear power plants).
Power companies could be rewarded for saving energy, not pushing more of it. At a hearing on a new, $1.4 billion power line, I asked: What if that money went instead for conservation — could we avoid the need for the line? Their shareholders wouldn't like that, a company spokesman said, as they make money based on how much energy they transmit.
Agriculture, the bay's biggest source of pollution, is underpinned by federal crop subsidies; at the very least, we'd save big time on cleanup costs if these were morphed into payments for reducing runoff.
Water quality would also benefit if poultry manure were made the responsibility of the big chicken producers nationwide; now it is "owned" by individual growers.
Popular but expensive open-space protection programs are in part a price we pay for bad government land use policies. A proposal by Gov. Martin O'Malley to cut state subsidies for schools, roads and wastewater where counties allow sprawl development could save billions.
Other environmentally beneficial savings worth scrutinizing range from low-cost commuter tolls (a subsidy to sprawl) to flood insurance and beach replacement (subsidies to development, often in some of our most sensitive natural areas).
From the other side of the equation, government accounting for economic progress needs to start valuing the nature we lose as well as the development that replaces it. Current indicators like gross domestic product add the value of a parking lot but don't subtract the value of the forest it felled.
Some might see in the above a danger of slowing growth; but if something can't pay its way financially, and further creates pollution that costs us to clean up, why on earth would we want more of it?
The possibilities of saving the bay cheaper are large, and the politics for doing it are right. The bay watershed has two congressmen on the 12 member supercommittee charged with coming up with deficit reductions.
Who wants to convene a conference to see what we can do?
Tom Horton covered the Chesapeake Bay for 33 years for The Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.