Just because we all peacefully decide to drive our car over a cliff doesn’t mean the force we call gravity won’t pull us to our death.
This was my first response to Tim Rowland’s recent column. He presented folksy, rural indignation at big-government regulators rudely demanding extreme payments to address a remote issue. It’s a familiar, generally irresistible set-up. But I believe that the column glossed over a critical, perhaps the critical, point: What if the premises driving those government policies are true? (How perfect the policies are is another topic.)
The column’s focus was on social dynamics, basically saying that government staff should be more tactful as messengers. No one would argue with that. (Though I’ll point out that it is remarkable to witness how a calm hearing out and careful consideration of a hostilely presented message can take the combativeness out of the messenger.) But what of their message? Rowland maintains that they made “impossible” demands. He says his rural neighbors do care about the health of the Chesapeake far downstream. But the column clearly does not suggest that if the federal agency staff had been all smiles and sweet tea then the leaders of Hancock, Md., would have jumped to pay out $31 million.
It certainly is true that our society’s response to environmental issues will be worked out via social interaction: politics, debate, negotiations. And “healthy relationships,” as Rowland puts it, undeniably make those interactions more pleasant and efficient. But it’s equally true that the ecological responses to our society’s run-off (like hormone disruption, eutrophication, etc.) occur based on today’s chemical and physical realities, not the friendliness of our public debates.
The scientific evidence is clear. We are facing some serious environmental challenges. The Chesapeake’s stormy health record is only one of several more visible local issues. The rapid species extinction, the brutal climate changes, the toxification of the biosphere – these demand extraordinary responses. (Many have compared the challenge to FDR’s “impossible” military hardware production goals for 1942 – goals that the country beat.)
So our politics does not serve us if it cannot acknowledge ecological and economic realities. Learning that our society has been free-riding (not paying the full cost of our lifestyles) for decades is a hard lesson. It means that big changes are ahead. The changes may seem impractical or impossible, but that doesn’t change scientific realities like depleted topsoil, collapsed fisheries or dead zones in the bay. However diplomatically the lesson is presented, if the evidence is compelling, then we have to be adults and face the music. And the sooner we start, the better.
In the Chesapeake watershed, human society has been free-riding for a very long time. We’ve consumed and polluted with insufficient regard for real ecological limits. There is a price to pay for this: extreme degradation of the bay (and its many negative externalities); massive investment in restorative measures (most of which have many positive externalities); or something in between. We may grasp at scapegoats when the utility company comes to collect on long unpaid bills, but if we used that resource then we finally must pay up.
In the end, we’ll get something in between. Like Rowland, I hope that our engagement with our government becomes more civil and productive and that the Chesapeake’s crabs and other life thrive. To those ends, I offer what I think are two critical steps towards those goals: We should be willing to look beyond the messenger to the actual message, and we should be willing to accept science when there is sufficient evidence.