By Tom Horton
We’re all familiar with the problem-solving technique of simply shifting the lens. Viewing the same thing differently. Glass “half full” instead of “half empty” is an example.
When it comes to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the “glass” I want to talk about, that technique may work better for those who never knew our “glass” when it was fuller.
But the point is that changing, expanding and adding perspective to the ways we view the world can make a world of difference.
Consider the oyster: long known for its dockside value and scrumptiousness; more recently appreciated as a world class pollution filter; and still undervalued for the diverse habitats of the vertical reefs it builds if left undisturbed.
This wider lens is why Tilghman Island watermen, born and bred to harvest oysters, now gaze in frustration at big, new oyster sanctuaries off their Choptank River shores.
Similarly, the oily little menhaden has recently become part of a new world-view where its human harvesters must reckon with science, which says share it with the rest of nature, from loons to rockfish, for whom it is critical nutrition.
Key to starting the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Bay restoration effort was a new way of reading the Chesapeake’s bottom sediments developed by Johns Hopkins scientist Grace Brush.
Her pioneering readings of pollens in the bottom muds from centuries back proved that the declines of critical sea grasses were not the natural cycles many had supposed. The downturn was unprecedented, even going back more than a thousand years. It is new and ominous — and human caused.
These days, the mountains of manure from poultry and livestock farms, once thought to be cheap and abundant fertilizer are now considered a major water pollutant. The landscape of animal agriculture will be permanently changed.
But larger, deeper shifts of the lens still need to happen if humans and Chesapeake Bays around the world are to ever coexist sustainably.
There’s the distinct possibility that economic growth is really uneconomic, if one factors in the ways growth tramples nature while not doing much for poverty, unemployment or prosperity for the average Joe.
What if we began viewing blithe environmental endorsements of “growing greener” as “going to hell more slowly,” which is what the evidence to date reveals about smart growth and energy efficiency?
What if some environmental leader dared to acknowledge that such environmentalism is “encompassed within the consciousness of unsustainability?”
(One already did. The quote is from former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, writing in “Scientific American” 25 years ago.)
The lens of sustainability is never far from environmental world-views nowadays. But often still undefined is sustainable for whom?
Deep ecologists like Eileen Crist and Tom Butler write of the destructive divide between the current human-centered view of our world and one that sees us as a part of nature, not apart.
Butler, of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, asks us to think about how the very language of greenness undergirds our anthropocentric view of nature:
Natural “resources,” ecological “services,” “working landscapes,” and even “stewardship” all imply that nature is a storehouse of goodies for our species to use. Fisheries vs. fish, forestry vs. forests… is “the language of dominion,” says Butler.
Crist elaborates on this in a wonderful essay: “Ptolemaic Environmentalism.” Ptolemy was the ancient Greek astronomer whose earth-centered view held that the universe, sun and all other planets revolved around us.
Copernicus shifted the lens, proving we were just another orbiter of the sun, a fundamental and initially unflattering change on the order of Darwin’s Evolution of the Species that placed us among the apes.
Yet the hubristic notion that humans are the center of our own world persists, Crist notes. It’s a viewpoint that justifies our needs and desires, avoids conversations that make our heads hurt—about sharing, limits, ethical and moral responsibilities.
Science is often the place we begin to shift the lens toward a truer view. But beauty can do that too, suggests essayist Sandra Lubarsky. Not just pretty sunsets, but comprehending the elegance and splendor of the resilience and interdependence of full-functioning ecosystems.
“Such beauty is fundamental in unjamming the mess of economic and technological [views]” of human relations with nature, writes Lubarsky, a professor at Appalachian State University.
Preserving this beauty of the world is too often an amenity, an afterthought. Unthinking, we use pejoratively words like “mundane,” meaning “of the world,” and “pedestrian”—a walking pace being ideal for experiencing nature.
We don’t see putting the beauty of the Bay as equal to totting up the economic value of the Bay. No doubt it’s a harder sell. But if we ever really sustain this estuary, it won’t be for just what you can count.
Tom Horton has reported on and written about the environment and Chesapeake Bay for four decades and authored several books. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.