After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The Power Gap

(Posted by Fred Tutman)

Who really has the power to clean up the Bay? Are our messages of watershed improvement directed at anybody in particular, or everybody in general? Who really controls that vague and nebulous political willpower that we keep hearing so much about? When I try to envision a truly effective movement to save the region’s waterways, I generally try to get a mental picture of what that sort of power establishment would look like. Is it an army of crunchy people wearing fleece and driving hybrid cars? Or is it “rainbow coalition” of rank and file marching abreast determined to march on until we all achieve the promises and the right of clean water? Laugh out loud! Whichever scenario you choose, there is a real gap between our aspirations and the strategies we are using to get there.

I am willing to admit that everyone has a role to play but I am not sure that everybody has the same role. The whole concept of us being collectively responsible for a clean Bay galls me. I can’t possibly take responsibility for the share contributed by “manure farms” or “fly ash dumps” or non-compliant wastewater plants. The whole idea of collective responsibility for the Bay sounds good rhetorically if we are talking about lawn fertilizer and recycling, but it’s pretty hollow when it comes to accounting for the willful or indifferent polluters who make a vast contribution. So let’s be clear: We may all have equal rights, but as stakeholders we do not all have equal stakes. If we are going to have a clean environment, protect and restore our waterways we have to face the fact that some are more equal than others and that voluntary change is about as unreal as the Easter Bunny.

So for starters (if I were a River King instead of Riverkeeper) I would have a game plan, and perhaps the wise counsel and endorsement of experts, then there would have real strategies and benchmarks leading to foreseeable outcomes with periodic reality checks to see how we are doing toward our goals. That would be the sort of structure needed to bring about real progress toward the goals of protecting and restoring the Bay and her tributaries. Why haven’t we had these things? In part it is because our cause movement has preferred to persuade people instead of compelling them to go along. Also, I think there is an inherent power imbalance. Those of us who care about clean water don’t have nearly as much power as we need to pull it off. But now that we have a game plan, let’s look more closely at the separate subject of our power.

At the most fundamental level, the whole concept of power reflects having the acumen and the ability to make change. But power in the environmental movement is deeply misunderstood and squandered. The sort of power that actually runs things in our society takes different shapes and manifests in various ways. Practically speaking political power in particular can help define public priorities, set budgets, allocate resources shape public opinion and make a better world. In theory, our advocacy ought to reflect the realistic methods needed to attain power. Grassroots variety in particular can build a viable support base, a body politic, influence communities and mold public opinion. Other forms of power can also make people rich, ensure that the water nearest you is clean and maybe (who knows) even get you a date with a good-looking person. But alternately (and seriously) it can impoverish others, spoil the planet and topple nations. But at its best, power is the ability not only to make change, but also to make the particular changes that advance the human condition. Do environmentalists possess power, or instead are we peering through the glass lens from the outside, looking in on where the actual power is wielded and decisions are being made? When it comes to power, are we on a white horse up on a hill in charge of our terrain or are we really on our knees and bellies crawling through the mud of compromise in order to zig-zag our way to a better environment? What do you think?

Time and again, I have asked myself: Does the Bay preservation movement wield power in any meaningful way, or have we become a cliché for acculturated weakness? After decades of trying to clean up the Bay are we winning small battles or just losing the big war? For example our “flush fee” upgrades major sewage plants but urban runoff is now a bigger contribution to the decline of our waterways. The Healthy Air Act tightened restrictions on coal burning power plants and the air deposition from their emissions, but meanwhile fly ash dumps from these same plants are now leaching into the aquifers! And, with court orders to make the compliance records of large scale eastern shore poultry farms transparent to the public, the industry refuses to clear the air (and the waters) about their own good faith by maintaining that such records are a secret as tax returns. And more than a few of the environmental groups working to protect the Bay, also accept grants from the very same business interests that are wrecking our water quality. And now that billions of dollars have been earned profiteering from the Bay’s former glory, we can barely find enough money in the treasury to fund the State regulatory agency that is supposed to be protecting our resources. Time and again we are told there is not enough money to clean up our water and yet there seems to be almost unlimited resources available to plunder these same waterways. Are we sometimes just begging for alms from some of the very same interests we should be enforcing or at least opposing? How does anybody think we can all be for something without simultaneously being against something else? I assure you that if we succeed in cleaning up our waterways somebody is going to get good and mad. Count on it. Yet we have an entire regional culture of advocacy that tries awfully hard to collaborate in order avoid offending anybody. The whole myth of collective responsibility fuels the illusion that everybody is doing the same things and they we all want the same outcomes for the environment. In principle, it’s great for fundraising and yet nothing could further from the truth. Some of us want to bring back the oysters. Others just want a cheap supply of them. Some of us want to preserve open space and others just want to live in sight of the waterfront. Some of us want to watch and catalogue the birds and others among us want to hunt them. The huge salad bar of conflicting stakeholder interests and how we resolve these nuances is very essence of ethical approach to addressing the hugely important matter of watershed survival. The bromide “we all want the same thing” is little more than a shallow sound bite. It chills reasonable examination of motives and squelches fresh initiative and discourages us from asking good questions or exercising our own power.

Increasingly our standards for power and performance have been diluted to the point that we merely have to “try” to clean up the Bay instead succeeding. For some we don’t really have to Save the Bay, we just have to do our best. Instead of carrying the day we just need to have the right intentions. The 25 Step Action Plan is the fish-or-cut bait prescription for the sort of game plan needed to really clean up the Bay. But to attain these lofty goals we will have to come to grips with the nature of power within the environmental community and take our power to new heights. After all, we have been working on this goal for decades and are no closer to it than ever. You want radical results? It is time to take radical steps to get those results.

So, how do we in the environmental movement get the power we need in order to make necessary change? How do we build more power in our communities, and how do we establish the perception of useful power with our elected officials and within the civic and citizen’s forums where our bread and butter environmental advocacy work is usually transacted? That is the fundamental challenge facing water quality advocates. We now have the road map through Watershed Implementation Plans and the 25 Step Action Plan and so much more, but we need to work harder to cultivate the genuine power needed to pull it off.

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2 Responses to The Power Gap

  1. [...] – Frustration with the largely voluntary approach to saving the Chesapeake Bay finally boils over.  Does grassroots power need to be deployed more effectively? Bay Action Plan [...]

  2. Good post, Fred. THIS is the problem. “Power squandered” is perhaps the best way I’ve heard it expressed.

    Data from numerous watersheds shows that the voluntary efforts of the last 25 years have decreased, stopped, and in a few cases, slightly improved water quality in Bay tributaries. But regardless of the metric you choose, we still have 50%, 60%, or 95% remaining to go. It’s going to happen from the regulatory end, or not at all.

    And it is going to cost A LOT of money. It’s amazing that no one is out there bracing constituencies for that, while we’re busy patting each other on the backs for the hopeful passage, implementation, and ENFORCEMENT of TMDLs.

    Guess we’ll see!