(Posted by Stuart Clarke)
(This is the seventh in an ongoing series of posts on What’s It Going to Take?: A look at how the environmental community can regain the initiative and build the political will necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.)
The Town Creek Foundation will be spending out our endowment and closing our doors in the next ten years. As we approach our sunset, we are working to blend our concern with achieving tangible progress restoring the Chesapeake Bay with our desire to help catalyze the systemic transformations necessary to make that progress sustainable.
We believe that Maryland’s efforts to restore the Bay have evolved to the point where a special window of opportunity has opened for substantial progress. With the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and the Watershed Implementation Plan process, Maryland has established clear goals, an ambitious timetable, and reasonably robust planning processes. Much work remains to be done to sustain this effort where it is strong and to strengthen it where it is weak, and over the next ten years we will be investing in this work.
In this we are partnering with groups that are sharply focused on reducing stormwater and agricultural runoff in order to improve water quality in the local tributaries that flow into the Bay. We share their concern with these kinds of discrete outcomes, and we recognize that specific changes in policy and practice can help to achieve them.
At the same time, we view a degraded Bay as not simply a consequence of bad policies and practices, but also as a dramatic symptom of systemic dysfunction. A degraded Bay is a logical outcome of local and regional systems of production and consumption that deplete resources and generate wastes at unsustainable rates. These local and regional systems reflect and reinforce a global system that is itself in crisis.
Ecological imbalance is the signature of the Bay’s deterioration, just as surely as it explains global deforestation and desertification, the worldwide depletion of aquifers and fisheries, and global climate change.
We believe that both levels of systemic dysfunction – the local and the global – will have severe consequences for Maryland’s ability to sustainably achieve its environmental goals.
At the local and regional level, Maryland’s ability to sustain progress on restoring the Bay is vulnerable to its continued commitment to systemic practices that ignore some of the fundamental realities of life on a finite planet. Our Bay restoration initiatives are consensus products of a particular political moment that ignores the consequences of planetary finitude and operates as if ‘balancing the economy and the environment’ can and should mean protecting our ecological systems while also continuing to consume and dispose of ever increasing amounts of stuff.
Ultimately we will need to crack open this consensus in order to ask and answer some of the really tough questions about the Bay’s future. Is a sustainably restored Bay compatible with the maintenance and expansion of a system of industrial agriculture that concentrates animals on areas of land that are too small to absorb those wastes? Does one of our most politically popular strategies for reconciling environmental and economic imperatives – market based nutrient trading schemes – exist in part to convince us that the environmental impacts of perpetual growth can be perpetually deferred? Is this a tenable proposition?
We expect that accelerating systemic dysfunction at the global level will mean that Maryland will be seeking to sustain progress on restoring the Bay under conditions that are quite different from those with which we have become familiar. It is not difficult, for example, to imagine how the acceleration and intensification of extreme weather events that is predicted by climate scientists could overwhelm our current Bay restoration strategies. But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg – global ecosystems are under full on assault, and embattled ecosystems are prone to producing dramatic waves of economic and political instability. Researchers and policymakers are expressing growing concern about an increase in “the frequency and intensity of environmental crises associated with accelerating human-induced global change.” Many expect that ‘concatenated crises’ like the oil‐food‐financial crisis of 2007 ‐ 2008 will be more rather than less frequent in the future. The direction and consequences of these are unknown, but it’s a fair bet that – at the very least –they will continue to reduce the room for fiscal maneuver that has been indispensable to ecosystem restoration.
Approaching the deterioration of the Bay as a systemic problem – or, more precisely, as a predictable outcome of dysfunctional systems – suggests a critical need for reducing our reliance on unsustainable local and regional systems while also increasing our resilience in the face of accelerating global instability. Maryland’s ambitious initiatives to restore the bay are important steps towards greater sustainability and resilience, but we doubt that they will be enough.
We think that true sustainability and resilience for Maryland ‐ in an increasingly unstable, crisis-prone world – will depend on fundamental transformations of the systems (including the value systems) by which everyday life is organized. In this regard bringing the economy and the environment into balance does not mean protecting the environment only so long as doing so won’t undermine economic growth. It means right-sizing and reorganizing the economy so that it can sustain itself on a finite planet.